Updated: Jul 21
The Ukranian/Russia crisis is an extremely complex one, due to the fact that Ukraine’s population is divided on what side to take. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and gained independence in 1991. The country’s demographics leads to large scale instability, and will prove to be one of the most important factors of the conflict. Indeed, the Western part of Ukraine is pro-west and wants to join the EU, while the eastern part of Russia is pro-Russia, with many families speaking Russian as their first language. Within Ukraine, Crimea is a very particular place. Indeed, it was conquered by Russia in the 18th century, and most of the population there has Russian citizenship, while 60% speak Russian. That factor will be essential in Russia’s successful annexation of the region. The conflict has a clear starting point. In 2013, Ukrainian’s pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovych pledged to sign a free trade deal with the European Union, which would have considerably increased trade and population movement between the EU and Ukraine. However, under pressure from Putin, Yanukovych pulled out, and huge massive street protests known as the Maidan Revolution followed, leading to the overthrow of Yanukovych. After a period of interim government, on June 7th, 2014 a new pro-west president, Mr.Poroshenko took power. From that point on, Russian troops started occupying Crimea.
Today, life in Crimea is 100% Russian. In a bogus referendum, Putin asked the Crimean population if they wanted to stay in Ukraine or join Russia. The very predictable result followed, with Crimeans “voting” to join Russia. About 2,400,000 people live in Crimea and are now subject, whether they like it or not, to Russian laws. Every shop, school, road sign, administrative service is in Russian. Comparing the living conditions in Crimea before/after Russia is a more complicated task. One thing that almost all Crimeans are happier about is the fact that Crimea is not at war anymore, unlike the Ukranian Donbass region which still sees periodic fighting. Furthermore, there was never a very strong Ukranian sentiment in Crimea, and thus there is very little protest to go back to Ukraine. Even if they wanted to, that would be impossible due to the very large Russian military buildup in Crimea, and the bridge connecting Crimea to mainland Russia that Putin is currently building. Daily life has also been impacted. Although prices have sharply increased, matching those of Moscow, Crimea is also organized and is finally receiving investment to renovate key infrastructure such as roads. As Russian citizens, many Crimeans now receive state pensions from the Russian government. Overall, Crimeans sentiment can be summarized as follows: many agree that Russia made things uniform and actually invests in Crimea, however, the results are far from what they hoped for.
The reason Russia annexed Crimea stems from a multitude of political, social and economic factors. Politically, Russia wanted to affirm its authority over the region. Indeed, Russia fundamentally “lost” one of its so-called satellite states, with the instauration of a pro-western president instead of a pro-russian one. Geographically, Ukraine was a buffer between the EU and Russia, and therefore a key strategic country for Russia. Losing the entirety of it would also mean losing access to the Black Sea, through the port of Sevastopol, located in Crimea. Socially, taking Crimea made sense for Russia. Many Crimeans feel more Russian than Ukranian, except the Crimean Tatar ethnic group. This situation was an opportunity for Russia to annex an extremely important region almost effortlessly. Lastly, economically, Russia had much to lose if the EU-Ukraine trade agreement was signed. That deal would lead to high quality, low priced European goods to flood Ukraine, and would end up in Russia due to Ukranian-Russian free trade agreements. Having such a situation would put Russia at the mercy of European goods’ prices, a situation the Kremlin wants to avoid at all costs.
The solution to this situation are complex. One solution would be to sanction Russia economically until they give up Crimea. That would have disastrous ramifications on Germany which relies on Russian gas, a situation that Russia could use as leverage. Another solution would be to use a joint European/US force to retake Crimea from Russia. However, even in the event of a successful military campaign, massive loss of human life would occur, and returning Crimea to Ukraine would not improve the lives or happiness of Crimeans. Ukraine is not in a position to take care of Crimea, as they are already struggling on their own. Furthermore, Crimeans are probably reluctant to switch sides again, knowing that most of the inhabitants have already become accustomed to Russian laws, and most hold Russian citizenship. The best solution, although counter-intuitive, would be to not do anything. The deadline has passed. Crimea is Russian territory and it is virtually impossible and unrealistic to take it back. What has to be done however, is to insure that this situation will not happen again. In the 21st century, it is absurd to see countries still invading and annexing territories from each other. The EU should learn its lesson and provide aid, economic and military, to EU-friendly countries under imminent threat of Russian invasion such as Ukraine, Estonia and Latvia. It is important to show Russia that this is the last time they manage to use illegal force to impede on a sovereign nation’s territory and that they are required to abide by international law. It is also important to reaffirm the independence and sovereignty of the ex-Soviet Union’s satellite states and to bring them assistance to insure that this situation doesn’t happen again.
Overall, this conflict is not only complex due to the ethnic makeup of the region, but also because of its irreversible outcome. The Russians took Crimea and will not give it back anytime soon. It is the international community’s responsibility to make sure that incidents like this one never take place again.
By Timothy Motte
President and Founder, AfterThought Group