Nearly eighteen months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the motivations and goals of Crimea and Sevastopol’s integration into the Russian Federation remain highly contentious. Foreign policy scholars and regional analysts have issued a bevy of opinions as to what Russia hoped to achieve through the annexation, ranging from arguments that it was based in realist power considerations vis-a-vis the post-Cold War settlement to claims that the peninsula’s annexation was a populist move aimed at shoring up support for President Vladimir Putin. Others, particularly in Russia, have argued the move was motivated by a sense of historical justice that Russia be re-united with the jewel in the Tsar’s crown. Needless to say, these arguments are not all mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, there remains one alternative explanation that I propose explains the annexation better than these other arguments, by building on them rather than discounting any one in particular. I argue that Russia annexed Crimea because it failed as a tool to influence Ukraine. This argument is supported by an examination of Moscow’s actions in the Donbas conflict while also providing insight into what the Kremlin’s endgame in the conflict may be.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has repeatedly used separatist entities in other former Soviet states to influence the politics and foreign policies of the de jure states. Although these conflicts were not exclusively the offspring of Soviet policies or Russian foreign policy, most notably the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia became closely intertwined with the ultimate outcome of all of these separatist entities, whether through the August 2008 recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, through its military and diplomatic support for Transnistria or military support for Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh’s benefactor.
However, in light of the Donbas conflict and the emergence of new separatist entities in the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, evidence has emerged that pre-Euromaidan Crimea was the separatist or autonomous entity par excellence, at least from the Kremlin’s perspective. The Minsk agreements call for Donetsk and Lugansk to be granted autonomy and influence over Ukrainian policy, effectively substituting Crimea’s role in Ukraine. Although military conflict was avoided, Crimea too earned these rights through its own separatist movement in the 1990’s. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse and Ukraine’s independence, calls for unifying Crimea with Russia were extremely prominent. Crimea’s Soviet-legacy parliament went so far as to unilaterally declare its own constitution and self-government in May 1992 and in 1994 Yury Meshkov was elected Crimean president, itself a disputed position, on a platform calling for unification with Russia. Disputes over Crimea’s constitution and legal status within Ukraine continued on a regular basis in the ensuing years, with the final Ukrainian Crimean constitution not ratified until December 1998.
The 1998 Crimean constitution reserved many of the same rights that Russia hopes Donetsk and Lugansk will be granted to Donetsk and Lugansk in the eventual settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In addition to enshrining its autonomous status, the 1998 Crimean Constitution also formalised Crimea’s right to elect its own legislature, with the right to draft budgets, issue bonds, and manage its own property. The rights of Russian-speakers were also protected by the Crimean constitution, which also called for the Autonomous Republic of Crimea’s interests to be considered in the development of Ukraine’s foreign and external economic policy. When Russia, and many Crimeans, felt these would no longer be protected in post-Euromaidan Ukraine, these clauses were used to argue in favour of Russia’s annexation.
However, Russia’s aim in fomenting separatist movements in Crimea and, through these proxies, in the drafting of the 1998 Crimean Constitution, particularly in light of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty within its existing borders, was to ensure pro-Russian influence within Ukraine. Accepting the aforementioned argument that Russia has used its influence over separatist entities in other former Soviet states to advance its interests, or the argument that it is doing so with the Donbas separatist movements, lends itself to the idea that Autonomous Republic of Crimea was the best suited of all of these entities for doing so. In many ways, it had the benefits of these other separatist entities, without the costs. Russian soldiers, although stationed in Crimea throughout, did not face hostile forces. Ukraine was financially responsible for the people and economic development of Crimea. Russia did not risk alienating other international and regional powers. Yet it was able to provide Russian policy with the guarantee of a constitutionally-recognised source of influence in Ukrainian politics. Ukraine’s retention of Crimea guaranteed a large and fervently pro-Russian voter base. Finally, the legacy of Crimea’s moves towards separatism in the 1990’s provided a clear reminder of what Ukraine stood to lose if it angered Moscow.
However, by March 2014, Crimea failed in its role as a guarantee to keep Ukraine on a pro-Russian path. Instead, Moscow worried that Crimea within a post-Euromaidan Ukraine could enhance the risk of the motivations for the Euromaidan revolution spreading to Russia. The de-oligarchisation and pro-Western shift that demonstrators in Kiev were demonstrating in favour of were not limited to the Ukrainian nationalist heartland in the West. The reformers who the revolution aimed to bring to power surely would not have ignored Crimea, home to some of the densest webs of corruption and nepotism in Ukraine. While Crimea in February 2014 was undoubtedly largely pro-Russian, the participation of radical football fans, ultras, from Crimea’s two leading clubs in Euromaidan self-defence units only enhanced fears that the banners seen in Kiev indicating support for the revolution from cities in Crimea could one day result in a paradigm shift within Crimea itself. Despite much unfounded criticism in Western media, there can be no doubt that many Russians feel a special bond with Crimea, as do many Crimeans with Russia. As a result, Crimea risked losing its status as an autonomous region through which Moscow could influence Kiev and becoming an autonomous region through which developments in Kiev would influence those in Moscow.
This alternative theory, that Russia annexed Crimea because its usefulness as an autonomous region within Ukraine came to an end, and even risked backfiring, does not rule out alternative explanations. The Kremlin believes the Euromaidan revolution was a pro-Western coup and power considerations in the Black Sea were definitely at play. The move was enthusiastically received in Russia, boosting Putin’s popularity ratings despite the costs of integration and sanctions– and not just in the short term given they remain at record highs 18 months later. Yet this theory is the only one to have been supported by regular additional evidence throughout that time period, namely the Donbas conflict.
The efforts to resolve the Donetsk conflict, the establishment of two separatist entities there, and text of both Minsk agreements indicate that Russia wishes to resurrect Crimea-like autonomous regions in eastern Ukraine. Firstly, although the conflict in the region was a coordinated effort to fragment Ukraine politically, from the beginning it aimed to create various fragmented autonomous entities in Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkov, where efforts to establish a Kharkov People’s Republic also took place. While Novorossiya was enthusiastically supported by fringe political elements, the Kremlin’s quick willingness to abandon the project further supports evidence that the creation of a new independent state, or resurrection of the Russian empire, was never Moscow’s true aim. Instead, I argue that it was merely a threat to make autonomy in the Donbas more palpable to Kiev. The insistence on separate autonomous regions in Lugansk and Donetsk in both Minsk agreements simply indicates that Russia feels the more autonomous regions and actors it has to influence Kiev the better. The Minsk agreements provide further evidence in that they call for these regions to be granted even more autonomy, and influence in Kiev, than Crimea enjoyed within Ukraine, with Russia and its proxies also insisting that neutrality be enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution or alternatively that Donetsk and Lugansk be given veto power over Ukraine joining any military alliances or political economic blocs.
In conclusion, Russia appears to be learning from the mistakes it made in influencing Ukraine through Crimea and its autonomous structure. Moscow also has alternative ways of using separatist movements to influence those in the region, as evidenced by the varying strategies used with regards to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova. Yet the Minsk agreements indicate that Russia is not willing to apply these strategies in Donbas, perhaps due to the cost of unilaterally supporting the region, the risk the conflict could eventual decrease support for the Kremlin if it drags on or due to fear of further sanctions and international isolation. However, only by understanding what Moscow attempted to achieve through negotiations over Crimea’s status in the 1990’s, and why it ultimately failed as an instrument of political leverage over Kiev, will the West be able to understand what Russia hopes to achieve in the Donbas today, and what efforts it will undertake to do so.