The Crimean crisis of 2014 is an ongoing international crisis, related to the larger issues surrounding Ukraine and Russia. Crimea is a strategically-important peninsula at the southern end of Ukraine. Politically, prior to its annexation by Russia, Crimea was an Autonomous Republic within Ukraine. Its population is a mix of Ukrainian, Russian and Crimean Tatar, and Russian is the predominant language. The city of Sevastopol is an administratively separate municipality, its naval yards on long-term lease to Russia, which has used the city as home to its Black Sea fleet for a couple of centuries. Crimea became part of Ukraine as part of a transfer during the Soviet era. In 2014, armed and masked men, believed to be Russian and operating with military-level effectiveness, seized control of public installations in Crimea (Sengupta, 2014). Russia then oversaw an internationally-invalidated referendum and voted in the Duma to annex Crimea. Russia then moved its troops officially into the region. The paper will discuss the history of the conflict, along with an analysis of the situation as it currently stands. The West should not recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea, but is unlikely to muster any intervention in response to the annexation, given the greater issues at stake with such a move, like the risks posed by open conflict with Russia.
Crimea became important during Russia's age of expansion in the 18th century. Until that point, it had been ruled by the Crimean Khanate, one of several khanates that were vestiges of Chinggis Khan's westward incursions. Russia overran the peninsula, seizing it as part of her empire, valuing in particular the harbor at Sevastopol, a city the Russians founded in 1783 for its Mediterranean naval base and as a bulwark against the Ottoman Empire. Russia transferred Crimea to Ukraine while both were part of the U.S.S.R., but Sevastopol remained under special political status with strong Russian influence and the presence of the Russia navy. Other parts of Crimea remained Russian-speaking.
The modern Ukraine was formed from the Ukrainian SSR at the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since its inception, Ukraine has been split between Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers. The latter have weaker ethnic and national identity, leading to attempts to strengthen this identity, particularly vs. Russian identity. Nevertheless Ukraine is home to many ethnic Russians -- in the East, in Crimea and in Odessa. The result has been a political split of the country between those who view Russia sympathetically and those who do not (Conant, 2014). When the pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovich was ousted by pro-Ukrainian forces following months of protests about Yanukovich's turn towards Russia, this created the pretext for Russia's invasion of Crimea. Russia claims that it is responding the needs of Russian-speakers in the region, but more likely the move is to secure the militarily-strategic region to defend its own interests. There are legal issues -- Russia's invasion contravenes international law, and human rights issues as well, in particular with the Ukrainians and Tatars living on the peninsula (Eckel, 2014). Western intervention, to this point, has been minimal. Europe is dependent on Russian natural gas, and the U.S. has no appetite for armed conflict.
Pros & Cons of Intervention
International law clearly lays out the case against Russia in Crimea. Whatever its interests, Russia violated international law in its annexation of Crimea. Concerned citizens are not able to execute the rapid, sweeping seizure of public buildings including Ukrainian military bases -- these were Russian special forces. The referendum that came out in favor of independence from Ukraine, a tacit approval of annexation by Russia, was denounced by all independent bodies (Felton & Gumuchian, 2014). Intervention is justified on those ground alone, let alone on the human rights risk to the Crimean Tatars and the Ukrainians living on the Crimean Peninsula.
Intervention has other benefits, aside from being the right and justified thing to do. The most obvious benefit is that Crimea was/is the best opportunity to establish a framework for non-military resolution of the Ukrainian situation. Putin's annexation has parallels with Hitler's annexation of Sudetenland, which raises the specter of future conflict. Russia is already militarily active in the Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine. Its thin pretexts could lead it across the southern half of Ukraine all the way to Odessa and Transnistria, knocking on the EU's doorstep (Freeman, 2014). Furthermore, there is concern among the Baltic nations that Russia is looking at overrunning them as well, as part of this expansion, as Moscow has already begun creating its pretexts for invading those countries (Evans, 2014). Intervention now has the potential to curtail Putin's ambitions -- lack of intervention emboldens those ambitions.
Lastly, there is a significant pro-to intervention now on behalf of Crimea -- it sends a clear signal of intent to Russia that the West is going to rule the day in Europe. All of the actions from World War Two onward have sent this signal, and the victory in the Cold War solidified the values of democracy, openness and freedom in Europe. The Ukrainian half of Ukraine has long been oriented towards the EU, and it is time for the EU and NATO to support these people in their quest for freedom and democracy. Aiding this cause is a moral obligation, one that the West has born for decades. To allow Russia to run roughshod over these values in Ukraine sends the wrong signal not just to Ukraine but to the entire world, that the West is more interested in vapid consumer culture than in defending the very principles that makes such indulgence possible.
That said, there a lot of problems inherent with a Ukraine intervention. Europe does not have much appetite for such intervention. Russia is a very formidable foe, with a nuclear arsenal capable of devastating Europe. One a more benign note, Russia is also the major energy supplier to Europe, particularly natural gas. Europe would suffer tremendous economic problems if it lost access to this gas, compounding the economic problems another war would cause. For Europe, sacrificing parts of Ukraine is a calculated risk that Putin is not just the next Hitler. The U.S. also has no appetite for war, albeit for different reasons. The country has squandered its desire for a fight on two pointless, indulgent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The result is that very few have the heart for a serious conflict with Russia. The result is meek, timid response to Russia's aggression.
Another con is that at this point, there is actually a very limited human cost to Russia's aggression. Taken at face value -- always a risk -- the reality is that Crimea is a very Russian place, as is eastern Ukraine. It can be argued that Russia bringing these places under its umbrella is, despite it being a violation of international law, not entirely unreasonable, and certainly not to the point where one would engage in open conflict over the issue. If Russia invades Estonia, that is another matter altogether, but Crimea was basically Russian anyway.
Perhaps the biggest con to intervention on behalf of Crimea is the obvious escalation in violence that it would constitute. Fear of fighting is normally not a good way to approach foreign policy, Russia is not some tiddlywink country. Escalating armed conflict with a nuclear power is not something to be taken lightly. If Europe and NATO think that this issue with Ukraine is destabilizing, well, a third world war would probably be quite a bit more destabilizing. Forget having an appetite for sending ground troops to the region, NATO and the EU would need to have an appetite for quite a bit more. They have surely asked themselves what price they are willing to pay for Crimea (or any other part of Ukraine for that matter) and there is little doubt that they are unwilling to get into a nuclear-level conflict over a patch of land that means little to the West anyway. The people of Crimea are simply not worth it. There is the question of whether or not the principle of international law is worth it, but it probably is not. The United States in particular is not a big subscriber of the neoliberal world order, and prefers a more realist perspective, same as Russia. In that regard, the U.S. knows that it is going to have to sacrifice Crimea to avoid a larger conflict. Again, this might be a gamble, but the principle of international law isn't worth getting into a nuclear war over. Pragmatism, under this perspective, should win the day in Ukraine.
It remains unknown at this point whether the West actually expected Russia to annex Crimea. It may have known all along that there was a high likelihood of annexation, and simply accepted it. The West probably has a line drawn over which it will not tolerate further Russian aggression. This line is not in Crimea, nor is it in the Eastern Ukraine. NATO can wring its hands all it wants, but the line isn't…