Crimea Background

  1. Crimea was part of Russia during Czarist times;
  2. Krutshchev gifted it to Ukraine in the 1950s never imagining a breakup of the Soviet Union;
  3. Said breakup did not allow for a sensible long term solution to Russia’s strategic concerns regarding its Black Sea Fleet;
  4. The strategic importance of that Fleet grew over the decades from the Soviet period to now;
  5. A significant majority of Crimea’s population identifies itself as Russian speaking and Russia-learning;
  6. The internal politics of Ukraine were shifting away from being naturally allied to Russia towards a new alliance with Europe;
  7. There were distinct overtones of anti-Russianism in Kiev, which reached its peak in the ill-conceived (and quickly reversed) decision by the new regime to ban Russian as a second language in the eastern regions

EU Position

The EU adopted a non-recognition policy formally rejecting the annexation of Crimea as illegal and supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This policy has taken a prominent place in the EU’s overall strategy on Russia.

Three years later, the EU’s non-recognition policy and sanctions are still in place but Crimea is not closer to being returned to Ukraine. In fact, Crimea has become further integrated into the Russian Federation, with links to mainland Ukraine largely severed. The prospects for Moscow returning Crimea to Ukraine are nil.

Even in the event of a change in the Kremlin, a new leader would find it politically difficult to give up what is widely seen by Russians as belonging to Russia, and having only been lost by historical accident in the administrative transfer of the oblast from the Russian SFSR to Ukraine SSR in 1954.  Opinion polls have shown that among the Russian public support for the annexation is as high as 80 or 90 percent.

So why does the EU continue with a policy that is highly unlikely to achieve its primary objective – returning Crimea to Ukraine?

The non-recognition policy represents the EU’s commitment to international law as the normative framework underpinning international order. The sanctions are intended to show that breaching that order comes at a cost. The policy is a way to defend the European security order, as set out in the Helsinki Accords. This order is built on the principles of the inviolability of international borders, the right of states to determine their political orientation, and the rejection of spheres of influence – all of which are principles that Russia challenged through the annexation.

For the EU’s non-recognition and sanctions policy to be credible, it will have to commit for the long term. So far, the EU has remained firm on the non-recognition policy and sanctions. The policy has withstood calls from some quarters to accept the “new reality” and normalise relations with Russia.

The EU will have to do regular maintenance on the sanctions to keep them relevant and credible. There are also certain loopholes in the sanctions regime that can be plugged. For instance, there is a humanitarian exception to the export of goods to Crimea that has been abused. Moreover, not all ports in Crimea are explicitly mentioned in the sanctions regime, making it possible for European vessels to dock at the unnamed ports. There is also a black market in fake Ukrainian certificates of origin for goods produced in Crimea and then sold to European markets.

Looking ahead, the EU has largely locked in the non-recognition policy and made it an inherent part of EU policy towards Russia. The challenge will be to keep the policy on the agenda and maintain the energy to actively push it in the long term. As other priorities take precedence for the EU, the cost of constantly reminding the world that it does not recognise Crimea increases, as does the temptation to make a trade-off. How this policy will relate to overall policy on Russia over time remains to be seen.

But the inherent weakness of the EU’s approach to Crimea is that the non-recognition policy is static, with no dynamic process to resolve the impasse. The Normandy Format deals with the situation in the Donbas but not Crimea. There is no format or forum where Crimea is discussed between the EU and Russia. For Moscow Crimea should not be a topic for discussion.

Crimea is likely to remain a point of contention between the EU and Russia for some time to come.

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