Crimea Five Years On: What has Russia Gained?

By Hans Nasman.

Just over five years ago, Russia shocked the international community by annexing the Crimean Peninsula. This move set the stage for a further, ongoing crisis in Ukraine in which Crimea came under Russian control and two widely unrecognised people’s republics in eastern Ukraine were formed. No end is in sight to this crisis. Still, by looking at the five years following the annexation, it is worth examining what this move has accomplished for Russia.

The annexation of Crimea has given Putin three major successes. Domestically, the annexation of Crimea was a popular move and gave Putin a rise in approval ratings. However, unfortunately for him, this has not been a long-term boost as other issues like pensions reform have eaten away at his support. A second success was fulfilling a long-held Russian foreign policy desire, which spans as far back as Tsarist times. With control over the Sevastopol naval base on the Crimean Peninsula, Russia now has a warm water harbour and a guaranteed base for the its Black Sea Fleet. The third major success has been (thus far) preventing Ukrainian NATO membership. NATO expansion has been a bone of contention between Russia and the West since the fall of the Soviet Union. Like many Cold War organisations, the collapse of the USSR left the organisation without a real purpose. The expansion of NATO all the way to Russian borders is seen as a clear threat in Russia, even if Russia is no longer the direct enemy of NATO. Much like the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, preventing NATO expansion into Ukraine has been a key success for Russia – at least for the time being.

Playing with hard power in international relations rarely comes without consequences. Parallels can again be drawn from the case of Georgia where Russia prevented NATO membership and left troublesome and unrecognised republics within Georgian borders much like Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. Though Ukrainian membership has been prevented, for now, the pro-western orientation of Ukraine like Georgia has been cemented because of Russian actions. In other words, Russian hard power successes have translated into weakened Russian soft power. Ukraine was envisioned to hold a central place in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). This potential form of regional integration is now very much off the table.

In this sense, the annexation of Crimea has worked against a central goal of Russian foreign policy- namely, establishing hegemony in what President Medvedev has called Russia’s “sphere of privileged interests.” Russia has worked to maintain a final say over the external orientation of the former Soviet republics by building its influence through various means, like energy politics. In these terms, the annexation of Crimea was a defensive move aimed at keeping Ukraine dependent on Moscow rather than allowing it to go to the West. While Russia has succeeded to some extent, it has also destroyed the possibility of actual genuine integration through the EEU. The most control Russia can get over Ukraine is for Ukraine to take back the separatist republics in order to undermine the state from within.

Another obvious consequence of the annexation of Crimea was the break in relations with the West. From 2014 onwards, relations between Russia and the West have been incredibly strained with Russia being at the receiving end of Western sanctions. Though relations had been strained on a number of issues even earlier, the annexation of Crimea marked a watershed year in their relations. Further, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine blurs the lines between war and peace. Throughout the conflict, Russia has not only been able to support separatist forces and participate in combat directly but also take part in peace talks all at the same time. This murky situation is very dangerous. Indeed, the Kremlin does fear that the situation may become a genuine international military conflict.

Overall, it is likely too early to speak of the lasting effects from this crisis. It is possible that new incidents, like the Kerch Strait last year, will flare up from time to time, but the final outcome is hard to guess at. These past five years have shown that Russia has tried to make the most of the situation in Ukraine by preventing Ukraine’s NATO membership, gaining a warm water port, and shoring up domestic support. However, this has not come without a price. Russia has damaged its potential soft power and ended hopes for the EEU to become a vehicle of Russian influence over its neighbourhood. In annexing Crimea, Russia has also practically broken off its relations with the West, which has forced it to look to the East for new allies – an effort that has not found too much success. Overall, as Lilia Shevtsova aptly describes, the Russian track record in Ukraine is “eking out tactical advantages even as it [Russia] heads inexorably toward strategic defeat.”

Photo credit: Concert celebrating Crimea and Sevastopol’s reunification with Russia by Kremlin via licensed under CC-BY-4.0

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