On 20 March 2019, the Dutch-led joint investigation into the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 announced charges against three Russians and one Ukrainian. Russian nationals Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Poelatov, and Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko had been charged in relation to the tragedy which killed 298 lives on 17 July 2014. This came only one day after the investigative journalism website Bellingcat (reputed for their identification of alleged Russian operatives responsible for the 2018 Salisbury poisoning, Anatonliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin) named 12 Russians and Ukrainians allegedly involved in the transportation of the Buk missile system, used in the downing of MH-17, into Crimea. As news coverage once again turns to the Crimean Peninsula, the question still remains: what precipitated and allowed this disaster to occur?
Beginning in 2013, Ukraine faced wide-scale civil unrest following the government’s decision to suspend the signing of an Association Agreement with the European Union – the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement (UEUAA). These initial demonstrations were dubbed the Euromaidan Protests, after the Kiev square where the protests originally began. This movement reached a climax in February 2014 as Kiev-based protests turned violent, resulting in the death of at least 25 protesters on 18 February alone. In the following days, Kiev descended into chaos as police checkpoints were instituted across the city, and as the use of live ammunition against protesters was authorised by the Internal Affairs Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko. On 22 February, as protesters took control of Kiev, the Ukrainian Parliament – the Verkhovna Rada – voted 328 to 0 in favour of impeaching the then President, Viktor Yanukovych, who had already fled Kiev. Later that month, with Yanukovych in Russia and an interim government established, Ukraine was in internal turmoil.
At the same moment the Euromaidan movement was forcing the ousting of Yanukovych, the Autonomous Republic of Ukraine – a region of Ukraine – was rapidly descending into disorder. Many sections of Ukrainian society did not recognise the removal of the elected President, and supported his suspension of the UEUAA and the bridging of closer ties to Russia and Eastern Europe. The security situation began to deteriorate as protests against the interim government commenced, and as militias formed. These pro-Yanukovych activities were dubbed the Anti-Maiden movement. The Crimean State Council convened an extraordinary meeting at this time, which was reportedly to discuss the possibility of Russian military intervention in the region. In response, the Security Service of Ukraine emphatically stated that it would respond to prevent any arrangements which would act in “diminishing the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine”.
The situation in Crimea was beginning to enter Russia’s orbit as Russian President Vladimir Putin began discussing possible Russian responses with influential and high-ranking security officials on the night of 22 February. Russia held a historical claim to the Crimean Peninsula since 1783, when it was originally annexed under Catherine The Great. In 1954, the region was handed to Ukraine by the then Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev. Ethnic Russians made up approximately 65% of region, and Russia certainly maintained a strategic interest in the region in 2014 – hence Putin’s direct interest in the Euromaidan events to its south-west.
Division was further cemented when the Prime Minister of Crimea, Anatolii Mahyliov, came out in support of the provisional government. Demonstrations continued in Crimea from both sides, with a notable one being the protests in Sevastopol which voted for the establishment of parallel Ukrainian administration and civil defence squads, with members of the local branch of the Russian Night Wolves motorcycle organisation in attendance. Violent and heated pro-Russia protests continued across the 2 region, and on 27 February ‘little green men’ seized the Supreme Council of Crimea and raised the Russian flag. These ‘little green men’ were masked soldiers, lacking any insignia or designation. Russia initially refuted accusations that these soldiers were in fact Russian Special Forces, despite Northern Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) positively identifying them as Russian forces. Putin later conceded Special Forces had operated in Crimea. While under occupation, the Supreme Council held an emergency session which removed Mohyliov, and instated Sergey Aksyonov of the Russian Unity Party.
The ‘little green men’ also established roadblocks with the rest of Ukraine, seized Simferopol International Airport, and forcefully occupied most Ukrainian military bases in Crimea. At this time, on 1 March 2014, Aksyonov requested assistance from Russia to supposedly ensure peace and security in Crimea. Putin and the Federation Council of Russia responded promptly by authorising Russian forces to officially move into Crimea. Not only was the annexation of Crimea incompatible with international law, but it also occurred in violation of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which Russia signed in 1994.
On 16 March 2014, the Supreme Council held a referendum on Crimea seceding from Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation. Official figures placed 97% of voters supporting leaving Ukraine. However, a report from the Russian President’s Human Rights Council – which was published, and subsequently removed less than 12 hours later – suggested that the official figures were highly inflated. The true results were 22.5% of Crimean in support, when weighted for the turnout rate. Following the referendum, the Supreme Council of Crimea – composed of the Republic of Crimea and the special administrative city of Sevastopol – proclaimed independence from Ukraine.
The Supreme Council simultaneously renamed itself the State Council of Crimea, introduced the Russian rouble as a dual currency, moved to Moscow Time, and made a proposal to the Russian Federation for admittance. Putin followed suit by admitting the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol as Russian federal subjects – the former as a Republic, and the latter as a Federal City. The admittance was then ratified by the Russian Federal Assembly on 21 March 2014. Only one member of the Federal Assembly, Ilya Ponomare – a member of the lower house, the Duma – voted against the annexation.
In response to the annexation of Crimea, the global community spoke-out and responded strongly. The United Nations (UN) General Assembly, in resolution 68/262, voted overwhelmingly to rule the 2014 referendum and annexation invalid. Similarly, within the UN Security Council, a United States-sponsored resolution was proposed which would reaffirm Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea. Russia vetoed this proposal. The response from individual states was also strong in condemnation. Australia – along with a substantial number of other states – imposed sanctions upon Russia, Crimea and Sevastopol in March 2014, which still remain in place today. A majority of countries also declared they would not recognise the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol.
Since 2014, conflict has continued throughout the region. Russia has been backing – financially and militarily – pro-Russia separatist forces since the onset of the conflict. A notable element of the separatist forces is the Russian Night Wolves motorcycle organisation. The Night Wolves are documented to have actively participated in the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. The current leader of the Night Wolves, Alexander Zaldostanov, was awarded a Russian Medal “For the Return of Crimea” in 2014, personally by Vladimir Putin, for his ‘efforts’ during the annexation. 3
Furthermore, Russian forces have also had direct involvement in the conflict. As early as November 2014, NATO announced that Russia was deploying nuclear-capable weaponry into the Peninsula. Russia was supplying vast amounts of personnel and equipment, including Buk missile systems. In this conflict, pro-Russia forces have also attempted to push north, into the Donetsk Oblast. This movement north was revealed in 2014 Ukrainian Security Service phone intercepts to be largely for the purpose of securing electricity, water and gas self-sufficiency.
This crisis on the Crimean Peninsula has fundamentally destabilised the region. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates some 13,000 people have been killed in the Crimean conflict from 2014 to February 2019. It also estimates that more than 3,300 of these were civilian deaths. This conflict also directly led to the death of 298 lives onboard MH-17. Russia still maintains claim to the region and has approximately 30,000 military personnel in Crimea and Sevastopol, which will almost certainly ensure military posturing and conflict will continue into the future. The problem is that Crimea is not a simply rectified issue. No state – including Russia – really wants conflict within the region, but simultaneously, each involved state holds a steadfast position. Compromises and back-downs are difficult to achieve, meaning, potentially this Crimean Peninsula stalemate will remain for the foreseeable future.
Words by Thomas Paparo
Image by Anton Holoborodko