Seven years ago this month, “little green men” — Russian special forces — appeared on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and quickly took control of all government buildings and military bases. A month later, the Russian Duma voted to annex the peninsula, in what many see as a blatant violation of international law. This was the first time borders in Europe had been changed using military force since the Second World War.
Russia did not stop with Crimea. At about the same time, Moscow took advantage of political grievances held by the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine’s east to stoke sectarian divisions. Backed, armed and trained by Russia, separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine declared the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic: Two fake countries not recognized by any member states of the UN.
Since then, Russia has continued to back separatist factions in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine with advanced weapons, technical and financial assistance, and Russian conventional and special operations forces.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea was an unprecedented act of aggression in the 21st century. It has de facto cut Ukraine’s coastline in half and essentially turned the Black Sea into a Russian-controlled lake. The war in eastern Ukraine has cost the Ukrainian economy billions of dollars, displaced some 1.5 million people and resulted in at least 13,000 deaths. Just this week, one Ukrainian soldier was killed and another two were wounded. In eastern Ukraine, there is now a system of trenches that would not look unfamiliar to soldiers who fought on the Western Front in the First World War.
While the Black Sea might seem distant for most policymakers in the Middle East, there are two geopolitical challenges resulting from Russia’s actions about which the Arab world should be aware.
First, Russia uses its bases on Crimea as a springboard for operations further afield. This has consequences that affect the Middle East. For example, Russia has used its presence on occupied Crimea to launch and support naval operations in support of Syria’s Bashar Assad. In the early days of Moscow’s intervention in Syria, the Moskva, a Russian Navy guided missile cruiser, played a vital role in providing air defense for Russian forces.
Hundreds of thousands of tons of grain and wheat have been shipped from Crimea to Syria to help the Assad regime’s food shortage problems. Hundreds of trips have been made between Crimea’s port city of Sevastopol and the Russian naval base in Tartus to transport military hardware and resupplies. Russia enables Assad to continue the civil war. This serves nobody’s interests in the region.
Secondly, Russia’s treatment of the Crimean Tatars should be a concern for the Middle East and the broader Muslim world. The Sunni minority group indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula has faced mounting persecution since Russia’s illegal occupation in 2014. Thousands have fled, but those who remain are subject to repression and discrimination on account of their perceived opposition to Russia.
Since 2014, the Crimean Tatars have experienced abductions, forced psychiatric hospitalizations and imprisonment, according to human rights and international organizations like Human Rights Watch. Mosques are monitored and cultural and language teaching has been greatly restricted.
The seventh anniversary of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea serves as a reminder of why the international community should not abandon Ukraine. Today, Ukraine represents the idea that each country has the sovereign ability to determine its path and to decide with whom it has relations and how, and by whom it is governed. No outside actor (in this case Russia) should have a veto on membership or closer ties with organizations like the EU or NATO.
On top of the Russian occupation of Crimea and the continued war in the east, Ukraine faces many domestic challenges. Trying to reform its governance, economy, military and judiciary while fighting a war of national survival is a bit like trying to build a ship while already at sea. The truth is that all of the economic and political reforms that are necessary will probably take a generation. Patience and commitment from the international community are needed.
There seems to be no end in sight to the war in Ukraine. It is in everyone’s interest that Ukraine remains independent and sovereign and maintains the ability to choose its destiny without outside interference.
Seven years on, it can be easy to forget what is happening in Ukraine. With everything going on in the world today — such as the coronavirus pandemic, global economic recession, Syria, Afghanistan and the skirmishes between China and India — the war in Ukraine rarely gets the attention it deserves.
However, some truths should never be overlooked. It was Russia that invaded Ukraine and not the other way around. Russia illegally occupies Crimea. Russia provoked and now supports a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine that did not previously exist. Russia is the aggressor and Ukraine is the victim.
With Russia’s presence in Crimea, and NATO stepping up its engagement in Ukraine, the Black Sea will remain an important region for great power competition for the foreseeable future. Policymakers in the Middle East must not ignore the Black Sea. Ultimately, if the Black Sea is safe, secure and prosperous, the broader region will be too.