3 years after Crimea, US struggles with response to Russia
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In March 2014, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in a nearly bloodless occupation of the peninsula and, within weeks, conducted a referendum under the massive presence of Russian soldiers to annex Crimea to Russia.

Three years later, Ukraine has little means to compel the return of Crimea without the sustained support of the United States and Europe. At a panel discussion convened by the Atlantic Council to commemorate the third anniversary of Russia's annexation, Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyPelosi employs committee chairs to tamp down calls for Trump impeachment We can curb potential pandemics by investing in prevention tactics Mueller mystery: Will he ever testify to Congress? MORE (D-Va.) drew attention to U.S. support for Ukraine and pending legislation affirming support for sanctions against Russia.

Chabot stated that Russia must be rebuked for its actions, Putin's tactics must be confronted and Russia must be denied effective sovereignty of Crimea, as well as eastern Ukraine, until these are returned to Ukrainian control.

Panel speakers Anders Aslund of the Atlantic Council; Michael Carpenter of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement; Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine; and Robert Herman of Freedom House emphasized it was incumbent upon the West to respond to Russia's aggression, without which Russia would be emboldened to pursue more "small victorious wars" to sustain the Russian elite's popularity and hold onto power.

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Recent moves by Russia to incorporate the army of the Georgian breakaway territory of South Ossetia into the Russian military and to recognize as valid documents of the Russian-controlled territories in eastern Ukraine, including passports, demonstrate that Russia has not deviated from its intent to exploit opportunities to dominate neighboring countries and seize new territory.

 

Carpenter noted that control of Kyiv is an existential issue for Moscow, and therefore the threat to Ukraine would not go away until there was a change of outlook in Moscow. Therefore, a sustained, concerted response from the United State and the European Union is necessary into the foreseeable future.

Against the need to confront Russia's violation of the international system, there is a seeming ill-defined embarrassment about Crimea. That Russia was able to take the territory without a fight, that many Crimeans (but by no means all) welcomed the annexation, and that, for some, Russia's historic claim to Crimea gives a veneer of legitimacy to Russia's action, tempt many to accept the annexation as a fait accompli. The difficulty of reversing Russia's action only reinforces the temptation to accept Russia’s narrative.

However, Ukraine simply did not have the means to confront Russia after years of mis-governance by former President Viktor Yanukovich, who was ousted during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. And while Russia claims improbably that 95.5 percent of Crimeans voted to join Russia, in a nationwide referendum in 1991, 54 percent of Crimeans voted for independence from Russia, including 57 percent in the predominantly Russian city of Sevastopol (83 percent of Ukrainians voted for independence in Donetsk, the region in eastern Ukraine now occupied by Russia).

The Russian Federation held Crimea from 1783 until 1954 when — after 171 years — it was transferred under somewhat clouded circumstances to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, an "autonomous" republic within the Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin dismisses the transfer as some kind of personal decision by then-Premier Nikita Khrushchev for "God only knows" what reason.

However, despite Putin's disdain for Khrushchev and the 1954 decision, Crimea may simply have been transferred to Ukraine to make administration of Crimea easier since it was, and is, dependent on Ukraine for nearly all its economic needs, including energy, water and transportation.

Despite President Trump's curious affection for Russia, U.S. support for Ukraine has been consistent and most recently forcefully expressed by Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who on Feb. 2 at the U.N. Security Council condemned Russian aggression against Ukraine and said that U.S. sanctions against Russia would remain in place until Russia returned control of Crimea to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, congressional legislation (H.R. 830) aimed at deterring Russian aggression in Ukraine was introduced in February with impressive bipartisan sponsorship of at least 32 representatives. The act includes complementary measures that are required if the United States is to successfully confront Russian aggression, including the use of sanctions, diplomacy and the provision of "lethal defensive weapons" — the latter being absent from the Republican Party platform last election in circumstances that remain unclear — and addressing Russian disinformation and propaganda.

The new bill is one step in ensuring sustained support for Ukraine. Other assistance, particularly economic support, is needed to sustain Ukraine's struggling pro-Western democracy, fight corruption and improve the Ukrainian people's welfare while preserving stability on Europe's southeastern flank and upholding principles of fairness and equity among free and independent nations in the interest of global peace.

Dirk Mattheisen is a former assistant secretary of the World Bank Group. He writes on political economy with a focus on Russian and Ukrainian relations and global institutional governance. Follow him on Twitter @DirkMattheisen.


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