20 years under Putin: a timeline

Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in February sparked a conflict between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists that has drawn in the international community. However, while international focus has shifted away from Crimea and toward the ongoing fighting along Ukraine’s border, Russia still faces challenges in integrating Crimea. Donald N. Jensen, resident fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations, discusses how Russia has confronted these challenges and the possible consequences of its responses.


As a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, tourism on the peninsula has dropped by 30 to 50 percent, according to various estimates. Photo: travel.ru.


On February 27, four days after the end of the Sochi Olympics and in the wake of the collapse of Ukraine’s corrupt Yanukovych regime, Russia invaded Crimea, part of the sovereign territory of Ukraine. It did this under the pretext of protecting the peninsula’s Russian-speaking population from an alleged threat to the 1.2 million ethnic Russians (59 percent of the population) residing there. Elite Russian troops stationed on the peninsula quickly seized airports, government buildings, and media installations and blocked Ukrainian military bases, while Ukrainian soldiers put up little resistance. As gunmen looked on, local deputies installed Sergei Aksenov, rumored to be an ex-gangster, as prime minister of Crimea.

Supported by a wave of popular patriotism whipped up by the Russian state-controlled mass media, Moscow moved quickly to consolidate what it had seized. On March 16, Crimean voters, many of whom are older ethnic Russians nostalgic for the Soviet past, apparently endorsed joining the Russian Federation in a referendum that was internationally condemned as rigged. In an address to both houses of parliament on March 18—a speech long on jingoism and exaggeration and short on facts—Russian president Vladimir Putin laid out Russia’s dubious case for seizing the peninsula. He presented a historical claim to the region that in reality is barely stronger than that which could be made for any number of groups that have at one point occupied the Crimea, let alone Ukraine’s. Soon afterward, Russia and the separatist government of Crimea signed a treaty of accession for the “Republic” of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol’s accession to the Russian Federation.

Putin’s invasion of Crimea has been widely interpreted as an exercise in imperial ambition and sound strategic planning and a demonstration of his confidence as a leader. In a recent article, NATO secretary general Phillip Breedlove argued that “Russia’s military operation against Crimea relied on pre-deployed regular and covert forces and unbadged ‘little green men’ conducting unconventional warfare as well as cyber-attacks and significant information-warfare activity, using conventional media and the Internet to spread its propaganda.” But regardless of Putin’s tactics, evidence suggests that the actual decision to invade was a response to the unexpectedly rapid departure of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. “We clearly had no right to abandon the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol to the mercy of nationalist and radical militants,” Putin told Foreign Ministry officials in another address on July 1. “[We] could not allow our access to the Black Sea to be significantly limited; we could not allow NATO forces to eventually come to the land of Crimea and Sevastopol… the land of Russian military glory, and cardinally change the correlation of forces in the Black Sea area.”

Developments in the past four months likely reflect the ad-hoc quality of Putin’s decision to annex the peninsula. Although the Kremlin has rapidly built up its security presence in the region, it has had to scramble to come up with an effective plan for Crimea’s sustainable political, social, and economic transformation. So far, the integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation has not gone well.

Russia’s plans for economic development in the region are ambitious. More than $20 billion is to be allocated to this from Russia’s federal budget through the year 2020, seven times more than previous investment from Ukraine. High priorities include ensuring uninterrupted energy supplies, improving roads, and reconstructing the airport. The price tag includes a 4.5-kilometer bridge over the Kerch Strait to connect Crimea with mainland Russia. In return, it gains access not only to the peninsula itself but a large maritime zone with underwater resources worth millions of dollars.

The two main pillars of Crimea’s economy, tourism and agriculture, have been slumping, especially since in the past, 70 percent of visitors to Crimea came from Ukraine. The crisis has effectively stemmed the flow of tourism.

Economic progress has been disappointing, though. The two main pillars of Crimea’s economy, tourism and agriculture, have been slumping, especially since in the past, 70 percent of visitors to Crimea came from Ukraine. The crisis has effectively stemmed the flow of tourism. Daily life has been marred by inflation, traffic jams at the border, empty supermarkets and cash machines, rising food prices, queues for new passports and to change currency, paralyzed postal services, and inconsistent police work. The economic downturn was made worse by European Union sanctions on imports originating in Crimea or Sevastopol, as well as an EU ban on trade and investment in the separatist peninsula.

Many residents had trouble accessing their savings after Ukrainian-regulated banks closed on June 1 and the area switched from the Ukrainian hryvnia to the Russian ruble. Complicating matters further, Ukrainian authorities have not completely withdrawn from the scene: for road and rail communications, gas, electricity, and water, Crimea still depends on its land bridge with Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities claim that Crimean authorities still owe them 1.7 million hryvnia ($140,000) for last year’s water bill. The unexpected cash crunch has forced the Kremlin to divert more than $7 billion from its State Pension Fund to cover the cost of infrastructure projects.

More troubling has been Moscow’s approach to pacifying the major political threat to the new order, Crimea’s Tatar minority, which, according to the 2001 census, comprises 13 percent of the population. On the one hand, the Kremlin is trying to woo the Tatars with economic benefits, using Tatarstan as a model. It is also strengthening its ties to the minority political group Milli Firka, the pro-Russian party that favored annexation. But Russian authorities are also cracking down on independent Tatar political activities. Pro-Kiev Tatar community leaders Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov have been banned from returning to Crimea for five years. The Kremlin also banned Crimean Tatars from holding a rally to mark the 70th anniversary of their deportation by Stalin, the most tragic chapter in their history; however, many Tatars ignored the prohibition.

Russian authorities have also engaged in widespread human rights abuses. In a statement commemorating the deportation, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry noted that “Murder, beatings, and the kidnapping of Crimean Tatars and others have become standard fare. Local ‘authorities’ announced that Crimean Tatars will have to vacate their property and give up their land. Crimean Tatars have been assaulted for speaking their language…. Thousands of Tatars and others have fled their homes in Crimea, fearful for their safety.”

Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev has approved funds for a census to be held on the peninsula between September and December of 2014, a prospect reminiscent of the Soviet era that has led some observers to believe that the Kremlin will use the census to officially underestimate the number of Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians in the region. According to a May report of the United Nations, more than seven hundred people from Crimea—mostly Tatars—have become internally displaced in Ukraine.

Over time, Russia’s grip on Crimea is likely to tighten. President Putin, senior members of the government, and many Duma members visited Crimea on August 13–14, in a show of support for Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea region despite strong Western economic sanctions. Pro-Kiev elements of the Tatar community are likely to be marginalized—if they are even allowed to remain on the peninsula. Integration into Russia will be eased by the fading attention of Western leaders, who are more concerned with the fighting in Ukraine’s east and crises elsewhere. The reconstruction of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, over the past decade has shown that Russia’s bureaucratic apparatus, no matter how wasteful or corrupt, can complete large public projects. But many of Crimea’s problems—ones that cannot be solved by the heavy-handed imposition of Russia’s corrupt brand of state capitalism—are likely to continue.

Even in Russia, the enthusiasm that initially accompanied the invasion may be starting to wane. Although the number of Russians who think that Russia’s seizure of the peninsula was “justified and in line with international law” is relatively high according to the respected Levada Center, some Russians are reluctant to pay for development of the Black Sea region as their country’s economy is slowed by sanctions. In the end, Crimea may come to symbolize not Russia’s return to international glory, but rather the dangers of basing foreign policy on tenuous chauvinism and dubious historical claims. If it turns out that the only long-term gain for Russia is a relatively small, expensive peninsula, Russian commentator Fyodor Lukyanov has noted, people will begin to ask it is was worth the trouble.