Why Crimea matters

Above and below: scenes from the theatrical performance of “My Land Crimea” in Kyiv, August 24, 2021 Photos: Marco Levytsky

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

The Crimean Platform is a bold and innovative diplomatic initiative launched by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to raise international attention to the illegal annexation and the continued occupation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation.

August 23 in Kyiv, representatives of 47 nations and organizations attended the inaugural summit of the Crimean Platform, which culminated in the signing of a Declaration outlining the aims and goals of the participants.

Though Canada was unable to send any ministers to the Summit due to the Caretaker Convention which prevents the Government from “participating in high-profile government-related domestic and international events, including federal/provincial/territorial events, international visits, and the signing of treaties and agreements” during an election, it is one of the signatories of the Declaration and firmly support its goals and objectives. These include improving the effectiveness of the international response to the ongoing occupation of Crimea, responding to growing security threats, increasing international pressure on the Kremlin, preventing further rights violations and protecting victims of the occupation regime, all of which are aimed at eventually ending the occupation of Crimea and allowing Ukraine to regain control of the peninsula.

The five priority areas are: Firstly, security, including freedom of navigation. Second, ensuring the effectiveness of sanctions against the aggressor state. Third, protection of human rights and international humanitarian law. Fourth, protection of educational, cultural and religious rights. Fifth, overcoming the negative impact of the temporary occupation of Crimea on the economy and the environment.

What is significant about the Platform is that it does not stop with the summit itself, but is an ongoing process aimed at bringing about the desired final goal.

So why is Crimea important not only to Ukraine, but to the entire international community?

Freedom of Navigation. With its illegal annexation of Crimea and subsequent militarization of the peninsula, Russia has significantly magnified its military and other threats to Ukraine, to the countries of the Black Sea region and to the European continent as a whole. Russia is capable of inflicting catastrophic damage to Ukraine even without the overt use of force from the sea or through combining a limited use of force with non-military tools. Russia is preparing for these scenarios and, in the meantime, it is: (1) systematically harming Ukraine’s national interests by usurping the exclusive economic zone of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov; (2) imposing its national legal regime on the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait; (3) supressing the economy of the Ukrainian Azov region; (4) creating artificial obstacles to freedom of navigation; (5) jamming and spoofing communication and navigation systems; (6) utilizing civilian infrastructure for military purposes; (7) exploiting Ukraine’s natural resources; and (8) inflicting irreparable environmental damage. Russia continues to militarize Crimea, even to the point of transferring nuclear missiles to the region.

Effectiveness of sanctions. Russia is waging an outright war in Syria, a covert war in Ukraine and a so-called hybrid war (by non-military means) against the West as a whole. Moreover, the Putin regime is gearing up for a global conflict. The reason for this is a distorted Russian perception of the security environment. The Russian military-industrial complex (MIC) serves as the enabler of Russia’s aggressive policy as well as one of the essential components of its economy. That is why it is necessary to use sanctions against the Russian MIC as a tool for constraining the Kremlin’s increasingly aggressive policies.

Human Rights. First of all, remember that Crimea is the ancestral home of its indigenous people – the Crimean Tatars. Dating back to the original occupation of Crimea under the reign of Tsarytsia Catherine II, Russia has pursued a brutal policy of depopulating Crimea of its indigenous people and repopulating the region with ethnic Russians. This includes the 1944 deportation of Crimean Tatars by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, which has been condemned as an act of genocide by a number of countries including Canada. Since the illegal annexation in 2014, many Tatars have fled to Ukraine. Russia has brought in half a million ethnic Russians to take their place. For those Tatars who remain, life is a nightmare. Russian authorities and their proxies have subjected members of the Crimean Tatar community and their supporters, including journalists, bloggers, activists, and others to harassment, intimidation, threats, intrusive and unlawful searches of their homes, physical attacks, and enforced disappearances. Complaints lodged with authorities are not investigated effectively. Russia has banned Crimean Tatar media and organizations that criticized Russia’s actions in Crimea, including disbanding and proscribing the Mejlis, the highest executive-representative body of the Crimean Tatars. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church – which resisted occupation – have been subjected to systematic pressure as well. Their followers have been threatened, priests kidnapped, and religious monuments destroyed.

Cultural Heritage. Russia has appropriated Ukraine’s cultural property in Crimea including 4,095 state-protected sites of national and local importance. In itself this appropriation is a breach of international law. But it is also a lever for Russia’s broader and long-term strategy to increase its cultural and religious dominance over Crimea’s past, present and future. Russia pursues this policy through several fronts including the unlawful transfer of artifacts from Crimea for exhibitions in Russia pursuant to its curatorial narratives, unauthorized archeological excavations and the erosion of the Crimean Tatar cultural presence in the peninsula. Ukraine and its international partners including the EU and NATO should seriously consider the role of cultural heritage in the case of Crimea and develop pre-emptive and reactive policies which consider cultural heritage as a matter of national security and its abuse as a powerful hybrid threat with lasting repercussions.

Overcoming the negative impact of the occupation. This can only be accomplished by concerted and systematic sanctions against those sectors of the Russian economy critical to the preservation of the Putin regime and its military industrial complex. Although there is evidence that current sanctions are beginning to negatively impact Russia’s economy, they do not go far enough. Very often when economic sanctions conflict with the self-interest of Western nations this self-interest takes precedence. An excellent example of this is the removal of sanctions against the Russian-led conglomerate building the Nord Stream II pipeline. What Western nations must understand is that Russia is not only a threat to Ukraine but to the entire world. When it comes to imperial ambitions, Vladimir Putin is much like Adolph Hitler, except that he is much more intelligent and focussed in his strategy. The annexation of Crimea is a violation of the guarantees of Ukraine’s sovereignty in the Budapest Memorandum signed by the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, notwithstanding the Memorandum’s ineffectiveness at preventing such violations. The annexation is also a violation of the rules-based world order that has been in place since the end of World War II. Let us reiterate that Crimea is the home of the Crimean Tatars who have wholeheartedly accepted Ukraine as their parent state. Crimea matters to Ukraine and Crimea matters to the world. It is up to the world in general and the democratic world in particular to now demonstrate how clearly it does matter.