The Jamestown Foundation
04 January 2021
Despite the fact that Moscow retains de facto control over the Crimean peninsula, Russia’s influence in Crimea is no longer as strong as in previous years. This opinion was expressed in an interview with Krym.Realii by Eurasia expert and former US State Department analyst Paul Goble.
According to the expert, the weakening of Russia’s position was influenced by three factors, one of which took place in the Crimea, the second – in Moscow, and the third is related to changes at the international level.
“This does not mean that the Kremlin will act in accordance with international law and return Crimea to Kyiv’s control. Moreover, the trends observed may even portend an increase in Russian aggression. However, this does not change the fact that even those who celebrated the Anschluss in 2014 are rethinking its consequences today. This means that Ukraine’s constant demands for the return of the peninsula are much less “quixotic” than it may seem,” said Paul Goble.
As the first factor, the American analyst cites problematic trends in Crimea itself, in particular, the aggravation of the water crisis, which, according to him, threatens to escalate into an economic and humanitarian catastrophe.
“Having lost access to water supply from the mainland of Ukraine, the Russian occupiers were unable to provide it in sufficient quantities for agricultural needs, industry and household use. Rice cultivation has stopped, and the agricultural sector in general is in decline. Industrial enterprises are also forced to cut costs because they do not have enough water to work. Ordinary Crimeans are supplied with water only for four hours a day, and it is not necessary to count on its purity,” said Goble.
According to the expert, in 2021 the situation will only get worse and will require even greater costs to resolve it. “Even according to official reports, the Russian government had to spend 50 billion rubles (700 million US dollars) to drill additional wells, as well as to launch the giant, Soviet-style project of Vladimir Putin extracting fresh water from the Sea of Azov. This is a huge amount of money, and the actual costs of implementing this project will probably be even higher,” he suggests.
The second factor influencing the future of Crimea, the American analyst calls the economic problems in Russia itself, under the influence of which more and more officials are beginning to doubt the feasibility of spending on the maintenance of the peninsula.
The authorities never told Russians how much money they will have to spend on Crimea and in what terms. “Under the influence of the euphoria that accompanied the annexation of Crimea six years ago, most Russians were sincerely willing to invest in the region’s integration into the Russian Federation. But they had no idea how much the process would actually cost. As a result, this aggressive violation of international law led to the imposition of Western sanctions against Russia, which cost average people dearly. In addition, the authorities never told the Russians exactly how much money they would have to spend on Crimea and in what time frame. If the Russian economy developed successfully, it might not matter. But it is in decline, and subsidies coming to Crimea from Moscow have now grown to such an extent that they exceed the subsidies allocated to any other subject of the federation. Meanwhile, other regions are no longer able to meet the needs of Russians.
Third, according to Paul Goble, the sympathies of the international community are clearly not on Moscow’s side. “Apart from the fact that in December 2020 the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly supported a resolution calling on Moscow to end the occupation of Crimea, the Russian delegation was unable to enlist the support of even its closest allies in the CIS. Only authoritarian and disadvantaged states like North Korea sided with Moscow. More importantly, the West is increasingly consolidating against Russian aggression as such. The change in the administration of the White House in the United States is the clearest evidence of this. The changes taking place in Europe also mean that Moscow finds itself increasingly isolated and faced with great pressure and the need to change,” reflects Goble.
The American expert emphasizes that all this does not mean that the Kremlin is ready to end the occupation now or in the near future. “Putin has turned the seizure of Crimea into a symbol of the restoration of Russia’s greatness, and it is clear that he is convinced that the restoration of de facto independence of the Baltic states in August 1991 led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But even if he really thinks so, many in Moscow no longer share this argument and it is likely that they will soon become more open to other possibilities,” he explains.
At the same time, Paul Goble warns that as long as Putin remains in power, he is likely to even double his stakes in Crimea until he is ready to launch a new military campaign against Ukraine to gain access to fresh-water sources.
“To some in the West, such a move may seem justified. However, if the Kremlin leader continues to pour more money into Crimea or launches a new aggression, the West will oppose it more resolutely than ever before. As a result, more and more people in Russia are likely to conclude that Crimea has become a “suitcase without a handle” for Russia – too valuable to abandon, but not uplifting. And since both Ukraine and the West continue to put pressure on Moscow, it is they, not Putin, who will ultimately determine the future, and Crimea will eventually be able to return to Ukraine, “the American expert concluded.
In February 2014, armed men in uniform appeared in Crimea, seizing the building of the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea, Simferopol Airport, Kerch Ferry, and other strategic facilities, as well as blocking the actions of Ukrainian troops. The Russian authorities initially refused to acknowledge that these armed men were members of the Russian army. Russian President Vladimir Putin later admitted that it was the Russian military.
On March 16, 2014, an unrecognized “referendum” on the status of the peninsula was held in Crimea and Sevastopol, as a result of which Russia included Crimea in its membership. Neither Ukraine, nor the European Union, nor the United States, recognized the results of the “referendum” vote. On March 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Crimea’s “accession” to Russia.
International organizations have declared the occupation and annexation of Crimea illegal and condemned Russia’s actions. Western countries have imposed economic sanctions. Russia denies annexing the peninsula and calls it a “restoration of historical justice.” The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine officially announced the date of the beginning of the temporary occupation of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia on February 20, 2014.
After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has been conducting regular military exercises on the peninsula and in the Black Sea, as well as importing military equipment, including air defense systems.
In January 2018, Russian S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft missile systems took up combat duty near Cape Fiolent . In September 2018, the same complexes were located in Evpatoria , and at the end of the year – in Dzhanka . The General Staff of Ukraine calls the actions of the Russian military in Crimea illegal.
Ukraine’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Yuriy Vitrenko has expressed concern about Russia’s possible deployment of nuclear weapons on the peninsula. Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Serhiy Kryvonos, said that there are several facilities in Crimea where there may be nuclear weapons. He believes that the possibility of their placement on the peninsula is “quite large.”
In 2016, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia did not intend to discuss the deployment of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons in Crimea with anyone.
In December 2019, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on Russia to withdraw its troops from the annexed Crimea and end the temporary occupation of Ukraine.
According to Interfax-Ukraine, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation can potentially be used to forcefully resolve the issue of water supply to the temporarily occupied Crimean peninsula, the website of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine (SVR) reported.
“Before the annexation, mainland Ukraine provided up to 85% of Crimea’s needs for fresh water, so the Russian Armed Forces could potentially, under a far-fetched pretext, enter the territory of Kherson region in order to establish control over the dam of the North Crimean Canal,” the statement says.
The SVR notes that the occupied peninsula “has been turned by Russia into a continuous military base with a ready-made infrastructure for storing nuclear weapons.”
“In the long term, the activity of the Russian Federation towards Ukraine may transform into a large-scale military operation with the seizure of new Ukrainian territories. This may be facilitated by the following factors: the need to divert attention from a number of internal Russian problems; the need to solve the socio-economic problems of the temporarily occupied Crimea; the concentration of attention of our leading international partners solely on their own internal problems,” the message says.