Five years after Russian forces took Crimea from Ukraine, the international community is still struggling with how to respond to a major power seizing another country’s territory for the first time since World War II and the founding of the United Nations, a senior State Department official said. 

George Kent Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State, speaks at the U.S. Institute of Peace, March 20, 2019.
George Kent, deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, speaks at the U.S. Institute of Peace, March 20, 2019.

“If we are being honest with ourselves, the modest steps to date have not been enough to change Putin’s cost calculus,” said George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state who oversees policy on Ukraine and other nations bordering the Russian Federation. Russia’s recent moves to impede Ukrainian navigation in the Black Sea area are a “deeply worrying trend,” Kent said this week at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “So, we will need to be ready to keep our resolve for the long term, and to consider additional measures,” he said.

Ukraine has been subjected to the full spectrum of “hybrid war” Russia now employs in Europe from the Balkans to the Baltics, Kent said. Such aggression includes conventional attacks; special forces action; assassination and bombings; cyber-attacks; disinformation; weaponization of energy; and more traditional economic, political and diplomatic pressure, he said. 

“The collective need to counter such Russian malign influence, and to be prepared to do so over the long haul, is clear,” Kent said. 

Kent made his remarks at an event aimed at highlighting the situation in Ukraine—and the American response to it—a half-decade after Russia took control of the Crimea Peninsula and its population of about 2.4 million. The conversation, which involved Ukrainian leaders and Washington-based Russia experts, came against the backdrop of the federation’s latest strike at Ukraine with the seizure of Ukrainian naval vessels and crew and additional Ukraine-related U.S. sanctions announced last week. The discussion was presented jointly by USIP and the Atlantic Council. 

‘Continuing Pressure’

The panelists, including Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs in the Obama administration, concurred that Russia’s continuing pressure on Ukraine must be viewed as a threat to international order that merited a stronger U.S. reaction. 

“If we allow any country to bite off a piece of its neighbor, it can happen anytime, anywhere,” Nuland said. 

The “illegal annexation” of Crimea should be viewed in a historical context of events that also undermined international peace, including Stalin’s deportation of the Tatars from Crimea 75 years ago and the Nazi takeover of Austria 81 years ago, said USIP Vice President Bill Taylor, who served as ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009.

“Five years ago, in Ukraine, Russia violated the order that had kept the peace for 70 years,” Taylor said. 

'If we allow any country to bite off a piece of its neighbor, it can happen anytime, anywhere,' Nuland said.

In Ukraine today, about seven percent of the territory including Crimea and the eastern Donbass region is occupied by Russia, which has led to displacement of 1.5 million people, Ukrainian Deputy Information Minister Emine Dzhapparova said. Crimea is now heavily militarized home base for more than 100 war planes, six submarines, artillery, multiple rocket launchers, and tens of thousands of Russian troops, with 15,000 Ukrainians conscripted into the Russian forces, she said. 

Broad Repression

A visitor to Crimea will see quickly developing Russian infrastructure including hospitals, roads, airports and prisons, Dzhapparova noted. But these improvements represent what she called a “kingdom of distorted mirrors.” Behind them is a system of repression that squashes Ukrainian and Tatar dissent with arrests, police raids and judges who ignore even their own Russian Federation laws, said Nariman Dzhelialov, the deputy head of the outlawed Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, a representative body Crimean Tatars established in 1991.

“Ukrainians, and particularly Tatars, don’t live off infrastructure projects or what’s in the fridge, but on basic freedom and justice,” said Dzhelialov, who was imprisoned for his political activities.

Russia ratcheted up the tension on November 25 when coast guard ships fired on and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels moving from Odesa to Mariupol and captured 24 sailors who remain jailed in Moscow. The incident occurred in the area of the Kerch Strait, which divides the Black Sea from the Sea of Azoz, the body of water bordering most of Ukraine’s coastline. 

Last year, Russia opened a $3.7 billion, 12-mile vehicle bridge over the strait that connects the Crimean Peninsula to Russia. It forces all sea traffic into a narrow passage under the structure, where the span is too low for today’s larger cargo ships. After the fleet shifted to smaller craft, the Russian coast guard began increasingly vigorous inspections that delayed shippers in a form of economic warfare, according to Ukrainian monitoring groups. That growing tension culminated in the November 25 incident. 

On February 27, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated his July commitment to Congress that the United States will neither accept nor recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Kent noted that the Crimea Declaration intentionally hearkens back to the 1940 Welles Declaration, which took the same position regarding Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. 

Added Sanctions

Pompeo announced further sanctions on March 15. They targeted individuals who orchestrated the November 25 attack, six Russian defense firms that appropriated Ukrainian property in Crimea and two people involved in “sham” elections in Donetsk and Luhansk. 

While applauding the new sanctions, Nuland suggested a slow response blunted their impact —a timeline the Kremlin would see as conveying indecision, she said. 

“Where were we in March, April, May, June as harassment began,” she asked? Where, she asked, was a United States naval presence in the Black Sea? Why was there no set of sanctions ready to be pulled off the shelf?  “Perhaps we didn’t want to see until a crisis emerged,” she said.

The Kremlin understands that the U.S. desire to avoid confrontation puts American diplomacy in a cul-de-sac, said Heather Conley, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The result is a “creeping Russian Anschluss,” she said, referring to the Nazi annexation of Austria.  

Russian tactics are aimed at keeping the United States and Europe off balance, and lack of unity poses the greatest challenge to marshalling a response, said Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

The U.S. must lead its allies in raising the cost of intervention to restrain the Kremlin, Nuland said, adding that she considers that path unlikely. “We are disarming in the face of this, as we are in the face of the electoral challenge and the new nuclear challenge by withdrawing” from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. “We need a comprehensive Russia policy,” she said. 

“The tragedy is that Ukraine has been such an extraordinary laboratory for Russian tactics and techniques,” Conley said. “I think we will see them push out toward Belarus. This is not going to stop.”

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