Andrii Klymenko: “One of Ukraine’s most important tasks is to ensure that sanctions for Crimea and Donbas are not separated”
Why an international strategy to return Crimea is necessary and what implications the militarization of the peninsula will have for the Black Sea and Mediterranean region
Andrii Klymenko, an expert at the Maidan of Foreign Affairs think tank and Editor in Chief of the Black Sea News portal, has just returned from Washington where he presented his report on Human Rights Abuses in Russian-Occupied Crimea at a discussion initiated by Atlantic Council and Freedom House. He spoke to The Ukrainian Week about why an international strategy to return Crimea is necessary and what implications the ongoing transformation of the peninsula into a huge Russian military base will have for the Black Sea and Mediterranean region.
Crimea on the international radar. We basically made two presentations on March 6 in Washington. One was for representatives of the White House, State Department, US Congress, editors of several important publications as well as heads of well-known US think tanks. That one was behind closed doors. The second presentation was pretty much the same and open to mass media. Overall, Americans have a deeper understanding of the situation in Crimea and Ukraine compared to Europeans, except for probably Poland, the Baltic States and some countries of the Northern Europe. I told them that Putin and his puppets are implementing five techniques to crush human rights in Crimea that are quite closely intertwined. One thing they all have in common is the fact that not only are beyond international law, but beyond Russian legislation as well. This will make it very difficult for the world community to find ways to resist them. Literally days before the presentation of our report, Alexey Pushkov, Head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Duma, stated clearly in the media that human rights in their Euro-Atlantic interpretation mean nothing to Russia’s values.
Human rights abuses in Crimea. Russia uses five techniques to that end, including coercion to quit Ukrainian citizenship and accept Russian citizenship; forcing disloyal population off the peninsula; cynical disregard of the rights of the indigenous people – the Crimean Tatars; establishment of an information ghetto, and expropriation of property.
Forcing disloyal groups off the peninsula is related to the fact that Putin is creating a giant military base in Crimea. We have been saying this for the last six months, and now, finally, we see intensifying discussions of this on the international level. This threat was initially underestimated. Later, when we said that Russia potentially transported 100,000 servicemen and nuclear weapons to Crimea, everyone realized that this is not about merely a naval base, but strategic air and missile forces. They have Iskanders, Russia’s mobile ballistic systems, with rockets that can reach the new US missile defence base that is being built in Romania. Six new frigates and six submarines, and new destroyers will be put into operation over the next two years. The 11 airports that existed in Crimea during the Soviet Union are undergoing complete renovation; their top-tier runways can receive any aircrafts. A gigantic military base is being established in the centre of the Black Sea. This changes strategic and geopolitical balance not only in the Black Sea region, but also in the Black Sea-Mediterranean area where Asia, the Middle East and North Africa meet. I think that the world has now started thinking about how to react to this. One crucial principle in this process is that there cannot be a disloyal population in a military base. These include Crimeans who do not want a Russian passport, proactive citizens, members of NGOs, journalists, Crimean Tatars and representatives of religious communities that do not belong to the Russian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate.
Why are Crimean Tatars particularly important? They are organised, not only in terms of ethnic solidarity, but because they live in compact communities in contrast to all the other ethnic groups in Crimea.
15 independent media and editorial offices have left the peninsula, as have NGOs that receive international funding, since the annexation. All religious organisations had to re-register in the Russian jurisdiction by March 1. But the Russians are reluctant to register the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church or a range of protestant and Jewish communities. So these are all likely to have to leave soon. Since they have failed to get Russian registration, their property will become ownerless, which means that it can be confiscated.
An emerging information ghetto. All means of communication with Crimea have been liquidated: There is no radio, TV channels (they are still available via satellite), landline communications or mobile operators from Ukraine there. Because of this, contacts and exchange of information has shrunken greatly. Russia started laying its own fibre-optic cable across the Kerch Strait last spring to cut off the one of Ukrtelecom.
I totally oppose the principle promoted by the President of Ukraine: build a success story in the mainland Ukraine and Crimeans themselves will ask to be returned to the fold. I wonder how they will do that from a super-militarised region after population replacement. Plus, I have asked social psychologists how long it takes to change the mindset of someone who, say, supported the Maidan in Kyiv and returned to the current Crimean environment. They give it three to four months.
Expropriation of property. Under the Russian legislation, nationalisation provides for monetary compensation to the owner whose property has been confiscated for public or infrastructure purposes. In Crimea, according to our sources, property is being blatantly expropriated. About 400 large state-owned facilities have undergone that. The last two months have seen massive expropriation of private property – approximately 300 facilities. And I don’t mean kiosks, but the equipment of mobile operators, bread-making plants and their retail chains, transport infrastructure and shipyards, bus stations, car enterprises and energy supply companies.
Can Ukraine demand compensation for the damage? Theoretically, yes. But Ukraine is not doing a good job on this. Of course, the government should sue Russia for expropriating Ukrainian property in Crimea in international courts. Officials claim that some files have been submitted already. But we did not find them in the courts’ public databases. Ukraine’s official estimates of the damage done by Russia at UAH 1tn seem ridiculous. According to our estimates, this property could be worth USD 1tn or more. The assets in question include Chornomornaftogaz (Black Sea oil and gas drilling company) including offshore oil and gas reserves, plus its expensive equipment, seaports, public resorts, objects with 40–50 hectares of land on the coast, wonderful vineyards and cognac plants, palaces and monuments. The way Russia treats private property in Crimea has shocked the international community – that is exactly the reaction Ukraine needs to act effectively. The problem is that it doesn’t.
On the strategy to return Crimea. What I’m going to say now may sound like blasphemy, but Crimea is more important than Donbas. If you somewhat cynically look beyond the lost lives and victims of the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, similar conflicts have taken place in the post-WWII Europe. But there have been no annexations. If Europe turns a blind eye to the seizure of Crimea, it means that everyone can do whatever they want. This ruins the entire system of international relations in the post-WWII world, based on the principle of territorial integrity and sovereignty. We know how two earlier annexations ended.
When Argentina tried to annex the Falkland Islands, the British Fleet kicked it out. The attempt of Iraq to annex Kuwait ended with Operation Desert Storm a month later. Unless the international community and Europeans understand that Crimea must immediately be returned to Ukraine, they will send a message that any country, particularly those with nuclear arms, can take part of their neighbour’s territory.
One of the most important tasks that Ukraine faces is to ensure that sanctions for Crimea and Donbas are not separated. But I don’t see this issue being raised in Ukrainian foreign policy. We are currently trying to achieve this – first and foremost with the countries that are our allies.
Right now, we need an international strategy for the return of Crimea – a document, in which the Ukrainian perspective would be in line with that of authoritative American and European think-tanks, which could influence their policymakers. My impression is that our Cabinet of Ministers has zero intention to struggle for Crimea’s return in the short-term. The President is restricting himself to declarations, but at least he is saying something.
On the third day after the annexation, Putin decreed the establishment of the Ministry of Crimean Affairs. Nothing like this has been created in Ukraine to date. Meanwhile, new problems related to the change of citizenship, first and foremost, will emerge and mount every day and every month. They cannot be resolved with just one law that has been passed recently. An executive body is necessary to regulate the hundreds of new issues.
We need a state strategy for Crimea’s return. It must be comprised of public and, of course, classified sections. But one must be developed, and that is only accomplishable once a special executive body is set up.
Crimea experts and activists in “political exile” have adequate cooperation among themselves. I’m only afraid of one thing: any group of “political emigrants” inevitably goes through conflicts at a certain point. We should prevent this. I’m not saying that something like this has begun – so far, it hasn’t. I’m just offering words of caution. This once again proves that an executive agency around which all organisations and activists will gather is an absolute must.
Andrii Klymenko is an economist, Director of the Tavria Institute for Regional Development (TIRR). Under his leadership, a group of TIRR researchers developed the first strategy for Crimea for the years of 2005-2015, aiming at turning the vector of Crimea’s economic development in the European direction. Mr. Klymenko is currently a member of the Maidan of Foreign Affairs think tank supervisory board and Editor in Chief of the Black Sea News portal