Was Crimea already Russian the whole time? Does history demand that the Europeans, and above all the Germans, take an understanding view of the peninsula’s incorporation? And where does the alleged policy of Russian containment come in to all this?
source: kremlin.ru: Obrashhenie Prezidenta Rossijskoj Federacii
Federation Council members, State Duma deputies, good afternoon. Representatives of the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol are here among us, citizens of Russia, residents of Crimea and Sevastopol!
Dear friends, we have gathered here today in connection with an issue that is of vital, historic significance to all of us. A referendum was held in Crimea on March 16 in full compliance with democratic procedures and international law norms.
The referendum took place under circumstances and general conditions that preclude its description as legal. For one thing, both the referendum itself and all actions taken by the parliament and the government of the Autonomous Republic with the aim of detaching Crimea from Ukraine are in clear contradiction with Ukrainian public and constitutional law. Moreover, the referendum was made possible only by a military intervention that violated international law. This relates above all to the decision to hold a referendum taken by the parliament of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea on 27 February 2014. This decision was taken at a non-transparent special session of the Crimean parliament held behind doors locked by heavily armed security forces. The date of the referendum stipulated in the unlawfully adopted resolution was subsequently brought forward multiple times under circumstances characterised by a lack of both transparency and public political discussion of any kind.
More than 82 percent of the electorate took part in the vote. Over 96 percent of them spoke out in favour of reuniting with Russia. These rates speak for themselves.
Due to the referendum’s illegality, the OSCE did not send election observers to Crimea. Nor were there other independent observers on the peninsula. The results cited cannot be verified. Even the Human Rights Council of the President of the Russian Federation was later to estimate voter turnout for the referendum as in the 30 to 50 percent range, and that 50 to 60 percent of votes cast were in favour of direct annexation by Russia. The Crimean Tatars, who made up 12 percent of the Crimean population at the time, boycotted the referendum.
To understand the reason behind such a choice it is enough to know the history of Crimea and what Russia and Crimea have always meant for each other.
Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptised. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Prince Vladimir’s adoption of the Christian faith and the subsequent “baptism of the Rus” in 988 holds enormous symbolic significance for Russia, for Belarus and for Ukraine. Since the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church has been at great pains to use the concept of the “Holy Rus” to establish a unifying idea to serve as a bastion against all the centrifugal forces of the post-Soviet era. The Christianisation of the Rus is also the cornerstone of the historical construct on which the Church and the state have been collaborating at least since Kirill’s elevation to the Patriarchy in 2009. The evocative appeal of unity – common history, common pride, common faith, common culture, common values – is intended to gloss over all that is distinctive, diverse, resistant or contradictory. In another speech, in December 2014, Putin compared Crimea, with its “sacred importance”, to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Kiev, a city described several times as a “holy place” in the legends about the so-called “Holy Rus”, was presented in opposition to Crimea and Chersonesus, which previously did not play any prominent role in Orthodox historiography.
The graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian empire, are also in Crimea. This is also Sevastopol – a legendary city with an outstanding history, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Crimea is Balaklava and Kerch, Malakhov Kurgan and Sapun Ridge. Each one of these places is dear to our hearts, symbolising Russian military glory and outstanding valour.
Crimea is a unique blend of different peoples’ cultures and traditions. This makes it similar to Russia as a whole, where not a single ethnic group has been lost over the centuries.
The presence of multiple ethnicities as a result of its history and the influence of numerous peoples and empires is, indeed, a characteristic feature of Crimea. However, this history of multi-ethnicity began long before the Russian Empire’s conquest of Crimea in the 18th century, and still continues today. Over time, the number of and relative sizes of the ethnic groups have changed, as have the relations among them. The Russian Empire, the Soviet Union or rather the Russian Soviet Republic were also multi-ethnic states, and present-day Russia continues this tradition. But the image presented here omits historical facts like deportations, resettlement programs, border changes and a very selective “nationalities policy”. The common history invoked here of a multi-ethnic coexistence to here subtly suggests a legitimate and trouble-free integration of the peninsula into the Russia state.
Russians and Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and people of other ethnic groups have lived side by side in Crimea, retaining their own identity, traditions, languages and faith.
The topos of the friendship of nations (druzhba narodov) calls Soviet ideology to mind. Its purpose here is to put Russia’s alleged claim to Crimea in an historical context, as well as transmit a promise of stability to the population, and thus refute concerns that Crimean Tatars might have about a new wave of repression. The thesis that all peoples have retained their identity, traditions, language and religion goes beyond the notion of peaceful coexistence, hinting at the active promotion of this diversity. Russian and Soviet history offers many examples to the contrary. In particular, the fate of the Crimean Tatars is being ignored here: in 1944, the image of them as a dangerous and disloyal element, which goes back to the 18th century, culminated in the forced deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar population in 1944. The Crimean Tatars consciously maintained their identity over decades in the places they were deported to, primarily in Central Asia, and through their mass return to Crimea since the demise of the Soviet Union have realised their cultural and political aspirations on their own behalf.
Incidentally, the total population of the Crimean Peninsula today is 2.2 million people, of whom almost 1.5 million are Russians, 350,000 are Ukrainians who predominantly consider Russian their native language, and about 290,000–300,000 are Crimean Tatars, whos large part, as the referendum has shown, also lean towards Russia.
The majority of Crimean Tatars take a sceptical view of the annexation of Crimea. This is apparent, for instance, in the demonstrations at which Crimean Tatars called for Crimea to remain in Ukraine. There are no reliable data about the voting behaviour of Crimean Tatars in the referendum, which did not receive international recognition. Sergei Aksyonov, the pro-Russian prime minister installed in February 2014, said that 40 percent of the Crimean Tatars voted in the referendum. However, Crimean Tatar political representatives of the announced that 99 percent of Crimean Tatar voters, responding to their call to boycott the referendum, did not vote. There is no way to verify either claim, but even if one accepts Aksyonov’s figure, the majority of Crimean Tatars did not participate in the election. Thus, there is no basis for Putin’s claim that significant part of the Crimean Tatar population leans towards Russia.
This listing of the three largest ethnic groups in Crimea corresponds more or less with the first post-annexation census carried out by Russia in Crimea, which found that the Crimean population is 65.3 percent Russian, 15.1 percent Ukrainian and 12.1 percent Crimean Tatar. For purposes of comparison: the ethnic breakdown of the population according to the 2001 census was as follows: 60.4 percent Russian, 24 percent Ukrainian and 10.3 percent Crimean Tatar. Official pre-annexation statistics showed that the percentage of Crimean Tatars had risen to 12 percent as a result of additional immigration.
True, there was a time when Crimean Tatars were treated unfairly, just as a number of other peoples in the USSR. There is only one thing I can say here: millions of people of various ethnicities suffered during those repressions, and primarily Russians.
Putin is referring here, among other things, to May of 1944, when virtually the entire Crimean Tatar population of the peninsula – about 190,000 people in total – was deported to Central Asia, accused of collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. Crimean Tatars were not the only victims of such deportations: several other ethnic minorities, including the Germans and the Chechens, endured the same fate. The representation that it was above all Russians who suffered from the repressions is a gross distortion of historical facts: Russians were not subject to any form of ethnic persecution.
Crimean Tatars returned to their homeland. I believe we should make all the necessary political and legislative decisions to finalise the rehabilitation of Crimean Tatars, restore them in their rights and clear their good name.
Unlike most other deported ethnic minorities, even after Stalin’s death Crimean Tatars were not permitted to return to their homeland. For many of them, only the collapse of the Soviet Union opened a path for a legal return to Crimea. The national government of independent Ukraine had some sympathy for the position of Crimean Tatars, but the ethnic Russian-dominated regional government of Crimea laid plenty of obstacles in their path. A large percentage of the Crimean Tatars have been living in makeshift shelters without legal protections for decades. Nor has the annexation done anything to remedy this – on the contrary: , according to a UN report, Crimean Tatars have suffered particularly from the significant deterioration of the human rights situation in Crimea since 2014.
Crimean Tatars returned to their homeland. I believe we should make all the necessary political and legislative decisions to finalise the rehabilitation of Crimean Tatars, restore them in their rights and clear their good name.
We have great respect for people of all the ethnic groups living in Crimea. This is their common home, their motherland, and it would be right – I know the local population supports this – for Crimea to have three equal national languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar.
Recognising the Crimean Tatar language as an official language of the region, equal in status to Russian and Ukrainian, is of largely symbolic significance; nevertheless, this does represent the fulfilment of a long-standing demand of the Crimean Tatars. Whilst Ukrainian-language educational institutions have been switched nearly entirely to Russian, the 15 Crimean-Tatar schools are still running. However, instruction in the last two years of school is – as Russian law requires – entirely in Russian. In general, Moscow strives to maintain good relations with the Russian Federation’s many non-Russian minorities and accords them symbolically important rights, albeit always on the condition that they do nothing to oppose the Russian leadership. In 2016, the Mejlis, the well-established autonomous representative body of the Crimean Tatars, which had consistently voiced opposition to an absorption of Crimea by Russia, was branded as an “extremist organisation” and banned. The Mejlis’ leaders were arrested or, if abroad, refused re-entry. There are Crimean Tatar organisations that are willing to cooperate with the Russian authorities – the Russian administration had begun setting these up even before the ban. However, it is unclear whether these have the backing of the Crimean Tatar community.
in people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.
This last sentence describes the core message of the official Russian discourse, summed up as Krym nash (“Crimea is ours”). Here, the speech appeals to the emotions of those present, of Russia’s population and of the russkii mir (the “Russian world”). Here, the focus is on an allegedly unbroken historical continuity. This line of argument overlooks a great deal, including several centuries of Crimean Tatar rule and of the Ottoman Empire, and it implies an equation of the Russian Empire with the Soviet Union and present-day Russia. Moreover, it simply ignores the transfer of Crimea from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954 and Crimea’s status as part of independent Ukraine since 1991. In 1991, just over 54 percent of Crimea’s population voted for Ukraine’s independence, and thus in favour of Crimea belonging to Ukraine (ca. 90 percent of the Crimean voting age population took part in the referendum; 42 percent opposed Ukrainian independence).
This firm conviction is based on truth and justice and was passed from generation to generation, over time, under any circumstances, despite all the dramatic changes our country went through during the entire 20th century.
After the revolution, the Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons – may God judge them – added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population, and today these areas form the southeast of Ukraine.
Then, in 1954, a decision was made to transfer Crimean Region to Ukraine, along with Sevastopol, despite the fact that it was a a city with a special status. This was the personal initiative of the Communist Party head Nikita Khrushchev. What stood behind this decision of him – a desire to win the support of the Ukrainian political establishment or to atone for the mass repressions of the 1930’s in Ukraine – is for historians to figure out.
This depiction of the transfer of Crimea from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954 suggests that the transfer was not legal and that Khrushchev himself orchestrated it for inscrutable reasons of his own. It gives the impression that the interpretation of these motivations and events of the past is of no direct political relevance. Based on the archival records accessible thus far, the decision to transfer Crimea was a sudden one, taken in early 1954 (although Khrushchev had mentioned the idea to Stalin earlier, in the 1940s), and the transferal adhered to the procedure set out in the Soviet constitution in abbreviated form (based on resolutions by the Supreme Soviet Presidium of the RSFSR and the Ukrainian SSR as well as of the Soviet Union, rather than of the entire Soviet).
The transfer may have been motivated in part by political calculation on Khrushchev’s part during the period of collective leadership shorty after Stalin’s death. There is no mention in Putin’s speech of plausible economic-administrative reasons, although they are documented in eye-witness reports about Khrushchev’s trip to Crimea in 1953.
What matters now is that this decision was made in clear violation of the constitutional norms that were in place even then. The decision was made behind the scenes. […] But on the whole – and we must state this clearly, we all know it – this decision was treated as a formality of sorts because the territory was transferred within the boundaries of a single state. Back then, it was impossible to imagine that Ukraine and Russia may split up and become two separate states. However, this has happened.
Unfortunately, what seemed impossible became a reality. The USSR fell apart. […] It was only when Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realised that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered.
In a state of the nation address given back in April 2005, Vladimir Putin described the demise of the Soviet Union as one of “greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century”. He has also expressed regret about the collapse numerous times in the years since, such as in 2016 when he stressed that the collapse of the Soviet Union had “not been necessary”: “We could have introduced reforms, including those of a more democratic nature.”
At the same time, we have to admit that by launching the sovereignty parade Russia itself aided in the collapse of the Soviet Union. And as this collapse was legalised, everyone forgot about Crimea and Sevastopol – the main base of the Black Sea Fleet.
Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.
Putin is alluding here to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fact that the new international boundaries turned a multinational empire into multiple nation-states, none of which is ethnically uniform. Just as there are many Russians living in the other successor states of the Soviet Union, there are many non-Russians living as minorities in Russia. The rhetoric of a “divided” people implies that, “by rights”, peoples should not be divided, i. e. should live together one state. Yet in settled areas like those in the former Soviet Union, and in Eastern Europe in general, that would be possible only at the price of expulsions or forced border changes. And even they would not result in “undivided” peoples, merely new divisions. Hence, the aim should not be to overcome such divisions, but to live together democratically and justly – as minorities and as majorities.
Now, many years later, I heard residents of Crimea say that back in 1991 they were handed over like a sack of potatoes. This is hard to disagree with. And what about the Russian state? What about Russia? It humbly accepted the situation. This country was going through such hard times then that realistically it was incapable of protecting its interests.
For many people in Russia, memories of the 1990s, under then President Boris Yeltsin, still have a very bitter flavour. Russia’s post-Soviet society fell into chaos and criminality after the dissolution of the USSR, the privatisation of state enterprises offered a battleground that ruthless oligarchs plundered. Social inequality grew, poverty was rife. At the same time, the 1990s are also associated with a period of social renewal, freedom and hopes for a future on a par with Western standards. Russian society still remembers these years as likhie 1990e – the “wild 1990s”. The 2000’s, by contrast, are called the decade of “Putin’s meritorious service” by the media with close ties to the state, when he raised the country “from its knees”. In 2012, Patriarch Kirill compared the 1990s to “Hitler’s aggression” and the “Time of Trouble” in the early 17th century. He also extolled the ending of this phase as one of Putin’s accomplishments, comparing his leadership to a “miracle of God”.
However, the people could not reconcile themselves to this outrageous historical injustice. All these years, citizens and many public figures came back to this issue, saying that Crimea is historically Russian land and Sevastopol is a Russian city. Yes, we all knew this in our hearts and minds, but we had to proceed from the existing reality and build our good-neighbourly relations with independent Ukraine on a new basis.
Time and time again attempts were made to deprive Russians of their historical memory, even of their language and to subject them to forced assimilation.
Two days after the flight of Yanukovych, the Ukrainian parliament voted by a narrow majority to repeal a controversial language law from 2012. Under the 2012 law, official use of minority or regional languages was permitted in any region in which ten percent or more of the population spoke a native language other than Ukrainian. Russian, but also e. g. Hungarian and Romanian became official regional languages once the law went into force. It had no significant impact on daily life, however. Both the Council of Europe and the OSCE criticised the parliament’s decision to repeal the law, taken on 23 February 2014. Turchynov, the interim president, declined to sign the legislation repealing the law, saying that a new statutory arrangement would need to be prepared first.
Moreover, Russians, just as other citizens of Ukraine are suffering from the constant political and state crisis that has been rocking the country for over 20 years.
The Kremlin likes to propagate a narrative that contrasts the “constant political crisis” in the Ukraine with “Russia’s stability”. This narrative has existed at least since the “Orange Revolution”, in the winter of 2004/2005, when election rigging in Ukraine triggered mass demonstrations against Victor Yanukovych, the presidential candidate favoured by Russia. In this narrative, civil protest is presented in a negative light in general and, in the case of Ukraine in particular, discredited as a “Western influence”. The narrative also serves to justify the notion that Russia should be ruled with a “firmer hand”. It suggests that political competition of the kind experienced in the crisis-ridden 1990s should be seen as detrimental.
I would like to reiterate that I understand those who came out on Maidan with peaceful slogans against corruption, inefficient state management and poverty. The right to peaceful protest, democratic procedures and elections exist for the sole purpose of replacing the authorities that do not satisfy the people.
The (Euro)Maidan protests did in fact radicalise over time, which was certainly a major factor determining their outcome – the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych from office. And, although radical right-wing demonstrators were in a clear minority, they did have a disproportionate share in the use of violence. However, the radicalisation was preceded by considerable, disproportionate use of violence by the security forces. Moreover, the Ukrainian parliament had passed legislation severely restricting demonstrations on 16 January 2014. Thus the “right to peaceful protest” Putin brings up here had been both de facto and de jure suspended to some degree.
Putin is also implicitly referring to the political situation within Russia here: he is suggesting that any revolutionary transformation, be it ever so pro-democratically based, will lead to chaos, violence and the rule of lawlessness. This passage is probably aimed at the domestic audience as well, since tens of thousands of people had taken to the streets to protest election fraud all over Russia only two years earlier. In this context, Putin’s reference to “democratic procedures”, that citizens can use to replace political authorities sounds positively cynical. Also, although the “right to peaceful protest” exists de jure in Russia, applications for the authorisation of demonstrations are regularly refused.
Jan Matti Dollbaum
However, those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: they were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.
Russian politicians and media with close links to the government began to demonise the civil protests in Ukraine in the winter of 2013/2014 right from the start, labelling them “nationalist” and “fascist”. To date, the official Russian version deliberately ignores the fact that “Euromaidan” was a heterogeneous movement which, though radicalized by repression and violence over the course of the protests, was never, at any point, dominated by “neo-Nazis”, “Russophobes” or “anti-Semites”. Quite the contrary: a great deal of evidence shows that the “Maidan” was multidenominational, multi-ethnic and multilingual. Even in the wake of Crimea’s annexation and the start of the war in the east of Ukraine, the extreme right-wing parties failed to score any notable successes in the early parliamentary elections held in October of 2014.
Those who opposed the coup were immediately threatened with repression. Naturally, the first in line here was Crimea, the Russian-speaking Crimea.
The Kremlin’s narrative refers to Viktor Yanukovych’s flight and removal as an illegal and illegitimate coup d’état. It deliberately overlooks the fact that Yanukovych had already lost the allegiance of the Ukrainian ruling elite and of the governing party before he absconded. Another central element of Russian state propaganda in this area is the claim that primarily Russian-speaking residents of Crimea felt threatened after the change of power. There were rumours circulating in the Donbass and in Crimea that far-right radical groups from Kiev had set out to “force the Russian speakers to their knees”. However, at no time were there any indications of attacks or similar incidents targeting Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine.
In view of this, the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol turned to Russia for help in defending their rights and lives, in preventing the events that were unfolding and are still underway in Kiev, Donetsk, Kharkov and other Ukrainia cities.
This excerpt suggests that a large part of the Crimean population had actively requested Moscow’s help in 2014. This was not the case: there were no separatist aspirations in Crimea in 2013-14. A regional movement of that kind did exist in the early 1990s, culminating in the 1994 attempt to declare Crimea’s independence or at least extensive autonomy. This movement was not supported by the Russian leadership of the day and ultimately failed due the diversity of interests and the concession of a status of weak autonomy to Crimea in the Ukrainian constitutional legislative process. Until 2013-2014, Crimea was an integral part of the southeast of the country and as such well-established within the political system of Ukraine. It is true that there were protests in Sevastopol against the “putschists” in Kiev a few days before the deployment of units of the Russian special force in Crimea – but broadly speaking , the key events that played out in Crimea in February unfolded in a sequence precisely the reverse of that in which they appear in this speech. The momentum started from Moscow, Russian special forces units without insignia appeared in Crimea and created the conditions for the “referendum” and Crimea’s incorporation into the Russian state. Moscow’s policy did benefit in this regard from latent pro-Russian attitudes in Crimea and the political distance to Kiev, but these would not have led to a broader mobilisation had the Russian special forces not shown up. Nonetheless, the image conveyed here – of Russia coming to the aid of disadvantaged Crimean residents who have appealed for its support – is still very present today – in Russia, but beyond it as well.
Naturally, we could not leave this plea unheeded; we could not abandon Crimea and its residents in distress. This would have been betrayal on our part.
When it absorbed Crimea, the Kremlin argued that it was protecting ethnic Russians from Ukrainian “aggression”. Russia’s justification for its offensive in the Georgian war in 2008 was similar – the aim then, after all, was to protect the Abkhazians and South Ossetians whom Russia had been systematically granting citizenship since 2002. This notion of protection is always associated with the phrase sberezhenie naroda – safeguarding, or even preserving the people. This particular wording goes back to the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who saw in it the potential for a new “national idea”. This would mean that the political government has a duty of care, that it must take care of the people. Vladimir Putin supports this definition of the “national idea”: In his 2019 address to the Federal Assembly, he described sberezhenie naroda as a key political task.
Secondly, and most importantly – what exactly are we violating? True, the President of the Russian Federation received permission from the Upper House of Parliament to use the Armed Forces in Ukraine. However, strictly speaking, nobody has acted on this permission yet. Russia’s Armed Forces never entered Crimea; they were there already in line with an international agreement. True, we did enhance our forces there; however – this is something I would like everyone to hear and know – we did not exceed the personnel limit of our Armed Forces in Crimea, which is set at 25,000, because there was no need to do so.
Next. As it declared independence and decided to hold a referendum, the Supreme Council of Crimea referred to the United Nations Charter, which speaks of the right of nations to self-determination. Incidentally, I would like to remind you that when Ukraine seceded from the USSR it did exactly the same thing, almost word for word. Ukraine used this right, yet the residents of Crimea are denied it. Why is that?
The Charter of the United Nations, in Article 1(2), refers to the right of self-determination of peoples as one purpose of the United Nations. This right means that nations under colonial rule have the right to national independence, for instance. It does not grant a general right of secession to regions or groupings within a state outside of the colonial context, however. In that respect, it only requires that it is possible for a “people” to realise self-determination within a state. Crimea is actually an autonomous republic.
Under the Ukrainian constitution (Articles 134–139 of the Constitution of Ukraine) and thus enjoys autonomous status. While one can always argue about the scope of autonomy rights, the right of self-determination of peoples does not grant Crimea a right to independence from Ukraine.
From the perspective of international law, Crimea’s situation in 2014 is also entirely different from that when Ukraine became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991. In December of 1991, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the claiming of independence by the republics occurred by the agreement by all parties, which found expression in the Belavezha Accords (8 December 1991) and the Alma Ata Protocols (21 December 1991). By contrast, at no time did Ukraine declare consent to a secession of Crimea.
Moreover, the Crimean authorities referred to the well-known Kosovo precedent – a precedent our western colleagues created with their own hands in a very similar situation, when they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country’s central authorities.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, and its independence was recognised by many (especially Western) states right away. This recognition is indeed in contravention of international law, as it constituted an unlawful intervention in the internal affairs of Serbia. And of no lesser importance, the UN Security Council had, in its Resolution 1244 of 10 June 1999, affirmed its commitment to the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia.
However, one important difference between the cases of Kosovo and Crimea is that Crimea’s secession resulted directly from the use of force on the part of the Russian Federation in violation of international law. It is true that the NATO intervention in 1991 in Kosovo also involved the use of force in violation of international law, but in that case almost a decade had passed by and a UN-mandated interim administration was in place. Thus, the cases of Kosovo and Crimea differ substantially.
Putin’s assertion that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) recognised the lawfulness of Kosovo’s independence in its advisory opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence is not accurate. The ICJ was analysing solely the declaration of independence and concluded that this act did not violate international law. In other words: international law does not prohibit non-state actors from declaring an independent state. The questions as to whether statehood is actually achieved upon such a declaration or whether there is a right to secession were not answered. Thus, the ICJ advisory opinion is not a source of any arguments supporting the Russian position.
We keep hearing from the United States and Western Europe that Kosovo is some special case. What makes it so special in the eyes of our colleagues? It turns out that it is the fact that the conflict in Kosovo resulted in so many human casualties. Is this a legal argument?
Putin’s statement seems menacing on the surface, but at bottom, it touches on a genuine problem in the practice of legal justification. Western states have indeed argued that Kosovo was a special case necessitating special legal treatment. A case in point: Back in 1999, the intervention in Kosovo in violation of international law back was justified with the reference to special circumstances and a humanitarian emergency. The special circumstances associated with Kosovo and the failed attempts to reach an agreement, which made it appear impossible that Kosovo would remain permanently in Serbia, were put forth as justifications for Kosovo’s recognition.
Arguing on the basis of “exceptional cases” is problematic because it weakens the universality of existing legal rules. Someone who lays claim to a special exception in one case invites other international actors to do the same in other cases. The West’s actions in the case of Kosovo have weakened international law, and they have certainly made it easier for Russia to support actions in flagrant violation of international law in the case of the Crimean conflict by invoking an earlier (albeit not entirely relevant) practice. The point is, it is easy to skip over the fact that the details in the cases of Crimea and Kosovo differ significantly in the context of their superficial treatment in political speeches.
[…] This is not even double standards; this is amazing, primitive, blunt cynicism. One should not try so crudely to make everything suit their interests, calling the same thing white today and black tomorrow. According to this logic, we have to make sure every conflict leads to human losses. […]
They keep talking of some Russian intervention in Crimea, some sort of aggression. This is strange to hear. I cannot recall a single case in history of an intervention without a single shot being fired and with no human casualties.
Colleagues! Like a mirror, the situation in Ukraine reflects what is going on and what has been happening in the world over the past several decades. After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability.
From the viewpoint of the Moscow elite, the conflict over Ukraine and Crimea is a conflict with the USA. Putin’s statement about the end of the bipolar world is associated with a view of the phase of US hegemony as characterised by growing insecurity and instability. Whereas the dominance of the two superpowers brought stability and predictability within the bipolar system, US unilateralism has not only wreaked chaos but also made Russia’s proper position as a great power a point of contention. For Moscow, Crimea’s annexation was a clear signal to Washington that it would no longer accept US dominance and that Russia stands ready to secure its sphere of influence, including by military means. The Russian leadership’s view is that the instability will increase in the multipolar world, but that Russia’s role in the concert of nations will increase again as well. Whether this neorealist way of thinking in terms of major states’ spheres of influence accurately describes the new world order is debatable: China and India are playing a growing role in international relations, but so too are non-state actors and smaller countries.
Key international institutions are not getting any stronger; on the contrary, in many cases, they are sadly degrading. Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.”
To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.
That the USA and its allies have broken international law is, indeed, indisputable. Thus, one can cite as examples the 1999 Kosovo intervention (considered by many to have been legitimate, despite its illegality) or the 2003 Iraq intervention, but one could also cite the recognition of Kosovo in 2008 as a case in point. The Libya intervention in 2011 was authorised by the UN Security Council in Resolution 1970, but there is much to be said for the argument that the NATO-led alliance went beyond the letter of the resolution when it deposed al-Gaddafi’s government, thus precipitating a change in regime, something Russia had opposed from the start.
From the standpoint of international law, there is no conceivable perspective from which this background could be viewed that would enable a justification or relativisation of the flagrant violation of international law that Russia committed with the use of military force in Crimea. However, the conflict between Russia and the West illustrates the dangers of a short-sighted approach to international law and its use as an instrument to achieve situation-specific ends, which creates the risk of a general “pull towards non-compliance”.
There was a whole series of controlled “colour” revolutions. Clearly, the people in those nations, where these events took place, were sick of tyranny and poverty, of their lack of prospects; but these feelings were taken advantage of cynically. Standards were imposed on these nations that did not in any way correspond to their way of life, traditions, or these peoples’ cultures. As a result, instead of democracy and freedom, there was chaos, outbreaks in violence and a series of upheavals. The Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter.
Vladimir Putin depicts the “colour revolutions”, i. e. the political protests that led to a change of government in Georgia, Kirgizstan and Ukraine, as having been “controlled”. In doing so, he is espousing the conspiracy theories which take for granted, without evidence, the notion that the hundreds of thousands who turned out for weeks of protest were not driven by their own hopes/outrage but acting on the orders of the USA. It remains unclear how the USA could have mobilised such huge numbers of people in another country, and why, if they truly had this option, they wouldn’t systematically do so wherever they really want a change of government. Another point that remains unclear is why the “the way of life, traditions or cultures” of countries like Ukraine would not be suited to democracy and freedom. The lack of success, which has brought chaos instead of the hoped-for improvements, is a criticism with which the populations in question have come largely to agree. But the fact that Putin correctly describes the results does not mean that his assessment of the causes is shared by those concerned or by experts in the field. Still more telling is that Putin – also with reference to the Arab Spring – does not envisage the possibility of achieving “democracy and freedom”. Before the protests, there is “tyranny, poverty, [and] lack of prospects”; afterwards, “chaos and outbreaks of violence”. He completely ignores the many successful democratisations in the 1970s and 1990s from Southern Europe to Latin America to Central Eastern Europe.
A similar situation unfolded in Ukraine. In 2004, to push the necessary candidate through at the presidential elections, they thought up some sort of third round that was not stipulated by the law. It was absurd and a mockery of the constitution. And now, they have thrown in an organised and well-equipped army of militants.
Here, Vladimir Putin offers his interpretation of the 2004 colour revolution in Ukraine. For one thing, the procedure was, contrary to Putin’s assertion, indeed compatible with the constitution: the supreme court ordered the rerun of the voting, having established that large-scale election fraud had taken place in the second round of the presidential election. For another, all of the political forces involved signed a roundtable agreement supporting the outcome. As it happens, Viktor Yanukovych, who lost the second run-off vote, became Prime Minister of Ukraine just two years later and was subsequently victorious in the 2010 presidential election. So, if it is true that a “scenario was realised” (in Putin’s view presumably by the USA) to push through the desired candidate, one has to ask why this successful tactic was not used again. In his last sentence, Putin has jumped back to the present and is talking about the Euromaidan protests, and perhaps also the conflict over the annexation of Crimea and the violent confrontations in Eastern Ukraine, which were escalating when this speech was given.
We understand what is happening; we understand that these actions were aimed against Ukraine and Russia and against Eurasian integration.
Putin accuses the West of being guided by the “law of the gun” and of being against Russia, the Ukraine and the project of Eurasian integration. He does so as a way of justifying Russian actions in its neighbouring country and, even more significantly, framing Russia and Ukraine as one unit: both countries equally affected by the expansive and illegitimate foreign policy of the West. Here, Putin is indirectly referring to the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine, which he believes was intended to prevent Ukraine from joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The EEU, a regional organisation aiming at EU-style economic integration, but which also has an identity-building function, was one of the key foreign policy projects of Putin’s third term in office. The plans for the EEU took it as granted that Ukraine, which the Russian elite see as “Eurasian heartland”, would be a member.
And all this while Russia strived to engage in dialogue with our colleagues in the West. We are constantly proposing cooperation on all key issues; we want to strengthen our level of trust and for our relations to be equal, open and fair. But we saw no reciprocal steps.
On the contrary, they have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO’s expansion to the East, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders. They kept telling us the same thing: “Well, this does not concern you.” That’s easy to say.
In this section, Putin repeats the charge that the US leadership promised Mikhail Gorbachev, in the context of German reunification, that there would be no eastward expansion of NATO. Leaving aside the fact that practically no one could have imagined in 1990 that the Soviet Union and the entire Eastern Bloc was going to collapse as quickly as it did, this pledge was not ever put in writing. This argument is intended as fodder for the discourse asserting that the USA and NATO acted systematically to weaken Russia and that there was a masterplan for the expansion of NATO. In truth, Russia put up little resistance to idea of enlarging NATO to the east in the 1990s. It is also true, though, that the US leadership, feeling itself to be the winner of the Cold War, paid little regard to Russia. On the other hand, the Russian leadership also disregards the fact that the countries in Central Eastern Europe and the Baltic themselves were interested in joining NATO and pushed for these closer ties.
Today, we are being threatened with sanctions, but we already experience many limitations, ones that are quite significant for us, our economy and our nation. For example, still during the times of the Cold War, the US and subsequently other nations restricted a large list of technologies and equipment from being sold to the USSR, creating the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls list. Today, they have formally been eliminated, but only formally; and in reality, many limitations are still in effect.
The Russian leadership has been doing its best to conceal the costs of the annexation of Crimea since 2014. For this reason, official statements relating to the sanctions all contain a quite original interpretation of their (i) political context and (ii) economic context: (i) Putin frequently emphasizes in his speeches that the sanctions have nothing to do with the crisis around Ukraine. No, the Western sanctions are part of a long-term policy of offensive “containment”, to which Russia was, historically, subjected whenever it sought to pursue its “legitimate interests”. This is why Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov recently suggested calling them “restrictions”, instead of “sanctions”. The Russian leadership tried to down-play the link between the economic problems and the sanctions (ii), despite the fact that the sanctions would have provided a good excuse for homemade problems. Instead, a hymn was sung in praise of the sanctions’ many beneficial effects: they had forced Russia to “turn on its brain” and develop its own economy.
In short, we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.
The view that an orchestrated effort to contain Russia has been going on for centuries is simply untenable. Historically, there was no homogeneous block in Western Europe, but instead a number of great powers, Russia among them, entering into and backing out of interest-based alliances. Moreover, Imperial Russia was no wallflower in the 19th century’s concert of nations. The tsar had a place at the negotiating table, particularly from the Congress of Vienna onwards. Putin draws a line here connecting present-day and historical Russia here, claiming that an illegitimate policy has been directed towards Russia for centuries, and with this claim is using the annexation of Crimea to boost his own historical significance, among other things.
Today, it is imperative to end this hysteria, to refute the rhetoric of the cold war and to accept the obvious fact: Russia is an independent, active participant in international affairs; like other countries, it has its own national interests that need to be taken into account and respected.
Today, I would like to address the people of the United States of America, the people who, since the foundation of their nation and adoption of the Declaration of Independence, have been proud to hold freedom above all else. Isn’t the desire of Crimea’s residents to freely choose their fate such a value? Please understand us.
I believe that the Europeans, first and foremost, the Germans, will also understand me. Let me remind you that in the course of political consultations on the unification of East and West Germany, at the expert, though very high level, some nations that were then and are now Germany’s allies did not support the idea of unification. Our nation, however, unequivocally supported the sincere, unstoppable desire of the Germans for national unity.
Naturally, appealing to the Germans to note similarities between German reunification and the process of Russian–Crimean unification is a good move on Putin’s part. Reunification can be a tricky issue: take Ireland and Northern Ireland, for instance, Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, or North and South Korea. Not everyone looked kindly on German reunification either, as Putin rightly recalls. Italian premier Andreotti loved Germany so much that he preferred to have two of them. And we shouldn’t forget Margaret Thatcher or François Mitterrand. Given that, why could Putin’s appeal still backfire? Because the GDR was not annexed! The population of the GRD rose up against a dictatorial regime and raised the “national question” with the slogan “We are one people”. However, this declaration of intent by the Germans in the GDR marked only the beginning of the reunification process. The GDR’s first free elections came in March of 1990, and then came the international consultations, the “2+4 process”, at which the Allied powers gave their consent to the reunification. Only then did the Federal Republic of Germany become sovereign. And it was not until 3 October 1990, nearly a year after the opening of the Berlin Wall, that reunification was complete. This happened with the whole world looking on, with a high degree of transparency. Thus, the results of comparing the two reunification processes consist chiefly in the contrasts between them.
I am confident that you have not forgotten this, and I expect that the citizens of Germany will also support the aspiration of the Russians, of historical Russia, to restore unity.
Here, Putin uses the term russkii mir (“Russian world”), which means the ethnic Russians – elsewhere he tends to speak in terms of a cultural space encompassing the eastern Slavic and neighbouring nations that differs greatly from Western civilisation. This sentence implies that this “Russian world” has a legitimate right to live together in one country. According to Putin, this was the case in both the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire, and the collapse of Soviet Union is seen as a catastrophe for this reason – because all Russians no longer lived together in one country.
In addition, the pre-1989 situation in Germany differed in one essential respect: there were two German states back then. Thus, it wasn’t a matter of Germans living in another country as a minority, but about the unification of two states, both populated almost only by Germans.
I also want to address the people of Ukraine. I sincerely want you to understand us: we do not want to harm you in any way, or to hurt your national feelings. We have always respected the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state, incidentally, unlike those who sacrificed Ukraine’s unity for their political ambitions. […] I want you to hear me, my dear friends. Do not believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that. As for Crimea, it was and remains a Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean-Tatar land.
I repeat, just as it has been for centuries, it will be a home to all the peoples living there. What it will never be and do is follow in Bandera’s footsteps!
Originally, Banderovtsy were the members of the party of Ukrainian nationalists led from 1940 to 1959 by Stepan Bandera (1909–1959), a well-known Ukrainian nationalist and partisan. He was an early member of the “Organisation of Ukrainian Nationals”, which collaborated with the Wehrmacht for part of World War II. He is a controversial figure: In eastern Ukraine and Russia many see him as a Nazi collaborator and war criminal. In western Ukraine he is often revered as a national hero because he proclaimed an independent Ukraine, resulting in his arrest and transport to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The term Banderovtsy or Bandera fascists is often used in Russia’s state-affiliated media to vilify any Ukrainians critical of the Kremlin.
Crimea is our common historical legacy and a very important factor in regional stability. And this strategic territory should be part of a strong and stable sovereignty, which today can only be Russian. Otherwise, dear friends (I am addressing both Ukraine and Russia), you and we – the Russians and the Ukrainians – could lose Crimea completely, and that could happen in the near historical perspective. Please think about it.
Here Putin implies that Ukraine is not a sovereign nation and has no claim to Crimea either historically or from a power-politics perspective. Questioning Ukraine’s statehood is a popular narrative among Russian politicians and experts. This, despite the fact that Ukraine’s statehood and concept of itself have evolved over the course of centuries. This passage also emphasises the importance of a strong Russia for stability in Europe. Only Russia, as a sovereign state, can safeguard the strategically significant Crimea, Putin contends. This stands in contradiction to Russia’s policy of controlled destabilisation in eastern Ukraine and of the systematic creation or preservation of spheres of weak statehood in the post-Soviet space.
Let me note too that we have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO. What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO’s navy would be right there in this city of Russia’s military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia. These are things that could have become reality were it not for the choice the Crimean people made, and I want to say thank you to them for this.
Residents of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, the whole of Russia admired your courage, dignity and bravery. It was you who decided Crimea’s future. We were closer than ever over these days, supporting each other. These were sincere feelings of solidarity. It is at historic turning points such as these that a nation demonstrates its maturity and strength of spirit. The Russian people showed this maturity and strength through their united support for their compatriots.
Putin speaks of the “maturity” and “strength of spirit” of the nation. These are words one would normally apply to individuals – a human being is mature, or immature, mentally resilient, or not – but not to groups of people. To ascribe such terms to the nation is to hypostatize it, to attribute a quasi-personal character to it. Doing so clearly underlines its importance.
The way Putin speaks of “compatriots” is also interesting. The Russian word (sootechestvenniki) is used to mean “ethnic Russians living abroad”, i. e. persons belonging to the Russian nation who are citizens of the states they live in. The word itself mirrors the English “compatriot” in structure: fellow countrymen (or more literally, “fellow fatherlanders”). Russian interest in the ethnic Russians living in other countries should be understood in the context of the understanding of “the nation” as a kind of being, one with human characteristics that has something similar to a character of its own and is therefore deserving of particular respect. The problem, though, is that nations are not beings of this kind. They do not have pre-defined characteristics; instead, they must renegotiate the coexistence of their members under the given social and political circumstances anew in each case.
Russia’s foreign policy position on this matter drew its firmness from the will of millions of our people, our national unity and the support of our country’s main political and public forces. I want to thank everyone for this patriotic spirit, everyone without exception. Now, we need to continue and maintain this kind of consolidation so as to resolve the tasks our country faces on its road ahead.
In November of 2013, Putin’s approval ratings were at 61 percent; according to the opinion-research institute Levada Center, they shot up to 89 percent when Crimea was annexed. In light of this, many Russian experts and journalists spoke in terms of a Crimea or Putin consensus. The logic went like this: the polls showed an average of 90 percent of the population in favour of the absorption of Crimea, therefore, a corresponding majority must approve of the country’s political course as a whole.
The propaganda formula of the “besieged fortress” served as a sort of cement for this consolidation: Russia, according to the state-affiliated media, was surrounded by Russophobes who sought to force the country to its knees with sanctions. There were hostile people operating within the besieged fortress as well, the so-called foreign agents.
Many experts believe that these bogeymen were constructed in order to distract people from domestic political problems and, with these “dangers”, to create what is called the constitutive other – which gives rise to a unifying power and, by doing so, brings the people together behind the president. The polls show anti-western attitudes on a downward trend since the summer of 2018, though. Partly for this reason, many observers are talking about a crumbling of the Crimea consensus.
I understand the people of Crimea, who put the question in the clearest possible terms in the referendum: should Crimea be with Ukraine or with Russia? […] The people of Crimea thus decided to put the question in firm and uncompromising form, with no grey areas. The referendum was fair and transparent, and the people of Crimea clearly and convincingly expressed their will and stated that they want to be with Russia.
The most recent public opinion surveys conducted here in Russia show that 95 percent of people think that Russia should protect the interests of Russians and members of other ethnic groups living in Crimea – 95 percent of our citizens. More than 83 percent think that Russia should do this even if it will complicate our relations with some other countries. A total of 86 percent of our people see Crimea as still being Russian territory and part of our country’s lands. And one particularly important figure, which corresponds exactly with the result in Crimea’s referendum: almost 92 percent of our people support Crimea’s reunification with Russia.
Thus we see that the overwhelming majority of people in Crimea and the absolute majority of the Russian Federation’s people support the reunification of the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol with Russia.
Now this is a matter for Russia’s own political decision, and any decision here can be based only on the people’s will, because the people is the ultimate source of all authority.
Members of the Federation Council, deputies of the State Duma, citizens of Russia, residents of Crimea and Sevastopol, today, in accordance with the people’s will, I submit to the Federal Assembly a request to consider a Constitutional Law on the creation of two new constituent entities within the Russian Federation: the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, and to ratify the treaty on admitting to the Russian Federation Crimea and Sevastopol, which is already ready for signing. I stand assured of your support.
Thomas Bremer is a theologian who teaches ecumenical studies, Eastern Christian studies and peace studies at University of Münster. His research focuses on Orthodoxy in Russia, Ukraine and in the Balkans, and on inter-Church relations.
Jan Matti Dollbaum studied political science and Slavic studies in Heidelberg, St. Petersburg, Mainz and London. He has been a doctoral candidate at the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen since 2016. His dissertation is on political and social conditions of protest development after large waves of mobilisation – with a focus on local protest in Russia.
Regina Elsner is a theologian and, since September 2017, a researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS). At ZOiS, Regina Elsner is investigating the dynamics of Russian Orthodox social ethics since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Ann-Sophie Gast is a researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) and co-editor of Zentralasien-Analysen. As a doctoral candidate at the Berlin Graduate School for Transnational Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, she is writing her dissertation on Eurasian integration and Russian foreign policy interests in Central Asia.
Steffen Halling is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. He is writing his dissertation on oligarchs in Ukraine. As a fellow, he is also member of the Eastern Europe research division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
Anton Himmelspach is a social and political scientist. As the political science editor at dekoder, he curates the work of external academic experts and prepares texts of a factual nature and texts explaining specific terms or concepts.
Ulrich Hofmeister has been a university assistant at the University of Vienna’s Department of East European History since 2013. He completed his doctoral degree in Vienna in 2014 with a dissertation on Russian concepts of an imperial mission to bring civilisation to Central Asia. His research interests include the history of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union and the history of Central Asia since the 19th century, as well as colonialism and colonial theories.
Janis Kluge has been a senior research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) since 2017, where he studies the economic development of Russia and the countries bordering it, Russian domestic policy and economic sanctions. He completed his doctoral degree in economics at Witten/Herdecke University with a dissertation on political risks for foreign investors, the informal economy in Russia and Russian companies’ use of Western legal systems.
Christian Marxsen is a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg. His research there focuses on the international-law dimensions of international armed conflicts. He is co-editor of the Cambridge University Press series Max Planck Trialogues on the Law of Peace and War.
Tilman Mayer was chair of the Forum Deutschlandforschung from 2007 to 2017. Until 1989, his research focused on at that time unresolved German Question and, after 1990, on questions relating to the growing together of East and West Germany. His dissertation was on the theory of nations.
Stefan Meister is the head of the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia of the German Council on Foreign Relations (dgap). His research focuses on Russian domestic and foreign policy, German-Russian relations, Russian disinformation and conflicts in the post-Soviet space. He recently published, as co-editor, the book The Russia File at the Brookings Institution Press.
Heiko Pleines is a professor of comparative political science and the head of the Department of Politics and Economics of the Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. His research focuses on how authoritarian regimes function, and particularly on the role played by non-state actors in that context – from the political opposition to the mass media to economic elites.
Gwendolyn Sasse is the director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin and a professor of comparative politics at the University of Oxford.