Five years after the annexation of De Krim: 'Conflict is armed ceasefire'

The Republic of Crimea left Ukraine exactly five years ago to join Russia. It was the start of a battle that turned out to be an armed stalemate and increasingly looks like a trench war. Peace still seems far away.

The Republic of Crimea left Ukraine exactly five years ago to join Russia. It was the start of a battle that turned out to be an armed stalemate and increasingly looks like a trench war. Peace still seems far away.

Suddenly they appeared at strategic points in the Crimea, in February 2014: masked soldiers in uniforms without insignia. It was not long before it became clear that they were Russian.

They occupied the regional parliament building, installed a pro-Russian government and held a referendum on the future of the region, which had a Stalinistic-looking result: 96.7 percent of voters opted for annexation by Russia. The newly baked Republic of Crimea joined the Russian Federation.

That didn't end the stocking. Ukraine refuses to recognize the Russian annexation and is thereby supported by the West. In two other regions, Donetsk and Lugansk, collectively known as "Donbass," pro-Russian separatists have also proclaimed their own republics. The war continues at a low pace there.

According to the United Nations, the Ukraine conflict has so far claimed some 13,000 fatalities, including more than 3,000 civilians.

In February 2014, masked soldiers without insignia occupied strategic points in the Crimea. They soon turned out to be Russian. (photo: AFP)

"Ukraine conflict has two realities"

Nicolaas Kraft van Ermel, historian specializing in Russia, Ukraine and Poland at the University of Groningen, speaks of two realities in the Ukraine conflict: a factual and a legal one.

"Crimea is effectively governed as part of Russia. The practice is that it costs Russia a lot of money and Ukraine has nothing to say about the area," he says. "The other reality is a legal one. There it is that the Crimea is actually still part of Ukraine, because nobody recognizes that it is part of Russia, with the exception of Russia itself."

Moscow does not expect broad international recognition of the annexation of Crimea for the time being. NATO continues to support Ukraine, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at the beginning of March during a meeting at the headquarters of the treaty organization. "Crimea is part of Ukraine. Five years later, NATO allies do not recognize, and will not do so, the illegal annexation by Russia. We will continue to assist Ukraine with political and practical support."

Russian annexation is an expensive joke

Economically, there is not much to do in Crimea, says Kraft van Ermel. "With the exception of the coast, it is a semi-desert, so agricultural productivity and things like that are not high. There is not much employment outside the Russian naval base."

The Crimea has always been a popular tourist destination (comparable to what Southern France is to the Dutch for Russians and Ukrainians), but the annexation has considerably affected the tourism sector on the peninsula. Ukrainian vacationers can no longer get there.

"This is called a 'frozen conflict', and I think it will continue for a while." Nicolaas Kraft van Ermel, Russia and Ukraine expert

The infrastructure on the peninsula has been overhauled since the Russian takeover. That was certainly not cheap, especially in view of the western sanctions against Russia. A bridge was built to establish a connection with the Russian mainland. Several Western companies were discredited because of their involvement in that project.

Because the Crimea used to be supplied with virtually all electricity from the rest of the Ukraine, Russia built two new power plants there. Here too, sanctions seem to have been circumvented. According to the German company Siemens, two gas turbines from the manufacturer were transported to Crimea under false pretenses. Russia says it has built the turbines itself.

Hot water port of 'Holy Russia'

If driving Crimea is such a big and costly effort, why did Russia want the area? There is a simple explanation for that, says Kraft van Ermel: the great strategic value. "It is the area where Russia has its only hot water marine port."

The pursuit of a port that is not closed off for much of the year by sea ice has for centuries been a cornerstone of Russian territorial ambitions. In the nineteenth century that led to a major conflict: the Crimean War (1853-1856), which claimed roughly a million lives.

In addition to the strategic value, there is the symbolic one. Although it places much less weight on the scale, it is excellent to sell at home. "The Kremlin puts it this way: Crimea is part of the Holy Russia. It is one of the areas where Russia finds its birthplace, the area where, for example, Orthodox Christianity entered."

Crimea is de facto Russian, but that does not apply to two other conflict zones in Eastern Ukraine: Donetsk and Lugansk. In parts of those regions, pro-Russian separatists have seized power and proclaimed two "independent people's republics." They fight, with concealed back support from Russia, against Ukraine on a front line that runs right through the two areas and with little movement.

On that front, which increasingly resembles a trench warfare as the warring parties continue to dig themselves in, there is talk of "a kind of armed ceasefire," says Kraft van Ermel. "There are occasional shots."

Situation is stuck politically and militarily

Russia already has Crimea in its hands and has little motivation to drive the conflict in Donetsk and Lugansk, says Kraft van Ermel. Strangely enough, the Ukrainian political elite also have an interest in maintaining the current status quo. The approaching Ukrainian presidential election is unlikely to change much.

"The Ukrainian political landscape is actually very strange," says the Russian and Ukrainian connoisseur. There are no political parties based on ideology, as we know it in the Netherlands. Politicians are connected to an elite of oligarchs who actually have the power, and are mainly committed to the - mainly economic interests - of their lords. "Of course they sell that as standing up for the interests of Ukraine."

Before the start of the Ukraine conflict, these politicians were roughly divided into two camps: pro-European and pro-Russian.

The annexation of Crimea and the separation of Donetsk and Lugansk, where large parts of the population identify themselves as ethnic-Russian, caused the pro-Russian politicians to lose a large part of their electoral supporters in one fell swoop. Their voice is therefore much less loud in national politics than before.

The poor performance of the Ukrainian army has led to the emergence of civilian militias, such as the extreme right-wing Azovbataljon, which are included in the Ukrainian armed forces. (photo: AFP)

Enemy from outside comes in handy

That should be a big boost for pro-European or other anti-Russian politicians, but they are also in a difficult position. There is a lot of discontent among the Ukrainian population about the corrupt government that is completely corrupted. A conflict with an enemy from outside can then serve as a welcome distraction.

That seems to work, says Kraft van Ermel. "Patriotic feelings in Ukraine have increased enormously." Politicians promise that the Crimea and the other two regions are an integral part of the homeland and will never be given up.

An additional complication is that a large part of the struggle at the front in Donetsk and Lugansk is outsourced to nationalist, often extreme right-wing militias. They were formally part of the Ukrainian armed forces, after the regular Ukrainian army did not seem to be able to do much.

Their presence is militarily useful for the Ukrainian government, but also limits political and diplomatic freedom of movement. Everything that can be seen as a commitment to the enemy would make a large number of heavily armed men very angry.

This is called a "frozen conflict," a frozen conflict, "says Kraft van Ermel," and I think it will continue for a while. "

ref: nunl

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