Siobhan Heekin-Canedy on Holding Putin Accountable Five Years Since the Annexation of Crimea

Five years ago, the unthinkable happened when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. In an era of self-determination, multilateralism, and liberal democracy, it seemed almost surreal. Sadly, it was all too real, as is the danger that the rest of the world will let Russia get away with its aggression.

The timing of the invasion made it particularly jarring; preparations began while the Olympic Games, a symbol of international peace and cooperation, were taking place in Russia. Tensions had been growing between Russia and Ukraine for months, but in the Sochi Olympic Village, these often seemed far away. Russian and Ukrainian athletes lived side-by-side under the same roof, and Russian fans chanted “Ukraina!” as Ukrainian athletes performed.

Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin proved less willing to set politics aside, and before the Closing Ceremony had begun, he took steps toward annexing Crimea.

From the perspective of Putin and his cronies, the timing was perfect. The Sochi Olympics was an opportunity for Russia to prove its credentials as a great power and legitimate member of the post-Cold War system. Despite the well-documented poor accommodations for journalists, Russia’s efforts to use this opportunity were largely successful. Athletes enjoyed palatial bedrooms, a cafeteria fit for a tsar, and a larger-than-life atmosphere that matched Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. Around the world, spectators watched in awe as the Opening Ceremony took them on a whirlwind tour through Russian history. Every detail was designed to inspire admiration and respect for Russia.

As an athlete who competed in the Games, I am truly grateful for the experience. As a Ukrainian athlete, though, I cannot help thinking: what better way to keep up appearances and distract the world from the events taking place farther up the Black Sea coast?

In hindsight, the invasion of Crimea was merely the opening salvo in a protracted, Russian-instigated war to destabilize Ukraine. The divisions within Ukrainian society are undeniable; tensions over the country’s relationship to the West and to Russia are a staple of Ukrainian politics. Russia exploited these divisions, though, manufacturing a war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine within months after annexing Crimea.

Despite Putin’s protestations of innocence, Russia has been supplying the separatist movement with military and economic leadership and aid. The result has been deadly. As of April 2018, there were 10,000 total casualties, including 2,800 civilians. Nor has the toll been limited to Ukrainians; roughly 6,312 Russian soldiers were killed in 2014 and 2015 alone.

Although the Russia-Ukraine conflict has evolved since February 2014, Russia’s desire to improve its image has remained constant. Russia has followed its Olympic display of grandeur with various efforts to sway international public opinion. By intervening in Syria, Putin has sought to rebrand his country as a mediator and essential player in the world order. While flouting international law through its activity in Ukraine, Russia has insisted that the law is on its side. Putin has also promoted a narrative of Russian moral and spiritual superiority, positioning Russia as the savior of Western Civilization. Often, the images that Russia seeks to project are contradictory; it is somehow supposed to be both a law-abiding member of the liberal world order and the standard-bearer of opposition to it.

The hypocrisy of this approach is frustrating, and worse, it is working. Many have dubbed the Ukraine conflict “Europe’s forgotten war.” The crisis dropped off the front page of Western newspapers long ago. Although the United States and the European Union have consistently sanctioned Russia, this has not changed Russia’s behavior, and politicians are in no hurry to find a better solution. This is partly due to geopolitical constraints. For instance, the European Union relies on Russia for energy and so is reluctant to further alienate Putin. Still, the lack of long-term, decisive condemnation by the international community also suggests that Putin has played his hand well.

This is evident in the United States. President Trump has shown an admiration of Putin, and some on the religious right have bought into the myth of Russia as the last hope of Christendom. Additionally, Putin’s denial of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections has contributed to political division over the Mueller investigation and hindered the U.S. ability to form a unified policy on Russia.

The good news is that Russia’s strength can also be its vulnerability. If Putin cares about Russia’s reputation, then consistent condemnation by the international community can have some influence. This does not mean stoking Russophobia or peddling conspiracy theories. Rather, targeting Russia’s vulnerability means denying it the status and prestige of a great nation.

Doing so has some risks. If Russians feel they have been treated unfairly, they are more likely to support Putin’s nationalist policies. To be effective, this strategy must include incentives, offering the Russian people a dignified way of reclaiming their position in the world.

Appeasement, however, is out of the question. When we allow the story of Crimea, the story of the Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity, the story of fallen soldiers in the Donbas, to fade away, then we ignore the truth before us. This is what Putin is counting on: that international outrage will wither away over time, leaving Ukraine to dissolve into chaos while Russia remains a respected world leader.

In the United States, the media needs to give the Ukraine conflict the emphasis it deserves. Politicians must firmly denounce Russian aggression and craft their policies accordingly. Sanctions should continue, not because they are effective in themselves, but because they show that the United States sees through Putin’s lies. Ordinary citizens need to stay informed and speak up. Most importantly, these must be consistent, long-term commitments, or else Putin will simply sit tight until the storm has passed.

The United States cannot counter Russia alone, but if we deny Putin the recognition he craves, other states may follow suit. It may be too late to save Crimea and the Donbas; however, the threat of losing his chance to revive Russian glory and honor may be enough to dissuade Putin from advancing to Kiev—or beyond.

This piece was republished from The Fletcher Forum

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