It's been half a decade since events radically changed Ukraine. Beyond demonstrations in Kiev, where President Viktor Yanukovich fell from power as a result of the Euromaidan movement, the pro-Europe protests led to Russia's annexation of Crimea and the ongoing separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. Five years on, the status of Crimea continues to be a source of great contention, as Kiev rejects the Crimean Peninsula's accession to Russia, which exercises de facto — and, as far as Moscow is concerned, de jure — control over it. Even outside Ukraine, the events that occurred in Crimea in 2014 continue to cloud political and military relations between Russia and the West, and several of the sanctions against Russia center directly on the Crimea question.
The sheer audacity of Russia's actions on the peninsula, in which Moscow deployed unmarked military personnel to execute a clandestine takeover of government facilities, contributed to the perception of illegality that eventually resulted in Crimea's annexation. Today, however, the world is still struggling to cope with the new reality that stems from those actions. In international relations, as in any other field, perception sometimes matters more than reality. At the same time, situations in which perception overrides reality tend to produce conflicts between approaches based on pragmatism and those based on symbolism. And in terms of Crimea, this symbolic battle could have some real-world consequences, whether by making the divisions between the West and Russia deeper or even igniting military confrontation.
Russia Gains Crimea, but Loses Ukraine
On Feb. 27, 2014, "little green men" — Russian special operations forces and paratroopers in unmarked uniforms — grabbed control of Crimea's Supreme Council and Council of Ministers and erected barriers at Crimea's land connections with the rest of Ukraine. These actions, which came hot on the heels of a week of local protests against Yanukovich's removal five days earlier, ultimately led to changes in Crimea's government and the organization of a referendum on whether the peninsula should join Russia. Within a month — March 21, 2014 — Crimean officials signed a treaty with Russia that officially confirmed the region's accession into the Russian Federation.
From a Russian perspective, the acquisition of Crimea came at great sacrifice. By seizing control of Crimea and supporting separatist groups in Donbas in eastern Ukraine, Moscow alienated itself from Kiev. Before the Euromaidan protest movement, Ukraine had steered clear of definitively aligning itself with either the West or the Kremlin, instead flitting back and forth between pro-Western and pro-Russian governments. And by annexing Crimea and supporting the de facto secession of Donetsk and Luhansk — the areas of Ukraine with the highest concentration of pro-Russia voters — Moscow has effectively scuttled any hopes that pro-Russia parties might have of ever regaining power in Ukraine. In doing so, Moscow has also surrendered Ukraine to Western interests, pushing Kiev firmly into the orbit of the European Union and NATO.
Perceptions Versus Reality
One of the main divergences between reality and perception that has come to dominate relations between Russia and Ukraine, as well as between the Kremlin and the West in general, is the stance toward the acceptance of Russian rule over Crimea. The reality is that, regardless of Kiev's claims or international law, Russia exercises de facto control over the peninsula. Moscow's opponents can quibble over the illegality of the Russian military's covert actions and the questionable validity of the referendum, but Russian military strength has, at the end of the day, guaranteed direct Russian territorial control over Crimea. As it is, a majority of Crimeans already harbored decidedly pro-Russian views before the annexation, meaning Russia enjoyed a great deal of political support in the region regardless of the suspect nature of the vote. Political demands that Russia return control of Crimea to Ukraine, as well as Kiev's vague threats of future military action, don't go much beyond symbolism, as they have little chance of altering physical realities, even if they do provide an opportunity for Western states to rally and shore up Ukraine's position.
This focus on symbolic action, however, could result in an escalation between the West and Russia beyond the comparatively small matter of Crimea. The sanctions that the United States and European Union have imposed on Russia, for example, have had a much larger effect on Russia-Western relations than a mere dispute about who physical owns Crimea. The current strain in the relationship between the West and Russia is marked by more than just the contestation of Moscow's control over Crimea, as it has also become a lightning rod in the larger standoff between the West and Russia over the latter's alleged activities, including threats of "hybrid warfare" in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, election meddling, military posturing and more. The fact that the sanctions have failed to dislodge Moscow from the peninsula (and likely won't either) raises the question as to whether the West's tough line is still pragmatically linked to the issue of Crimea — or even Ukraine as a whole — or whether it has become part of a self-perpetuating dynamic in the larger standoff.
Exacerbating the Standoff
There's a similar dynamic in the military developments, both in Crimea and in Russia's clandestine military operations in support of separatist groups in Donbas. Such Russian military activity has not only prompted the West to offer material and advisory support to Ukraine but has also stoked disproportionate fears about hybrid warfare. Separate from Moscow's direct involvement in Ukraine following euromaidan, Russia's activities have convinced the West to place a renewed emphasis on bolstering its military capabilities against the Kremlin. This stance has introduced a degree of uncertainty for both NATO and its allies, as well as Russia. In turn, this uncertainty makes it difficult for either side to extract itself from the repeated cycle of bolstering military capabilities, thereby perpetuating the impasse.
One particular area where both military and economic concerns continue to play out between Ukraine and Russia is the Sea of Azov. Crimea's annexation has effectively voided the previous agreement between Ukraine and Russia over freedom of navigation in these waters, as the deal rested on the premise that the Kerch Strait — the only access to the sea — was split between them. Now that Russia controls Crimea, however, it also controls all access in and out of the Sea of Azov. This, naturally, complicates Ukraine's operation of the Azov port of Mariupol, causing that issue to grow in prominence. The truth is, however, that deploying Ukrainian naval vessels to the Sea of Azov or more NATO ships to the Black Sea will have no notable impact on the naval balance in this area. Russia's strength is dominant here — even as the symbolic resistance against Moscow's de facto control is inflaming the sides' troubled relations.
At the core of the divergence between pragmatism and symbolism lies the difficult issue of accepting new realities. Heeding "facts on the ground" is a tall order in international relations and can even cost policymakers their jobs. Russia, for one, need not look very far back in the past for an example: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged the perilous state of the Soviet Union and initiated reform, only to generate much controversy and even incite an attempted coup. In the five years since Russia's annexation of Crimea, however, the trajectory of ties between Moscow and the West has demonstrated that any attempt to maintain a position without regard for new realities can also come with a cost. After all, continued sanctions, crises and military posturing have eaten up a great deal of resources on both sides, fueling a standoff that may have become self-perpetuating.