This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
Three years since annexation, Crimea remains in limbo and there are few diplomatic initiatives for its return to Ukraine. Can a working group of committed parties put Crimea back on Europe's agenda?
Three years have passed since the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. The world has changed dramatically since then and it is impossible to say that Russia alone is responsible for these tectonic changes. But one thing is for sure − Crimea is a historic and symbolic cornerstone of those current transformations. And despite this, the EU nor the West at large have created any permanent institution or round table for solving the Crimean issue. Crimea is not covered by the problematic Minsk agreements nor any other diplomatic initiative. The Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians living on the peninsula remain in limbo.
Crimea off the agenda?
The EU is deeply involved in attempts to settle the conflict in the Donbass, where there have been a wealth of diplomatic initiatives: the Joint Geneva Statement on Ukraine; Minsk I; Minsk II; the Normandy Format; and the Trilateral Contact Group. But none of these diplomatic agreements or platforms contain any mention of Crimea. Indeed, it’s not as if Crimea gradually fell off the radar of the EU and its member states, it never had a place on these agendas from the very beginning of negotiations on the broader Ukraine crisis.
But one shouldn’t only blame the West, because both the EU and the US have prioritised the goal of halting hostilities on the European continent. Kyiv also deserves some of the blame for its political myopia and weakness in the first year following the Maidan uprising in 2014. Kyiv essentially allowed Russia to shift the focus away from Crimea in diplomatic formats.
Minsk blocks Crimea progress
Today, the Kremlin finds that the conditions laid out in the Minsk agreements serve it rather well. Because they are unattainable by either side and help Russia to maintain the deadlocked status quo. Even if the terms of Minsk were to be implemented, the fact of there being two separatist regions in Ukraine would prevent it from joining NATO and the European Union anyway. The Minsk Agreements have, ironically, created two big problems − they have embedded the frozen conflict in the Donbas and postponed the resolution of the Crimea issue.
As long as the US maintains its Crimea-related sanctions, there is at least a glimmer of hope that the Crimean question will not be forgotten. The new US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, recently condemned Russia in the UN Security Council, and pointed out that “Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine”. On 15 February, Donald Trump tweeted that “Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?”, signalling a u-turn on his previous position. Maria Zakharova of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied to Trump’s comment, stating that “We don't give back our own territory. Crimea is territory belonging to the Russian Federation.” Interestingly, on 3 March, the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson met with leaders of the Crimean Tatars and reassured them that Britain would “never” recognise Crimea as Russian territory.
The need for a working group
From the get-go, leaders of the Crimean Tatar community, in particular of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars, protested and openly called on Kyiv and the West to include Crimea in the Minsk agenda. However, their calls went unheeded. In 2015, the leader of the Mejlis, Mustapha Dzhemilev, stressed that in Minsk was “at no point about Crimea”. With few other options for engaging in existing formats, Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian politicians offered a proposition that all the guarantors of Ukrainian sovereignty – those who ratified the 1994 Budapest Memorandum − should establish a ‘Working Group on Crimea’. For the leaders of the Crimean Tartars, the creation of a working group has become a key project that they have been trying to introduce over the past few years to bring attention to the situation in Crimea, and move discussions forward.
The creation of such an international platform would represent an important step in institutionalising the Crimea issue. Neither the OSCE nor the UN has established any institution or platform for tackling the Crimean issue. Yet there should at least be the possibility of having the OSCE enter Crimea or to make sure that the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission on Ukraine has a department dedicated to Crimea. A working group could help to advocate for these things.
The creation of working groups and other initiatives is not unprecedented in this situation. After the 2008 war in Georgia, which resulted in Abkhazia and South Ossetia breaking away from Georgia, the European Union initiated a Monitoring Mission there. But, regrettably, this has not been the case in Crimea. Western politicians and diplomats explain that Russia blocks any possible initiative of this sort. Indeed, Russia has more-or-less shut down any possibility of such a mission taking place. Now, Russia repeats the mantra that ‘reunification’ was legal and was justified by the alleged threat that radical Ukrainian nationalists posed to the ‘ethnically Russian’ Crimean people.
In the UN Security Council Russia’s primary strategy has also been to block western initiatives regarding Crimea. And in almost all other multilateral forums as well. However, strong Russian resistance isn’t a good enough reason to just give up on the idea of returning Crimea to Ukraine. At a minimum, we must establish an influential international working group on Crimea, to fill the important gap in Western diplomacy for the eastern neighbourhood.
Hopes and dreams for the future
Crimea is a real place filled with real people, many of whom still believe that the annexation will end one day. In the three years since annexation, Russia has expanded policies that persecute opposition groups and discriminate against minorities, not least the Crimean Tatars and those identifying as Ukrainians. It has become increasingly successful in its efforts to eliminate democratic freedoms. The West should hold firm to its principles and not simply turn a blind eye to this activity. Institutionalising a format to deal with issues relating to Crimea can help facilitate the monitoring of human rights and the security situation in Crimea. With few other options on the horizon, a working group on Crimea, or a similar initiative, appears to be the only option. The EU and the West need to show Crimeans that they are not forgotten. Lest hearts and minds also begin to sway towards Russia, for lack of hope in alternatives.
Ridvan Bari Urcosta is a researcher for the Institute of International Relations at Warsaw University. His work involves analysing Russian and Turkish foreign policies. He also specialises in political developments in Crimea.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.