Russia’s Missed Opportunity: Five Years Since Crimea’s Annexation

Map of Ukraine, Including Crimea, and Neighbors, Including Russia

(Kennan Institute – wilsoncenter.org/program/kennan-institute – Maxim Trudolyubov – March 18, 2019 – wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/russias-missed-opportunity-five-years-crimeas-annexation)

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily.

The logic of Russian politicians who made an unexpected decision five years ago to annex the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea was not economic or political. It was a military response to what the Russian leadership saw as an act of war on the part of the West.

By the time the momentous events of 2014 unfolded in Ukraine, “color revolutions,” the Arab spring, and various other popular protests, including those in Russia, were considered acts of war by decision makers in Moscow. General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff of Russia’s armed forces, expressed that view in the most consistent way. The West’s asymmetric warfare included the use of “special operations forces and domestic opposition to create a permanently functional front within the entire territory of the adversary,” Gerasimov wrote in 2013.

It is little wonder that the Kremlin in 2014 saw the events in Ukraine as a military special operation. Political opposition was a tool, and an uprising was a weapon. Russian strategists had already been convinced at the time that any opposition politics constitutes the continuation of war by other means.

Still, those who made the Crimea decision could not miss the fact that not everyone saw a war where they saw one. Ordinary Russian citizens could be forgiven for thinking that an uprising in Ukraine was the result of a bottom-up movement, and not of Western meddling. Even some of Russia’s own politicians could believe that not every popular movement was war.

That is why one very important and still relevant consequence of the annexation of Crimea is the large media expense that the Russian government must incur to maintain constant media pressure, mostly at home, aimed at explaining that Russia is still a target of a war and that opposition politics is being weaponized.

Russia’s state-run media faces an uphill battle of justifying the economic costs that Russia has to bear against the background of crumbling housing and deteriorating healthcare. Sergei Aleksashenko, the former deputy head of the Russian Central Bank, estimated recently that Moscow’s immediate expenditure on Crimea amounted to about 1.5 trillion rubles for the past five years (over $23 billion according to current exchange rate). This equals two years’ worth of Russia’s expenses on education or three years’ worth of funds for healthcare, or 15 years’ worth of funds that the Russian state allocates on culture, according to Aleksashenko.

Justifying these costs in a country that saw its last full year of real income growth in 2013 is getting harder. It is a difficult task because the battlefields of the war are outside Russia’s territory. People do not see them as clearly as they see their paychecks and the state of the roads.

The Russian state, thus, is compelled to find a value that would recoup the economic consequences of war in the eyes of the populace. There is a need for a mission. If there is a high price that society is paying, the state has to find an equally high mission to explain it.

The kind of mission that the Kremlin seems to be selling to the citizens of Russia is proving that Russia is a true superpower that can afford to do the kinds of things that the United States is doing. Vladimir Putin’s great achievement, one of the Russian president’s top aides recently wrote, is to keep Russia in the top league of the world’s geopolitical battle.

The Russian establishment is highlighting American meddling in other countries’ affairs, not the “imperial” costs that the U.S. has been incurring for decades and that are now the subject of a fierce internal political debate.

America, the way the Russian elites see it, is doing whatever it pleases in the world and is suffering zero consequences. Today’s Russia, given its economic constraints, cannot really emulate the global reach of the U.S. But what the Kremlin can afford is to do whatever it pleases domestically and suffer zero consequences.

The irony is that the world is a dynamic place. The America that the Kremlin is trying both to avenge and to emulate is a big question for America itself. America’s eternal underwriting of European security is certainly no longer a given. Less and less, Europeans consider the U.S. a trustworthy partner. An alliance between the EU and Russia would have obvious economic and geopolitical advantages, the Bloomberg analyst and opinion contributor Leonid Bershidsky wrote recently: “They share a border. Russia has the resources and the military might Europe needs to police its neighborhood.”

What now sounds like a pipe dream could be a sensible policy goal if Russia pursued its own interests in a smarter fashion. Russia could conceivably fill at least some of the void that is left by an America consumed with foreign-policy fatigue. This is a major and historic opportunity missed.

To start moving in that direction, Russia would need to prove that it was an aspiring open society and a trustworthy partner, not an authoritarian’s paradise and an unpredictable adversary. A strategic partnership with a united Europe, a dream of a Common European Home expressed by the Soviet Union’s last leader Mikhail Gorbachev more than 30 years ago, could have been a distant but a real aim. But today it sounds even less realistic than in the late 1980s.

A close partnership with the European Union may indeed be a difficult proposition. The history is too fraught, the inertia too high. And yet, Russia could have been a respected society and a player in the world already. In the 1990s, Russia survived a deep internal crisis, a collapse of statehood and a demise of values that existed for a large part of the 20th century.

If not on a state level, the Russians could have shared their experiences on an interpersonal, intellectual, and cultural plane. This exchange, if conducted in good faith, could have been mutually enriching for today’s Westerners who are going through a difficult historic change of their own. This kind of exchange requires mutual respect and trust – the primary casualty from the annexation of Crimea which took place five years ago.

Map of Ukraine, Including Crimea, and Neighbors, Including Russia