Picture this: A foreign power invades California tomorrow and officially annexes it a few weeks later. The invaders have stolen nearly 5 percent of our nation’s landmass, including some of its most beautiful coastlines, resource-rich lands, and strategically important territory.
If you were Ukrainian, you’d have no trouble imagining this bleak scenario. This is pretty much what happened in 2014. In February that year, Russia illegally invaded the Crimean peninsula, organized a sham referendum in early March, and officially annexed the strategic region a couple of weeks later.
In annexing the peninsula, Russia seized over four percent of Ukraine’s territory, more than halved its coastline, and laid claim to the natural resources thought to lie off its shores, beneath the Black Sea. The theft had strategic value as well, and that value is why nations have fought over Crimea for centuries.
How the West reacts moving forward will depend on whether or not its leaders swallow (or at least pretend to accept) two pernicious myths propagated by the Kremlin’s disinformation machine.
Myth #1 insists that Crimea is Russian, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin simply took back what rightfully belonged to Russia. This is simply not true.
Crimea’s history is long and complex. It was under the control of the Crimean Khanate, a part of the Ottoman Empire, longer than it has been under Russian or Soviet control.
In more recent times, Nikita Khrushchev transferred the Crimean Oblast then under the control of the Russian Soviet Federation of Socialist Republics to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the new Russian Federation recognized Ukraine’s borders as including Crimea in subsequent post-Cold-War agreements.
As Mark Kramer, director of Cold War Studies at Harvard University, writes:
"The Russian Federation expressly accepted Ukraine’s 1991 borders both in the December 1991 Belovezhskaya Pushcha accords (the agreements that precipitated and codified the dissolution of the Soviet Union) and in the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum that finalized Ukraine’s status as a non-nuclear weapons state."
Myth #2 holds that Crimeans freely voted to join Russia. This is also false.
Russia orchestrated a bogus referendum in March 2014 on the question of whether Crimea should leave Ukraine and join Russia.
Russian troops took over Crimea’s parliament, the Supreme Council of Crimea, in early March. In a closed session of Parliament that excluded many lawmakers opposed to breaking away from Ukraine, a new pro-Russian prime minister was installed, and a referendum was decided upon.
Even putting aside the fact that Crimea’s legally elected Parliament was usurped and a puppet leader installed, Ukraine’s Constitution requires any changes to the country’s territory be put to a referendum of all Ukrainians. That never happened.
In March 2014, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine ruled the referendum illegal. The referendum was also widely condemned as illegal by President Obama, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
But this did not deter Moscow. The vote was held quickly, under occupation by the Russian military, and without impartial election observers. The results were never in doubt.
Nearly all of Crimea’s Tatars and native Ukrainians -- collectively making up 38 percent of the population -- boycotted the vote. Yet somehow, Russia claimed an 83 percent turnout, with 97 percent of votes cast in favor of joining Russia.
A more accurate reading of Crimean attitudes toward Russia at the time of the invasion can be found in a May 2013 survey by Baltic Surveys/Gallup. Taken a year before the referendum, this poll found that only 23 percent of Crimeans believed the region should be part of Russia.
The supposed referendum was a sham, a useful piece of theater designed to make Russia’s naked land grab appear as though it was merely Putin answering to popular will. Russia continues to attempt to persuade the West that opposing its aggression in Crimea is no longer worth the effort. But it is.
In July, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated “the United States has said consistently that we do not and we will not recognize Russia’s attempted annexation. And our sanctions that apply to the issue of Crimea will stay in place until, ultimately, that issue is resolved.”
He is right. Western policymakers must not treat Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a fait accompli. Rather, they must forcefully decline to accept Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and continue to impose costs on Putin for his illegal actions.
The next U.S. administration must be clear on this point as well.