When Vladimir Putin announced the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and then orders troops into eastern Ukraine on ‘peacekeeping duties’, he made it clear that the region’s large Russian-speaking population made the move necessary and inevitable.
In fact, large populations of Russian speakers are common along the fringes of the old Soviet Union. Those groups are made up of a combination of indigenous people and Russians who migrated from the mother country, many as part of Soviet-era policies aimed at altering the ethnic makeup in potentially troublesome satellites.
And there’s precedent elsewhere for Crimea-style interventions on behalf of ethnic Russians. As recently as 2008, Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region was cleaved with the help of a quick thrust by the Russian army.
So, how nervous should the now-independent former Soviet republics be about what’s happened in Crimea? Here’s how things stand in four regions.
When did Russia annex Crimea?
Russia mobilised its troops in February and March 2014 to seize control of Crimea.
Ukrainians had recently deposed their pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in the Maidan uprising by protesters seeking warmer relations with the EU and Nato.
Yanukovych fled to Russia in February 2014 after the months-long uprising, which saw security forces shoot dead at least 77 protesters in Kyiv. Ukraine would go on to usher in the first in a series of pro-European governments to replace him.
The ousting of Yanukovych provoked immediate unrest in the east of Ukraine bordering Russia, where pro-Kremlin sentiments are higher.
In addition to spurring on separatists, Vladimir Putin took advantage of the removal of Yanukovych by ordering work “on returning Crimea to Russia”, a peninsula that lies between Ukraine and Russia.
Amid pro-Russian demonstrations in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol days after Yanukovych fled, masked Russian troops without insignia moved to capture strategic sites across Crimea,
A disputed and internationally rejected referendum was held on March 16, 2014, in which Moscow claims 96.77 per cent of Crimeans voted to become part of Russia.
Despite international outcry, Russia formally incorporated Crimea as two Russian federal subjects – the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol – on 18 March 2014.
Crimea and Sevastopol has since switched to Moscow Time. The Russian government opposed the “annexation” label.
Why did it happen?
President Vladimir Putin had insisted Russia annexed Crimea to protect ethnic Russians from “far-right extremists” whom Russia claimed overthrown President Yanukovych.
In a 2015 documentary, Mr Putin said he took the decision on 23 February hours after the Ukrainian leader had fled Kyiv.
“I told all my colleagues, ‘We are forced to begin the work to bring Crimea back into Russia’,” he said.
Last year, Mr Putin called Russians and Ukrainians “one nation” and said Ukraine’s current leaders were running an “anti-Russian project”.
Russia has been resistant to Ukraine’s move towards European institutions, particularly Nato.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said: “For us, it’s absolutely mandatory to ensure Ukraine never, ever becomes a member of Nato.”
What is the background to the annexation?
Crimea became part of the Russian Empire in 1783, when the Crimean Khanate was annexed.
In 1921, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was established when the Russian Red Army conquered two-thirds of Ukraine, with the Western third becoming part of Poland. Then in 1939, Western Ukraine was annexed by the Soviet Union under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
However, in 1954 in a surprise move, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine. Then in 1991, Ukraine declared independence following an attempted coup in Moscow.
In 2014 Russia seized Crimea arguing it had a historic claim to it.
What happened after the annexation of Crimea?
After the annexation, Russia conducted a sham referendum on the annexation, which was illegal under the Ukrainian Constitution. The result of the referendum remains unrecognised by the international community.
The EU and US imposed sanctions on Russia after annexation.
In July 2015, Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, declared that Crimea had been fully integrated into Russia.
Then in 2016, Ukraine reported that Russia had increased its military presence along the Crimea border. In response, Ukraine deployed more troops closer to the border with Crimea.
According to the United Nations and many NGOs, since the illegal annexation, Russia is responsible for multiple human rights abuses, including torture, detention, forced disappearances as well as discrimination, including the persecution of the mainly Sunni Muslim Turkic ethnic group and nation who are an indigenous people of Crimea, the Crimean Tatars, in Crimea.
At least 109 Ukrainian political prisoners remain in detention in Russia and Crimea.
Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and other ethnic and religious groups also continue to face cultural discrimination.
Education in Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar languages is restricted.
Once Russian authority was established, wages were cut back by 30 per cent to 70 per cent.
And tourism, previously Crimea’s main industry, suffered.
Crimean agriculture was also hugely affected by the annexation when Ukraine cut off supplies of water through the North Crimean Canal.
Then in December 2021, Russia began amassing troops along its eastern border with Ukraine.
But the Prime Minister warned there was “pretty gloomy” intelligence suggesting Russia was planning a raid on Kyiv.
Putin orders troops into eastern Ukraine on ‘peacekeeping duties’
Vladimir Putin ordered on February 20th, 2022 his military to enter the Russian-controlled areas of southeast Ukraine following a decision to recognise the territories as independent states.
The decision to dispatch his troops to perform “peacekeeping duties” will be viewed in Ukraine and by other western allies as an occupation of the region and likely trigger tough sanctions and a Ukrainian military response.
The decision was revealed hours after Putin said he would recognize the Russian-controlled territories in southeast Ukraine as independent states in a pivotal decision that would scuttle an existing peace agreement.
Putin announced the decision in a televised speech marked by the Russian leader’s visceral anger at a country he has called a “brother nation”.
“Those who took the path of violence, bloodshed and lawlessness did not recognise and don’t recognise any other solution to the Donbas problem besides the military,” Putin said. “Therefore I believe it is necessary to take a long overdue decision to immediately recognise the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic” – the Russian proxy states in east Ukraine.
State television then broadcast a short video showing Putin signing a presidential order to recognise the two Russian-backed states. The separatist leaders were also present.
EU Borderlands reactions
In the region roughly southeast of the Baltic states that includes Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, all three have sizable ethnic Russian populations.
Belarus, with about 8 percent of its population Russian, enjoys warm relations with Moscow and has signed on (along with Kazakhstan) to join Russia’s “Eurasian Union” trade bloc that The Guardian says Putin hopes will grow into a ” ‘powerful, supra-national union’ of sovereign states like the European Union.”
Meanwhile, Moldova’s smaller Russian population (about 6 percent) is concentrated in Transnistria, an autonomous region that is trying to separate from the rest of the country. The analogy with Ukraine and Crimea couldn’t be more stark, suggests The International Business Times.
Some 2,000 of the Kremlin’s troops are enforcing a cease-fire in Transnistria between Russian separatists and the Moldovan government. Although the region borders Ukraine and not Russia, given the instability in Kiev and Transnistria’s proximity to Crimea and the Black Sea coast, Moldova eyes it warily.
What’s more, since the Crimean crisis broke out, Transnistria’s local Parliament has asked Moscow to grant the breakaway region Russian citizenship and admission to the Russian Federation.
The Baltic States
Latvia and Estonia have significant ethnic Russian populations. About 27 percent of Latvia’s 2 million people are Russian, as are about a quarter of Estonia’s 1.3 million. According to The Telegraph, the Russians in Latvia migrated there during Soviet rule when they were able to occupy the top rungs of civil and political society.
“But ever since communism’s collapse, the boot has been firmly on the other foot. Latvian, not Russian, is the official language, and the country is now one of NATO’s newest — and keenest — members, along with fellow Baltic states Lithuania and Estonia,” the newspaper writes.
According to Reuters, Latvia and Estonia in particular “are alarmed by [Putin’s] justification for Russian actions in and around Ukraine as protection for Russian speakers there.”
“While all three Baltic republics have joined NATO — and Lithuania next year should be the last of the three to adopt the euro — these small countries are largely dependent on energy from Russia and have strong trade ties,” Reuters writes.
“Last weekend, as pro-Russian forces were surrounding Crimea, Moscow’s ambassador to [Latvia] caused further unease by saying that the Kremlin was planning to offer passports and pensions to ethnic Russians in Latvia to ‘save them from poverty,’ ” The Telegraph says.
Kazakhstan, with just under a third of its population ethnic Russia, is one of the Kremlin’s key allies. The BBC says it’s “Moscow’s strategic partner and the two countries regularly hold joint military exercises. They have close trade links as both are trying to develop a common market.” The relationship, it says, is comparable to the one enjoyed between the U.S. and the U.K.
“But Russia’s military action in Crimea has created unease among Kazakhs. They are worried that a ‘Ukrainian scenario’ could also apply to this Central Asian nation,” the BBC says.
Kazakhstan’s northern Kostanay region is about half ethnic Russian, and in other regions, especially to the east, “there are fewer ethnic Kazakhs than ethnic Russians,” according to The Washington Post.
Kazakhstan’s pro-Russian President Nursultan Nazarbayev said to “understand” Russia’s position vis-a-vis Crimea, according to Reuters, “which struck many as a very carefully worded way of phrasing it,” according to the Post.
Kyrgyzstan, with about a 12 percent ethnic Russian population, also has a Kremlin-leaning president, Almazbek Atambayev. But the country has carefully balanced East and West until now, allowing both a Russian military base and a U.S. air base on its soil. That is set to change, however.
Transitions Online, a blog that monitors the region, says:
“Both Russian and U.S. air bases have been in Kyrgyzstan for more than 10 years, but the U.S. base is already closed. That decision was made by Kyrgyzstan’s president immediately after his election in late 2011 and confirmed by parliament in June 2013. It is widely believed that it was made under pressure from Moscow.
“Most people in Kyrgyzstan supported the closure when it was announced, but Russia’s incursion into Crimea to ‘protect native Russians’ has raised concerns in Kyrgyzstan and has changed some minds about the departure of the Americans.”
While the Caucasus is home to only small minorities of ethnic Russians, it’s a region that has suffered from the Kremlin’s attentions. Chechnya has been the locus of a brutal separatist conflict with Moscow. Georgia saw its South Ossetia region cleaved by Russia’s 2008 incursion.
In 1992-93, the breakaway Abkhazia region of Georgia also underwent a civil war in which ethnically Georgian militias, supported by the Georgian state, were pitted against “ethnically Abkhazian militias supported both by North Caucasus militants … from Russia and by the Russian state itself, which provided weapons and training to the fighters and carried out airstrikes against ethnic Georgian targets.”
From February 24th, 2022, Russia is invading Ukraine.