Russia Annexes Crimea

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Putin Moves to Reclaim Region After Referendum

Vladimir Putin

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Protests that began in late 2013 after President Viktor Yanukovich backed out of a trade agreement with the European Union under pressure from Russian president Vladimir Putin continued into 2014. Despite the ongoing—and increasingly violent—protests as well as pleas from western nations to re-engage with the EU, Yanukovich reached a deal with Putin in which Russia loaned Ukraine $15 billion and sharply cut oil prices. The Ukrainian government said the aid prevented the country from falling into bankruptcy and will provide economic stability. However, economists said that unless Ukraine increases revenue and cuts spending, the country will once again fall into financial crisis.

The deal did little to quell the unrest, and the protests continued in Independence Square into January 2014. Parliament hastily passed sweeping measures on Jan. 16 that outlawed demonstrations. The protests then turned violent, with demonstrators attacking police. Five protesters were killed in the battles with police. Yanukovich met with opposition leaders, but the negotiations only produced threats. Protesters began to lose confidence in the opposition leaders after they failed to win any concessions from Yanukovich. As the protests spread to cities across the country, Yanukovich offered to install opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minster. He heads the Fatherland Party, which is also the party of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovich offered the post of vice prime minister to another opposition leader, Vitaly Klitschko, a popular former boxer. Both refused the offer, saying the moves only further entrenched Yankovich. On Jan. 28, the president reversed the ban on protests. Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov and his cabinet resigned the same day. Yanukovich named Serhiy Arbuzov as interim prime minister. Amid the turmoil, Putin announced that Russisa would suspend the financial aid package until "we know what economic policies the new government will implement, who will be working there, and what rules they will follow." The news was a serious blow to Yankovich—and the country.

Yanukovich Flees Capital

The protests in Kiev turned violent. On Feb. 20, 2014, riot police and protesters clashed as the demonstrators attempted to reclaim portions of Independence Square, a central plaza in Kiev that police had taken over two days before. More than 100 people were killed and hundreds were wounded. The clash ended with a truce. In a deal between the opposition and Yanukovich brokered by European Union officials on Feb. 21, the president agreed to hold elections by the end of the year and accept a weakening of the presidency. The opposition wanted him to step down immediately, but signed the agreement nevertheless. Russia, however, refused to endorse the deal. After the agreement, Parliament passed a series of measures that illustrated Yanukovich's weakened position. It voted to free former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison and exonerate her, which will allow her to run for election, grant amnesty to anti-government protesters, and annul constitutional amendments passed in 2008 that expanded the power of the presidency.

The opposition didn't accept the deal and escalated their protests. Yanukovich fled Kiev on Feb. 22, and an interim government was put in place. The next day, Parliament voted to give speaker Oleksandr Turchynov the authority to fulfill the responsibilities of the president. Yanukovich, however, insisted he remained in office. Parliament also appointed Arsen Avakov as temporary interior minister. The interior ministry oversees the police. On Feb. 24, Avakov issued an arrest warrant for Yanukovich, citing the deaths of civilians during the protests. Both the military and the Party of Regions, Yanukovich's party, released statements condemning the deadly crackdown on protesters. The statements indicated that the country may avert a civil war and edge toward stability.

Demonstrations against the turn of events in Ukraine broke out in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, a pro-Russian region in eastern Ukraine. Masked gunmen, believed to be ethnic Russian extremists, took over several government buildings and raised the Russian flag. The gunmen refused to answer questions about their allegiance or who was commanding them. The next day, on Feb. 28, similarly clad gunmen appeared at two airports in Simferopol. There were no reports of violence by the gunmen, but officials feared a separatist revolt may break out. The Black Sea Fleet, a Russian military base, is located in Crimea, and acting president Turchynov warned Russian troops not to intervene. Russia denied any involvement by its military.

In a speech on Feb. 28 from Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, Yanukovich declared that he considers himself still to be the president of Ukraine, and called his ouster a "gangster coup." However, he said he believes Crimea should not seek independence from Ukraine. It was his first public appearance since he fled Ukraine.

Russian Troops Sent to Crimea

On March 1, 2014, Russian president Vladimir Putin dispatched troops to Crimea, citing the need to protect ethnic Russians and Russian citizens from extremist ultranationalists, referring to the anti-government protesters in Kiev. He also referred to protesters as "fascists" and "thugs." The Russian troops surrounded Ukrainian military bases and took over government buildings and airports. By March 3, Russia was reportedly in control of Crimea. The move sparked international outrage and condemnation. President Obama called the move a "breach of international law."

In a press conference on March 4, Putin said he didn't see an immediate reason to initiate a military conflict but Russia "reserves the right to use all means at our disposal to protect" Russian citizens and ethnic Russians in the region. In the middle of the crisis, Russia test-fired a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile, but said it was scheduled before the turmoil began and was not related to the political turmoil.

U.S. secretary of state John Kerry traveled to Kiev in a show of support for the interim government. He visited shrines erected in memory of slain protesters and pledged $1 billion in aid and loans to Ukraine. He scolded Putin's military incursion into Crimea. "It is not appropriate to invade a country and at the end of a barrel of a gun dictate what you are trying to achieve,“ he said. "That is not 21st century, G-8, major-nation behavior." Russia was set to host the June meeting of the G8, but other member nations halted planning for the event.

On March 6, the U.S. imposed sanctions on officials, advisers, and other individuals who have been involved in the underminding of democracy in the Crimea. The sanctions involved revoking visas for travel to the U.S. for those who hold them and refusing visas for those seeking them. The European Union pledged $15 billion in aid to Ukraine. The Crimean Parliament approved a referendum, scheduled for March 16, asking voters if they want to secede from Ukraine and be annexed by Russia. "In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders," U.S. president Barack Obama said in response to the move. Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, threatened to dissolve the Crimean Parliament.

Putin Announces Annexation of Crimea

Nearly 97% of voters in Crimea chose to secede from Ukraine in the referendum on March 16, 2014. The next day, the Crimean Parliament declared the region independent and formally sought annexation by Russia. Putin said the vote was legal and binding, and in a statement the Kremlin said, "The referendum was organized in such a way as to guarantee Crimea's population the possibility to freely express their will and exercise their right to self-determination." Obama told Putin that neither the U.S. nor the international community would recognize the results of the referendum. He said the referendum "violates the Ukrainian Constitution and occurred under duress of Russian military intervention." On March 17, Obama imposed economic sanctions on 11 Russian officials and Putin advisers, including Crimean prime minister Sergey Aksyonov, who were "responsible for the deteriorating situation in Ukraine." The sanctions freeze the assets held in the U.S. and ban Americans from doing business with those sanctioned. The European Union enacted similar sanctions.

Putin signed a treaty stating that Russia had annexed Crimea on March 18, saying he was reclaiming territory that was part of Russia from 1783, when Empress Catherine II took it over from the Ottoman Empire, to 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev transferred the region to Ukraine. "Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of people," Putin said. After signing the treaty, Putin gave a speech that both defended his move, denounced internationally as a land grab, and lashed out at the West. "Our Western partners have crossed a line," he said, referring to the West's support for Kiev. "We have every reason to think that the notorious policy of confining Russia, pursued in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today." The move further deteriorated Russia's relationship with the U.S. and Europe. It also complicated any hopes for a peace agreement in Syria and cast a cloud over the talks over Iran's nuclear program. Neither the U.S. nor the European Union recognized Crimea as part of Russia.

On March 21, the European Union and Ukraine signed a portion of the EU Association Agreement—the same deal that former President Yanukovich refused to sign, sparking the unrest. The section that was signed lends Ukraine political support; the economic part will be enacted once a new president is elected. Ukraine withdrew its military from Crimea on March 24, citing a threat to the soldiers and their families. The members of the Group of 8 industrialized nations announced on March 24 that they had suspended Russia from the group and moved the upcoming meeting from Sochi, Russia, to Brussels.

The UN General Assembly passed a resolution on March 27 that declared Russia's annexation of Crimea illegal and described the referendum on the issue as "having no validity." One hundred countries voted in favor, 11 voted against, and 58 abstained. The resolution has no enforcement power, making it symbolic. Nonetheless, it clearly sent Putin a message. On the same day, the International Monetary Fund agreed to loan Ukraine $18 billion as long as the country satisfied several demands, and the U.S. Congress approved a $1 billion aid package. The aid will boost the faltering economy and help it meet its debt obligations.

Unrest Spreads to Other Eastern Cities

After annexation, Putin continued to deploy troops on the southern and eastern border with Ukraine, areas that are dominated by ethnic Russians, raising fears that he may attempt to take over additional regions of the country. By the end of March, there were as many as 30,000 Russian troops stationed on the border.

Those fears were realized in early April, when pro-Russian protesters and armed militants in the eastern capital cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk took over several government buildings and police stations. They also announced they were forming an independent republic and would hold a referendum on secession from Ukraine and annexation by Russia in May, clearly borrowing from the playbook used in Crimea. About a week later, pro-Russian armed militants carried out similar actions in other cities in the region. Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine's acting president, threatened the pro-Russian militias with an "antiterrorist operation" if they didn't withdraw. The militants ignored the ultimatum and Turchynov asked the UN to dispatch a peacekeeping force to the eastern part of the country. Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeatedly denied the government orchestrated the demonstrations.

On April 17 in Geneva, representatives from the U.S., Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union reached an agreement intended to de-escalate the tension in eastern Ukraine. The agreement stated that all illegal armed groups will lay down their arms and all buildings seized illegally will be surrendered. Both sides agreed to end the violence and intolerance, with anti-Semitism being singled out. Protesters who are not suspected of committing capital offenses will be granted amnesty if they surrender their arms. The statement also said while drafting a new constitution, Ukraine will make the process inclusive, transparent, and accountable. Russia did not commit to withdrawing the 40,000 troops it has massed on the Ukrainian border. The diplomats also discussed a proposal by acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk to decentralize power and give the regional governments increased authority, but federalism was not covered in the agreement.

The pro-Russian separatists refused to vacate the buildings they have occupied, saying they would not leave until the government in Kiev, which they do not recognize, steps down. Their defiance jeopardized the entire agreement. Turchynov ordered "antiterrorist operations" against the pro-Russian militants on April 22, but quickly withdrew troops without dislodging them from occupied buildings.

In response to Russia's refusal to comply with the agreement reached in Geneva to rein in the pro-Russian groups, the U.S. imposed additional sanctions in late April on seven Russian individuals and 17 companies with close ties to Putin, targeting some of the country's wealthiest and most powerful businessmen. The sanctions, announced on April 28, put a travel ban on the individuals and froze the assets of the officials and the businesses. They also restricted the import of U.S. goods that could be used for military purposes. The European followed with similar sanctions. The EU in general has been more reluctant than the U.S. to impose severe financial sanctions on Russia because of the closer economic ties between many European nations and Russia and Europe's reliance on Russia a source of energy. Nevertheless, the sanctions have begun to take a toll on Russia's economy. Standard & Poors cut Russia's rating, leaving it just one notch above junk status, investors have withdrawn about $50 billion from the country, and the stock market has fallen 13% in 2014.

By the end of April, acting president Turchynov acknowledged that pro-Russian separatists were in control of much of eastern Ukraine. "The majority of law enforcers in the east are incapable of performing their duties," he said. The militants had taken over buildings in about a dozen cities.

—Beth Rowen
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