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17 November 2016

The Case of Crimea is not closed

Russia can successfully postpone the resolution of the Crimean question, but it can never put an end to the story

While everybody in Russia was discussing the arrest of the now ex-minister of economic development, Alexei Ulyukayev, two significant events took place. International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, issued a preliminary report which determined Russia’s annexation of Crimea to be an international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and an ongoing state of occupation of Ukraine’s territory. In response, Russia, in a political and legal signal, sent a notice informing the UN Secretary General that they no longer intend to become parties to the Rome Statute, and as such have no legal obligations arising from their signature. The other event was that UN General Assembly’s human rights committee passed a resolution condemning Russia's "temporary occupation of Crimea'' and blamed Russia for human rights abuses such as discrimination against Crimean Tatars, as well as Ukrainians and other nationalities and religious groups.

This is nothing new – the international community accuses Russia of annexing foreign territory, and now of its occupation as well, and Russia responds with an anticipated diplomatic slap. Moscow’s refusal to ratify the Rome statute of the ICC does not constitute a violation of any previous commitments. In fact, Russia had no intention of ratifying it even when it signed the statute in 2000. Now this is official. This is why the decision not to join the ICC should not be compared to Russia’s Constitutional Court ruling on the supremacy of Russia’s Constitution over the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). However, the ICC prosecutor’s determination is yet another heavy blow to Russia’s reputation in general, and Moscow’s position on Crimea in particular. There are 123 members in the ICC, among them most of Europe and Latin America, giving this decision greater political weight. Though there are few direct legal consequences, the determination carries one important political message – the issue of Crimea is far from resolved, but it cannot stay this way forever.

Those who hope to see Russia’s leaders on trial any time soon should reassess the situation with a clear head  as it is unlikely to happen. Still, Putin’s proclamation that the question of Crimea is resolved forever”, has no more sense than Ulyukayev’s assurance (which has already become a meme), “the Russian economy has finally reached the bottom of the crisis”. 

To delay as much as possible

Over the past couple of years, Russia has been gradually, and successfully, shifting the focus from Ukraine to Syria. The Syrian campaign Russia started in August of 2015 is the main card Russia plays in its dealings with the West. Despite what some experts believe, the Syrian problem, in its current state, cannot be resolved without Russia. Hence, when the U.S. State Secretary visits Moscow to negotiate, the issues related to Ukraine remain lower on the list of priorities. Moreover, if we are to believe at least half of what Trump has said about his foreign policy objectives – Ukraine is not going to make the top of the list anytime soon.

Even if all of Moscow’s hopes for Trump materialize, and Washington and Moscow strike together against ISIS, neither Trump, nor anyone else in the U.S. administration, has the power to “close” the issue of Crimea. Unfortunately for Moscow, no one has such power.

This leads us to a few conclusions:

  1. Russia is interested in postponing the resolution of the “Syrian problem” - whether it is the fight against ISIS, institutionalizing or assisting with the power transition, or postwar reconstruction of the territory that we once knew as Syria - for as long as possible. As soon as Russia’s mission in Syria is over, and western nations no longer need Moscow, the dialogue between the West and Russia will inevitably return to that the matters of what to do about Donbas and Crimea. Taking into account Russia’s ever-growing military presence in the region, including the establishment of two permanent military bases – Tartus and Khmeimim, one should not even contemplate the idea that Russia plans to leave Syria in the foreseeable future.
  2. Despite the hopes of many in Moscow that sanctions will be lifted in the near future, full sanctions relief is hardly plausible. On the one hand, we should not exclude the possibility of partial sanctions relief with the help of European or maybe even American partners, particularly considering Trump’s presidency and possible changes in the European political landscape in 2017. Still, most of the sanctions imposed on Russia were not a result of annexing Crimea, but due to escalations in Donbas and only those sanctions related to Donbas can be eased. However, considering that the “Donbas sanctions” are tied to the Minsk accords, the implementation of which could take forever, it should not be expected that sanctions will be eased in the imminent future. The Crimean sanctions, although quite symbolic rather than effective, will remain intact. Pressure is mounting on Russia as legal recourse regarding events in Ukraine is pursued (such as the investigation into the downing of flight MH17), and so new restrictions on Moscow are more likely. Even Putin’s European partners cannot fully ignore public pressure with respect to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This is especially true regarding the violations of the rights of Crimean Tatars
  3. With its current administration, Moscow will not be prepared to discuss the matter of Crimea. We can safely assume that it will be the legacy passed on to the next administration, be it pro-western and liberal, or even more authoritarian and conservative. Crimea will politically be the most vulnerable spot for the next generation of Russia’s leaders. As soon as Russia will need something from the West - whether it is assistance with modernization, investment, or simple credit on decent conditions - the issue of Crimea will inevitably resurface and necessitate a resolution. Moscow’s preference for a gradual solution that excludes an immediate return of Crimea to Ukraine will not likely be accepted by the international community which will have grown less understanding of Russia’s concerns and preferences.

Another nuance to this is that Russia paused its anti-American rhetoric to see what kind of president Donald Trump will become. As a result Russia can no longer “sell” the ICC decision simply as “Uncle Sam’s misbehavior”. Still, this development needs to be explained to the public. I doubt the explanation that “Ukraine has lobbied this decision” with both the ICC and the UN General Assembly on the violation of human rights can be made the prime version. For a few years now, Russian propaganda had promoted the idea that Ukraine is not an independent political actor, and follows the lead of its “overseas masters” – thus acknowledging that Ukraine has capabilities of this sorts would have been a compliment that Moscow would never grant to Kyiv. It leaves Moscow with the option of calling the ICC determination powerless and pointless, made by the organization that Russia wants nothing to do with. But the problem remains, as decisions of this type, given their legal nature, will reoccur again and again, proving the matter of Crimea is not closed. Putting aside legal considerations, there will be political repercussions: the resolution of the Crimean issue will destroy the national consensus of “KrymNash” (Crimea is ours) and bury the political figures promoting it under its ruins.

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