By WILLIAM TAYLOR, STEVEN K. PIFER and JOHN E. HERBSTJUNE 8, 2014 //
As the situation in Ukraine has evolved from an internal to an international crisis, Western diplomacy has focused on persuading Moscow to de-escalate tensions. That has made good sense, given the potential for the situation to spin out of control. At the same time, the West should not lose a sense of outrage over Russia’s illegal armed seizure of the Crimean peninsula. The United States and European Union should strive to make the Kremlin’s Crimean venture as expensive as possible.
After former President Victor Yanukovych fled Ukraine in late February and a pro-European acting government took charge in Kiev, Russia moved with stunning swiftness in Crimea. “Little green men” — the Ukrainians’ term for soldiers without identifying insignia, later confirmed by President Vladimir Putin to have been Russian military personnel — quickly occupied strategic points on the peninsula. Days after a hastily organized and flawed referendum produced dubious results, Russia formally annexed Crimea.
Whatever Russia’s historical claim, the seizure of Crimea represents the most blatant military land-grab that Europe has seen since 1945.
Western attention quickly turned elsewhere, however, as armed separatists began seizing buildings in eastern Ukraine, apparently assisted by more little green men. As fighting has increased in recent weeks, Crimea commands less and less attention.
The American and European focus on halting a further deterioration of the situation in Ukraine is entirely understandable. But achieving a cease-fire, restoration of Ukrainian government control and a degree of stabilization in the east — which will take time, at best — cannot become the benchmark for a return to “normalcy.” The West should not forget Crimea.
Unfortunately, there is no plausible scenario by which Ukraine re-establishes sovereignty over the peninsula, at least not in the foreseeable future. Kiev lacks the leverage it would need with Russia to restore the status quo ante. Given the domestic political boost that he received after annexing Crimea, Mr. Putin has very strong reasons not to return the peninsula.
That does not mean that the United States and European Union, or any other country, should accept what Moscow has done. Western policy should treat Crimea as an illegally occupied territory — and Russia as the occupying power — unless and until Kiev decides otherwise.
What does this mean in practical terms? Here are some examples.
The United States and European Union member states should continue indefinitely the policy of not granting visas to residents of Crimea who apply in Moscow using Russian passports. Their embassies should tell those applicants to apply in Kiev with a Ukrainian passport. American and European Union diplomats should encourage other countries, even though they may not wish to get caught in the middle, to adopt a similar practice, by stressing the importance of not accepting a change in borders by force.
The West should not accept Russian jurisdiction over Crimea, consistent with the decision of the United Nations General Assembly, which in a 100-11 vote called on states not to recognize a change in Crimea’s status. For example, both Ukraine and Russia now claim to control Crimean air space. Most major airlines will choose to avoid such disputed areas for safety reasons. Western governments should reinforce this by insisting that their flag airlines defer to Ukraine’s air traffic control authorities — including that they respect Ukrainian denials of flight clearances to the main Crimean airports at Simferopol and Sevastopol.
Likewise, cruise ships have already begun to cancel Yalta and other Crimean ports from their Black Sea itineraries. Western maritime authorities should require that ships flying their flag call on Crimean ports only with permission of the Ukrainian government.
The United States and European Union should discourage their companies from making investments in Crimea that are not approved by Kiev. Many of those companies likely already have doubts about the wisdom of such investments, fearing the danger of getting entangled between competing Ukrainian and Russian jurisdictional claims. The United States and European Union governments should leave no doubt that they will side with Kiev.
In particular, Russia’s Chernomornaftogaz company seeks Western technology and partners to develop the offshore oil and gas resources believed to lie under the Black Sea shelf around Crimea. American and European Union officials should remind their energy companies that Chernomornaftogaz is under sanction. Partnership with it would be fraught with risk of sanctions as well as international lawsuits by Ukraine.
Washington and the European Union should do what they can to ensure that American and European courts are open for legal action by the Ukrainian government seeking compensation for the Kremlin’s seizure of Crimea and any action taken by Russian or foreign companies to exploit the peninsula's resources. The West should offer Ukraine legal assistance in such legal actions.
Russia stole Crimea using military force, an action many thought that Europe would never see in the 21st century. American and European policy should support Ukraine’s claim to sovereignty over Crimea as long as Kiev insists on it. That includes driving up the political and economic costs — including continued economic sanctions — to Moscow of continuing its illegal occupation.
Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000. John Herbst, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006. William Taylor, a vice president at the United States Institute of Peace, was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009.