This month marks five years since Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula was invaded and subsequently occupied by Russia. The occupiers who came from across the border would come to be known as “Putin’s little green men” — Russian troops with their military insignias hidden. Russian President Vladimir Putin at first brazenly denied his country’s involvement, then later admitted that he had lied to the world. The Kremlin held a sham referendum and installed a puppet government. It was the first time since the 1940s that a European country had dared to seize territory from a neighbor by force.
Today Crimea is a human rights black hole. The occupation regime is harshly persecuting the indigenous Crimean Tatar population, which enjoyed considerable freedom under Ukrainian rule. Now dissidents are routinely abducted and tried in kangaroo courts. Russia has imposed a ban on all international monitors and aid agencies.
Russia has consolidated its stranglehold over Crimea. The lack of international attention has clearly emboldened the Kremlin — as demonstrated by its recent attacks on Ukrainian ships in international waters in the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov. Twenty-four Ukrainian servicemen are now being held as prisoners of war, languishing in Russian jails.
The Russian occupation of Crimea was the prelude to a broader campaign of aggression that continues to play out across eastern and southern Ukraine. To date, more than 1.5 million Ukrainians have been displaced and almost 13,000 others have been killed. This human tragedy gets minimal coverage in a media landscape preoccupied by political events in Western Europe and North America. For the people of Ukraine, however, the war and the suffering go on. Ukraine’s economy also suffers. Thanks to the latest Russian restrictions of freedom of navigation in the Sea of Azov, trade to two key Ukrainian seaports of Mariupol and Berdyansk is down by at least 30 percent.
At the start of the invasion back in 2014, many in the international community pressed Ukraine to engage in “dialogue,” telling us that both sides “needed to sit down and talk” to end the conflict. But what exactly should Ukraine be discussing? How much sovereignty should it concede — as a gun is held to the country’s head? Where does this end, and which other nation will be next?
In the years since its occupation of Crimea, the Kremlin has pursued a relatively simple strategy: It has attempted to normalize the situation and to obfuscate when challenged by the international community. It relentlessly tells the world this is a “domestic issue” between Ukraine and Russia. Maintain the lie long enough and the world gets weary. This is exactly what has happened. The lackluster response by some in the international community risks long-term consequences — and not just for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe. History reminds us that appeasement and weakness in the face of rampant aggression have grave consequences. The contagion always spreads.
At this five-year milestone, our top priority is the release of Ukraine’s 24 captured servicemen, as well as the 70 Ukrainian political prisoners who are suffering in Russian jail cells. These include the seriously ill Edem Bekirov, 58, a disabled Crimean Tartar activist now suffering in jail after being abducted on Dec. 12, 2018. Pavlo Hryb was kidnapped by Russian agents in Belarus in 2017 after posting comments on social media criticizing the occupation. He was 19 at the time. He was subsequently forced to confess to trumped-up “terrorism” charges during a show trial. He is also seriously ill and being denied medical treatment.
The courage of Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker, has made his name a symbol of the fight for his native country. Sentenced by the Russians to 20 years in prison for his moral opposition to the Russian occupation regime in Crimea, he has refused to give up. In May 2018, he declared a hunger strike, simultaneously protesting Russian repression and demanding the release of all Ukrainians held by Russia under politically motivated charges. He maintained his strike for 145 days, until the deterioration of his health forced him to stop. He is still recovering.
We urge the international community to acknowledge the inherent dangers of a weak response to Russian aggression. If you value democracy and the rule of law, and if you genuinely believe the international rules-based system makes us all safer, you will increase pressure on the Kremlin to start adhering to international law. Increasing sanctions is the next logical step. Russia should be dealt with from a position of strength, not from a position of appeasement.
Pavlo Klimkin is the foreign minister of Ukraine.