Just over a year ago, Russia annexed Crimea in the first major land grab in Europe since World War II. The world has paid little attention to Crimea since then, but developments on the Black Sea peninsula provide fearsome insights into both the folly of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, in Ukraine and his campaign of intimidation against Russia’s near neighbors.
Over the past 15 years, Mr. Putin has built a system in Russia in which opposition voices are silenced, individual rights are trampled on, freedom of expression is restricted, organized crime is rampant and property rights are arbitrarily enforced. Since Russia annexed Crimea, Mr. Putin has imported the same grotesque mode of governance to the peninsula.
Many of the so-called self-defense forces that sprang up a year ago, alongside Mr. Putin’s “little green men” (as the unmarked Russian armed forces are colloquially known), were the foot soldiers of Crimea’s criminal gangs. The region’s elite has long had a close relationship with organized crime. Various news organizations have reported that Mr. Putin’s handpicked leader in Crimea, Sergei V. Aksyonov, was known in mafia circles as “the Goblin” in the 1990s. (Mr. Aksyonov has denied links to organized crime.)
According to Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University, “Many of the burly and well-armed ‘self-defense volunteers’ who came out on the streets alongside the not-officially Russian troops turned out to be local gangsters.” Over the last year, many have been drafted into a quasi-policing role in Crimea, their paramilitary units renamed the “people’s militia.”
Since last March, this force has conducted a series of raids and property seizures. Immediately after annexation, Russia swiftly assumed control of several Ukrainian state-owned industrial interests; it soon shifted its focus to private enterprises. In August, the headquarters of Zaliv, Crimea’s largest civilian shipbuilder, were stormed, as part of a campaign to force the management to hand over control to a Moscow-based company. According to estimates from local sources, the total value of losses accrued as a result of real estate and other asset expropriation in Crimea is more than $1 billion.
As part of this, Crimea’s authorities forced Ukrainian banks operating on the peninsula to close, including those belonging to Igor V. Kolomoisky, the pro-Kiev governor of Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine. In their place, Russian ones have moved in — among them, the Russian National Commercial Bank. According to The Moscow Times, Crimean authorities acquired this little-known subsidiary of the Bank of Moscow “just weeks after Russia seized the peninsula. They then presided over its growth from one of the country’s smallest banks to become Crimea’s largest bank.”
The Kremlin has seized control of the peninsula’s media, taking Ukrainian TV channels off the air and replacing them with state-backed Russian ones. In August, Crimea’s authorities raided the independent Chernomorska broadcaster, impounding its equipment and computers, and sealing off its building. Elsewhere, journalists have been pressured to toe the Kremlin’s line. According to Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper, the Ukraine-based Center for Investigative Journalism recorded 85 incidents of harassment and censorship against reporters in Crimea during March 2014 alone.
Human Rights Watch has reported that the peninsula’s pro-Russian paramilitary groups are implicated in the disappearance of a number of pro-Ukrainian activists. In March, Andriy Shekun and Anatoly Kovalksy were abducted from a train station in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, and held for 11 days in detention where they were beaten and shot at with low-velocity handguns (designed to cause trauma but not kill). Mr. Shekun was subjected to electric shocks on two occasions, according to the rights group.
The people who have borne the worst of Russia’s annexation are Crimea’s native Tatars. Since March, several Tatar activists have been abducted, some of them killed — including Reshat Ametov, who was detained during a Simferopol protest in March, and was later found murdered. Two of the community’s most prominent leaders, Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, have been barred by Crimea’s authorities from entering the peninsula. In September, Russian security forces raided the headquarters of the Mejlis, the Tatars’ representative body, as well as the home of one of its members, Eskender Bariev.
Institutions that are not explicitly pro-Russian are also regularly targeted for intimidation and harassment. Ukrainian-language teaching has disappeared from school curriculums, while the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, most of which broke away from Russian Orthodoxy in the early 1990s, has been forced to close 11 of its 18 parishes.
America’s assistant secretary of state for the region, Victoria Nuland, said at a congressional hearing this month that as a result of Russia’s actions, Crimea was “suffering a reign of terror.” She was right.
Condemned in the West a year ago as a flagrant breach of international law, Russia’s annexation of Crimea has fallen down the international agenda as the situation in Ukraine has evolved. Western diplomacy has focused instead on trying to stop a deterioration of the situation in southeastern Ukraine. Yet the West should take a careful look at what is happening in Crimea: The fate of the annexed peninsula could very likely prefigure what is in store for the secessionist Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.
In January, the European Council’s president, Donald Tusk, appeared to accuse some European Union leaders of favoring a policy of “appeasement” with Russia, and warned against any watering down of economic sanctions. But the fact that Crimea was not mentioned in either of the cease-fire deals known as Minsk I, signed last September, or Minsk II, agreed to in February, is a form of appeasement in itself. That Western countries are highly unlikely to grant official recognition to Russia’s control over Crimea does nothing to change this.
The fear in Western capitals last year was that Crimea might be only the first of many land grabs planned by Mr. Putin against Russia’s near neighbors. And so it has proved.
Last week, Russia violated Georgia’s sovereignty when it signed an accord with the leadership of South Ossetia, integrating the breakaway republic with Russia. This followed the signing last year of a similar agreement with Abkhazia, another breakaway region of Georgia. In Moldova, meanwhile, the Kremlin continues to tolerate corruption and criminality as the engine of Transnistria’s economy, and to block progress by the country’s reform-minded government.
If the West is serious about halting the growth of a Russian regime that poses a threat to the citizens not only of Russia and Ukraine but also elsewhere, it must begin by remembering that Crimea matters.
Andrew Foxall is the director of the Russia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, an international affairs think tank.