2016: the year the Russia maps swallow 'problem child' Crimea

2016: the year the Russia maps swallow 'problem child' Crimea
By Nick Allen in Warsaw January 7, 2016

"Celebrate winter holidays from Moscow to Vladivostok", read Coca-Cola's seasonal greetings to consumers in Russia, with no inkling of the backlash to come from the exclusion of Crimea from its festive map of the country posted on December 30 on the VKontakte social network.

As complaints grew at the omission of Russia's latest territorial acquisition, the US company replaced the map with one showing the peninsular, as well as Kaliningrad and the South Kuril islands that are claimed by Japan. Then the Ukrainians got upset.

People should "stop buying Coca-Cola's products, thus reminding that no country in the world, including Coca-Cola's home country, the United States, acknowledges Crimea to be territory of Russia," Ukrainian MP Mustafa Nayyem wrote on Facebook. The Coke ad came down again and hasn't been seen since. Nor did rival PepsiCo have long to gloat before they too were attacked for including Crimea on their own corporate map of Russia.

Obscured by the EU refugee crisis, the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and movement towards a multi-sided strategy to resolve the conflict in Syria, Crimea has slipped from the visible agenda. Western businesses still cannot operate there without violating EU and US sanctions, and Western cruise ships no longer drop anchor in its Black Sea ports. But many people now expect new global considerations to change the discourse and outcome, even if the politicians publicly still insist Crimea must be returned to Kyiv.

"The fact that we are not talking as much every single day about Crimea does not mean in any way we have forgotten" what happened, US Vice President Joe Biden said during a visit to Ukraine in December, calling Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 an "illegal invasion". 

"We will not accept it under any circumstance, and Moscow eventually has to end its occupation of Ukraine's sovereign territory" including Crimea, Biden said.

Sanctions decider

A key issue now is the prospect of lifting EU sanctions against Russia, even if US measures are likely to remain in place. This requires the full implementation of the Minsk II peace accords on the conflict in East Ukraine, which Moscow is widely seen as orchestrating.

Stipulating among other points that Ukraine's eastern border should be returned to Kyiv's control, the measures were far from being achieved by the December 31 deadline for implementation. EU sanctions against Russia had already been extended to July, creating a frozen conflict in the Donbas region for another half a year at least. Crucially, there is no mention of Crimea in the text, meaning a settlement could bypass the issue of the peninsula.

In late December, German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed in a telephone call with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko "the immutability of EU policy of non-recognition of Crimea’s annexation". Poroshenko himself has declared that, "The war will be over only when Ukraine regains control of Donbas and Crimea. It will take as much time as it takes". The position of his foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, is also that the "theme of Crimea won't vanish anywhere until Crimea is liberated from Russia".

But with Russia's recession-stricken economy needing relief from the sanctions and the West needing Russian cooperation in a Syrian settlement, energy supply and other issues, realpolitik worries pro-Kyiv Crimeans.

"Crimea's de-occupation was unfairly taken beyond its framework," Crimean Tatar leader Refat Chubarov said in December about Minsk II. He added that, "reiteration by Ukrainian partners that Russia will be freed of economic sanctions after the fulfilment of Minsk II poses a real threat of losing Crimea".

Realistically, though, few expect Russia to ever pass Crimea back to Ukraine due to its historical and strategic significance. Conquered in 1783 under Catherine the Great as a springboard for Russian expansion, the territory was passed symbolically to Ukraine as a "gift" by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. It rejoined Russia in March 2014 after an internationally rejected referendum, which claimed a vast majority in favour of reunification. "Crimea is as sacred to Russia as the Temple Mount is to Islam and Judaism," Russian President Vladimir Putin said before Moscow drew a line under the issue.

Seismic shifts

Meanwhile, the first cracks in Western resolve appeared in a variety of places, and quickly.

"We map the world as it is – not as people would like it to be," National Geographic said of their decision in March 2014 to include Crimea in the map of Russia. Wikipedia's map now shows Crimea in its Russia map, but uses a lighter shade of green for the peninsula to reflect its disputed status. Other new maps are also marking Crimea as Russian.

In April 2015, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) said it has no problem with Crimean tennis players being part of the Russian national team. "Crimea is a part of Russia," ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti said. But when the Russian Football Union tried to add Crimean clubs to its competitions after the annexation it was blocked by governing body Uefa, which instead set up a Crimea-only competition.

Contrary to the MP Nayyem's comment, six countries have recognised Crimea as part of Russia: Afghanistan, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been evasive, saying first that "Ukraine should remain an integral, indivisible, non-aligned state", and then "Today Crimea is part of the Russian Federation. No matter whether you recognise it or not, the fact remains".

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also weighed in, describing Crimea as "Russia's child" during a visit to Germany in November 2014. "Russia must not be torn away from Crimea," Gorbachev said, adding that he believed the West had "already accepted this".

In other signs of moving goalposts, the US Treasury Department last May authorised access to internet-based services and software to Crimea residents that had been previously restricted by sanctions. These include social networking sites, as well as messaging and photo-exchange applications.

"As we expected, the US has begun to offer Russia concessions as part of negotiations that are currently occurring behind the scenes of the Minsk cease-fire protocols," commented Kyiv-based analyst Zenon Zawada. "But we expect the key [US] sanctions will remain in place, which means the US won't surrender in its ultimate goal of forcing Russia out of Crimea."

Troublesome trophy

Following the inevitable renewed condemnation of its actions in March, when the second anniversary of the Crimea snatch falls, Moscow will likely seal its de facto victory in the cartography wars. Depending on the situation in the Donbas and Syria, it may more importantly win a lifting of EU sanctions in July, especially since their extension in January drew some opposition from Italy, Luxembourg and other EU members affected by Russia's counter-sanctions.

But as Bloomberg noted after Putin likened the Crimean events of 2014 to a family welcoming home a long-lost relative, "Crimea is now Putin's problem child", as well as his trophy.

An energy blackout and a Kyiv-ordered trade and transport embargo on Crimea in November got Russia working feverishly to complete undersea energy lines and a bridge to the peninsular to ensure self-sufficiency for the territory and its population of 2mn, beyond Kyiv's reach.

But Moscow must find $18bn promised for these projects and other development in Crimea over the next five years, and has been clashing with local authorities over rampant corruption. For example, Kremlin auditors reported in June that two-thirds of the money Moscow sent Crimea last year for road building couldn't be accounted for.

In July, Crimean Governor Sergey Aksyonov, elected in April 2014 with Putin's approval, accused Moscow of trying to destabilise Crimea and using "fabricated" evidence against officials, including the region's industrial policy minister and its chief tax inspector. "No one will make victims of our officials," Aksyonov said.

But despite the glum outlook painted by some, other Crimeans remain optimistic about the long-term prospects for recovering Khrushchev's gift.

"No, I don't think that the Crimea issue will linger in ashes and dust due to the fact that the West and Russia need to restore warmer relations," said Andrey, a 43-year-old marketing director originally from the Crimean resort of Yalta. "The Crimea annexation is treated by Ukrainians and most Crimeans as a very serious violation of peace, humanitarian, diplomatic, social and world-order norms and status quo. The question remains how soon the issue will reach its climax and what 'next steps' the [Russian] agressor and the world community will undertake. Meanwhile, though, more and more alarming and saddening news are coming from the occupied peninsula – locals are suffering from electricity, food supply and water shortages."