Five years ago this month “little green men” appeared on Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and quickly took control. A month later, the Russian Duma voted to annex the peninsula, in what many see as a blatant violation of international law. This was also the first time borders in Europe were changed using military force since the Second World War.
In addition to the exploits in Crimea, Moscow took advantage of political grievances held by the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine’s east to stoke sectarian divisions. Backed, armed, and trained by Russia, separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine declared the so-called Lugansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic. Since then, Russia has continued to back separatist factions in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine with advanced weapons, technical and financial assistance, and Russian conventional and special operations forces.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea is an unprecedented act of aggression in the 21st century. It has de facto cut Ukraine’s coastline in half and has essentially turned the Black Sea into a Russian-controlled lake.
Russia has since claimed rights to underwater resources off the Crimean peninsula previously belonging to Ukraine. Furthermore, Russia has launched a campaign of persecution and intimidation of the ethnic Tatar community there.
Two cease-fire agreements—one in September 2014 and another in February 2015, known as Minsk I and Minsk II—have come and gone. Today Ukrainian soldiers are wounded almost daily and killed almost weekly—proof that Minsk II is a cease-fire in name only.
Five years later it can be easy to forget what is happening in Ukraine. However, some truths never should be overlooked. It was Russia that invaded Ukraine and not the other way around. Russia illegally occupies Crimea. Russia provoked and now supports a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine that did not previously exist. Russia is the aggressor, and Ukraine is the victim.
The ramifications of the war in eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea are still felt today. The separatist war has cost the lives of at least 10,000 people. Many thousands more have been wounded. In eastern Ukraine, there is now a system of trenches that would not look unfamiliar to soldiers in World War I.
The Ukrainian economy was hit hard by the war and has devastated the Ukrainian economy. The regions in eastern Ukraine now under Russian backed separatist control were once the industrial heartland of Ukraine’s economy. At the time of occupation, Crimea alone accounted for 4 percent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice has assessed that the economic damage of Crimea’s annexation alone to be more than $100 billion. Ukraine’s sea exports are often delayed, if not stopped altogether by the Russian navy patrolling the waters of the Black Sea.
Even with all of Ukraine’s security challenges and its fight against corruption, there are still reasons to be hopeful for the country’s future. Much of the international community has not given up on Ukraine. Ukraine continues to make efforts to reform its economy, which still suffer from the Soviet legacy. There has even been small economic growth.
In the past five years, free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections have produced results showing a majority in the country see their future with Europe and not with Russia. The United States and its NATO allies have invested a significant amount of money in training and equipping Ukrainian Armed Forces so it can defend Ukraine’s territory from Russian aggression.
The fifth anniversary of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea should be a reminder of why the international community should not abandon Ukraine. Today, Ukraine represents the idea in Europe that each country has the sovereign ability to determine its path and to decide with whom it has relations and how, and by whom it is governed. No outside actor (in this case Russia) should have a veto on membership or closer ties with organisations like the European Union or NATO.
It is in everyone’s interest that Ukraine remains independent and sovereign and maintains the ability to choose its destiny without outside interference.
Ukraine has a long struggle ahead, and there seems to be no end in sight to the war but progress, however modest, is being made.
Trying to reform Ukraine’s governance, economy, military, and judiciary while fighting a war of national survival is a bit like trying to build a ship while you are already at sea—not easy.
The truth is that all of the economic, and political reforms that are necessary will probably take a generation.
Patience and commitment from the international community are needed.
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