by Austin Bay
March 20, 2019
On March 18, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin imperiled 21st-century peace among nation states when he stood in Red Square and announced Russia had annexed the Crimean Peninsula. "We will do much more," Putin told an adoring crowd. Putin's popularity poll ratings spiked.
Unfortunately, that March 18 in Red Square marked a dangerous reversion. For the first time since the end of World War II, military aggression in Europe by a major European power had led to political annexation and territorial expansion. The historical legacy of military invasion and territorial annexation by a major power in Europe, whatever the rationale for expansion, is slaughter and suffering that afflicts the combatants and affects the entire continent. It often spreads to other continents. In the 20th century, revanchist warfare in Europe seeded global war and massive loss of life.
"Revanche" is French for revenge.
Make no mistake: The Crimea caper is revanchist. The Kremlin openly states it has "re-integrated" Crimea into Russia.
On the fifth anniversary of the Kremlin's revanchist annexation -- March 18, 2019 -- Putin visited Crimea. His photo ops included a tour of power generation facilities. Despite sanctions (more on that in a moment) Russia has poured billions of dollars into Crimea.
The Russian president also gave a speech. Before a crowd chanting "Russia, Russia, Russia," he touted the Kremlin's program for modernizing Crimea and declared that "Russia has taken you (Crimea) into its fold with delight and joy ... We will fulfill all of our goals ... because we are together now."
Hugs and kisses, we're together.
However, Putin's 2019 speech -- as well as the brief Crimea tour -- were a tinnitus-riddled tin echo of 2014's Red Square glory.
Reuters quoted a poll that reported only 39 percent of Russians believe the Crimea annexation "brought more good than harm, down from 67 percent in 2014." The poll suggests Russians have paid a hefty domestic price for their government's military aggression.
Corrupt European politicians and a crooked media can be bribed to praise the Kremlin, and the Kremlin does that. However, sensible people understand the big picture, which is why the invasion and annexation changed the geopolitical landscape.
Today, Finns and Swedes openly discuss joining NATO. Poland is building a mechanized army outfitted with U.S. and western European weapons.
For good reason, the invasion seeded deep distrust of Putin and his government. The invasion violated the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, a multilateral mutual security agreement that U.S. president Bill Clinton signed. In exchange for Ukraine's nuclear weapons (over 4,000 Soviet-era weapons), the Russian government guaranteed Ukraine's territorial integrity.
Putin's Kremlin shredded the Budapest agreement, ignored the May 1997 Russia-Ukraine bilateral Treaty on Friendship, invaded Ukrainian territory without provocation and swiftly proclaimed Russian sovereignty.
A harsh lesson but an old lesson: Cunning thugs treat contracts and diplomatic agreements as momentary conveniences. In 2014, Putin surveyed Europe and North America and did not see an adversary with the will to confront him.
In the short term, he was right. He calculated he could ride out economic and political sanctions because he could cut off natural gas supplies to Western Europe.
What he didn't count on was the U.S. energy industry. Its innovative "fracking" technology to extract "tight" oil and gas eliminated the Kremlin's economic cudgel.
Putin hasn't given up. In August 2018, Russia started stocking a new cultural center in Crimea with art masterpieces from other Russian galleries. Moscow has built an expensive bridge across the Kerch Strait so Russians can drive from Russian territory to the peninsula.
Alas, most countries still recognize Crimea as Ukrainian territory; they know the history. On March 12, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Crimea Annexation Non-Recognition Act, which prohibits federal agencies "from taking any action that recognizes Russian sovereignty over Crimea."
Crimea has yet to ignite a devastating military conflict in Europe. However, a deep and dangerous economic and political war is underway. You cannot call it peace.