Seven Years After: Reflections on Russia’s Annexation of Crimea  

Seven Years After: Reflections on Russia’s Annexation of Crimea  

We are still dealing with the ripple effects of these events years later, making Russia’s annexation of Crimea worthy of reflection in more ways than one.


Such a strategy was also predictable in the context of Russia’s geopolitical imperatives. Since its war with Georgia in 2008, Russia made clear that it had little tolerance for Western-oriented states in the former Soviet periphery, or its “near abroad.” A pro-Western government in Kiev thus represented a strategic threat to Moscow, especially one that immediately made EU and NATO integration its top foreign policy priority. Given the nature of how things unfolded in Kiev, Moscow felt it had no choice but to respond to stop Ukraine from reversing its orientation from Russia to the West, or at least make it as painful for Kiev as possible.

How events subsequently unfolded throughout Ukraine was also instructive. Because of its largely pro-Russian population and existing site of Russian military facilities, Crimea was the obvious choice for Russia’s initial response to Maidan, serving as the low-hanging fruit. Moscow’s next response came in Eastern Ukraine, which also had strong pro-Russian elements, albeit not as pronounced as in Crimea. There, Moscow supported separatist statelets in Donetsk and Luhansk, but it did so indirectly and unofficially, and Russia was not willing to take the full step of annexation as the local support for that was much weaker. The result has been a long and bloody conflict, one which gives Moscow room for maneuver in the “gray zone.”


Notably, the fears of Russia mounting a full invasion of Ukraine did not materialize. This was because Moscow knew that the political and social support it had in Crimea, and to a lesser extent in Donbas, was simply lacking in other parts of the country, especially Kiev and Western Ukraine. Thus, Russia’s military actions in Ukraine were carefully calibrated with what Moscow deemed as manageable both on a tactical and strategic level, taking into account not only the domestic population but also potential repercussions from the West if Russia went too far. This is an important lesson to keep in mind for not only analyzing Russian military actions since then, but also in anticipating any further military interventions by Russia in the future. Despite its aggressive appearance, Moscow is actually conservative with its use of direct military force, using it only when its strategic interests and local political conditions coincide (i.e., Syria).

Another lesson from Ukraine, and one that has application to all conflicts around the world, is the importance of understanding different perceptions and biases among conflicting parties. To the protesters in Kiev and to many in the West, Euromaidan was a democratic revolution against a corrupt and illegitimate government. To Russia and many in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Euromaidan was an illegal and Western-organized coup d’état. Visiting Kiev and Crimea was like traveling between two different worlds, and I could only begin to get a clearer picture of the Ukrainian conflict—and more importantly to anticipate its trajectory—once I had talked to people from all sides of the political spectrum. 

A final lesson from Crimea, and perhaps the most obvious, is that the world is extremely interconnected. What started as a small protest movement in Kiev spread rapidly, first to Crimea, then to Eastern Ukraine, then throughout the world. The Ukrainian conflict in part fueled Russia’s entrance into the Syrian conflict a year later, and Moscow’s standoff with the West was a major factor in Russian hacking and meddling in the U.S. elections in 2016. We are still dealing with the ripple effects of these events years later, making Russia’s annexation of Crimea worthy of reflection in more ways than one. 

Eugene Chausovsky is a Non-Resident Fellow with the Newlines Institute. Chausovsky previously served as Senior Eurasia Analyst at the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor for more than ten years. His work focuses on political, economic, and security issues pertaining to Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East.

Image: Reuters.