Annexation: One year later

It has been just over one year since Russian President Vladimir Putin orchestrated the virtually bloodless annexation of Crimea.

At that juncture, Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s elected president, had just been ousted by pro-West protesters following months of violent demonstrations in the streets of Kiev.

With Yanukovych officially deposed by a vote in parliament, the long-standing divisions within Ukraine rose to the fore. Ukrainians living east of the Dnieper River, many of them ethnic Russians, began their own violent demonstrations in rejection of the new interim administration in Kiev.

In the midst of this political turmoil and instability, Russian military personnel based in Crimea moved quickly to surround and disarm Ukrainian military garrisons with whom they shared the strategic peninsula.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and independence of Ukraine in 1991, Russia had been leasing the port of Sebastopol, the home base for the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet.

In April 2010, the two countries negotiated the Kharkiv Pact and an extension of the lease until 2042. However, with Kiev under new management and threatening closer ties to the West, the Kremlin was taking no chances over any future eviction notice.

Despite the fact that the Ukrainian military outnumbered the Russians, they surrendered their weapons and bases without firing a single shot. In fact, the majority of the Ukrainian military personnel who were detained voluntarily re-enlisted in the Russian military, where they would receive a considerably more lucrative salary.

Those Ukrainian soldiers wishing to leave Crimea were allowed to do so, along with the majority of their major weapons systems, such as tanks and fighter jets.

A Ukrainian naval officer leaves his base in Sebastopol under the gaze of masked Russian fighters.

A Ukrainian naval officer leaves his base in Sebastopol under the gaze of masked Russian fighters.

To give an element of legitimacy to his annexation, Putin staged a hasty referendum in March 2014 that produced a result of over 95 per cent of the popular vote in favour of uniting Crimea to Russia.

This resulted in international howls of indignation, with Canada’s then-foreign affairs minister, John Baird, likening Putin to Adolf Hitler.

Hillary Clinton, the American secretary of state, blustered that “You can’t simply redraw the lines of the map of Europe.” This would, of course, be news to any student of 20th-century history.

The Treaty of Versailles, following the First World War, saw the creation of numerous independent countries and territories that once belonged to the vanquished German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, while the Russian Bolsheviks, in turn, annexed territory to create the Soviet Union.

Ditto the end of the Second World War, when the victors rewarded allies and punished foes by redrawing the maps. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which coincided with the start of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the division of the Czech and Slovak republics, not to mention the reunification of East and West Germany.

While many of these developments were bloodless, it was a different story in both the former Yugoslavia and the Caucasus. The bitter civil wars and border disputes in these two regions remain simmering global hot spots and frozen conflicts.

As for redrawing maps, it was Hillary Clinton’s husband, then-president Bill Clinton, who was instrumental in leading NATO’s intervention against Serbia in the spring of 1999. After a 78-day bombing campaign that killed more than 1,200 innocent civilians, Serbia capitulated and allowed NATO troops to enter the disputed province of Kosovo.

The Americans immediately began the construction of an enormous military base known as Camp Bondsteel, which remains a strategic foothold in the Balkans.

In February 2008, the ethnic Albanian Kosovar majority unilaterally declared independence and the United States was the first nation to redraw the map of Europe by recognizing the newly created state of Kosovo. Unlike Crimea, there was no referendum.

The thankful Albanian Kosovars officially recognized the contributions to the creation of their country. In Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, there is a seven-storey portrait of a smiling Bill Clinton on Hillary Clinton Way.

In 2015, however, times are tough in Kosovo. Since last fall, a mass exodus of young Albanians has been underway, flooding into Europe, complaining of poverty, unemployment and widespread corruption in their new country.

This couldn’t be further from the one-year litmus test taken among the newly annexed residents of Crimea. Obviously hoping to prove dissatisfaction with the annexation, a Canadian government-funded survey of 800 Crimean residents taken in January proved the exact opposite. The poll revealed that 82 per cent fully supported the annexation, 11 per cent partly supported it and a mere four per cent opposed it. The majority also reported that their standard of living had improved in the last year.

That evil Putin has some nerve gobbling up territory and making people happy.