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The History and Lessons of Crimea’s “breakaway”

Immediately after the disintegration of the USSR, Russia began activities to restore its control over Crimea and Sevastopol. This area has had great importance to Russia as a “window to Europe” since 1774. During the Soviet era, the geopolitical significance of Crimea increased as a staging point to project power to the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. In addition, the military history of Sevastopol had great ideological value for the Russian leadership. They couldn’t reconcile themselves with the fact of the loss of such an important territory. Thus, since the early 1990s, Russia commenced an intensive engagement plan to retain its influence on Ukraine’s Crimea and Sevastopol. These activities and subsequent investments laid a solid foundation for the illegal occupation of the peninsula in 2014.

The naval base in Crimea was crucial to the Russian operation. It not only offered ample cover for Russia to strengthen its military presence under disguise, but also allowed for extensive influence operations to shape the battlefield in advance of the occupation. Russia decided to exploit the Ukrainian vacuum of state power that occurred on the eve of the “Revolution of Dignity” in February – March 2014. The Russian military forces already in place in Crimea, the positioning of numerous Russian Battalion Tactical Groups along the Ukrainian border supported by Russian air power, and the Ukrainian uncertainty concerning the allegiance of personnel in its security and defence forces on the peninsula allowed Russia to act quickly and decisively and offer Ukraine a “fait accompli”: Ukraine could fight an overwhelming military force and risk losing all of Ukraine, or instead it could surrender Crimea and still survive as a state.

This analytical paper will provide lessons learned from Crimea’s “breakaway”. Apart from the Government of Ukraine and its Crimea Platform partners, the report will also be relevant for other international actors affected by Russia’s influence.