The war in Donbass currently overshadows Russia's annexation of Crimea one year ago, but Ingo Mannteufel thinks that Russia's political future can also be seen on the peninsula.
Crimea is a special place for Russians, simply because at some point almost every Russian citizen has spent happy vacation days on the sunny Black Sea peninsula. With its attractive climate, Crimea has been a place of recreation and longing in Russian culture since the 19th century.
At first, the Russian czars spent their summers there. In Soviet times Crimea was the most popular tourist destination in the country. From the early 1960s on, millions of Russian workers took their hard earned vacations on the peninsula. Even when Ukraine became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands of Russians continued to flock to Crimea every year.
Therefore it should come as no surprise that many Russians consider Crimea to be "their" peninsula. And when Crimea "returned to Russia" exactly one year ago on March 18, 2014, many Russians saw it as the result of some kind of historical justice. They were only too eager to go along with the Kremlin's claim that the citizens of Crimea had freely voted for Russian annexation in a referendum, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin was simply helping them fulfill that wish.
Illegal according to international law
It's hard to fight the emotion and enthusiasm of the battle cry "Crimea Is Ours!" Yet the legal assessment is clear: the Russian annexation of Crimea was a breach of international law, even if one ignores Ukrainian law, which makes no allowance for secession referendums. And even if one disregards multiple bilateral treaties between Russia and Ukraine, in which Russia has repeatedly acknowledged Ukraine's territorial integrity. The West has also made the point that the referendum was in no way a free expression of the will of the citizens of Crimea.
The snap referendum was not the result of any real political discourse. The question presented for vote was never intended to allow Crimea to remain part of Ukraine, and the whole referendum was held under the watch of armed Russian troops and partnering "self-defense forces." Even if many Russians don't want to hear it, Western politics will never accept the annexation of Crimea as legal!
Questions about future security order
In light of the bloodletting in Donbass and diplomatic efforts to enforce agreements made in Minsk, the legal assessment of the annexation of Crimea seems marginally important. Yet, the status of Crimea will burden relations between Russia and the West for years to come, even if a diplomatic solution to the Donbass dilemma can be found.
The US and the European Union cannot and will not accept such a fundamental breach of international law, especially since Putin has become increasingly open about Russia's role in guiding the Crimean referendum.
Crimea has thus become an involuntary symbol for a broken peace and security order in Europe. A true easing of tensions between Russia and the West can only come about after the legal status of Crimea has been settled internationally - either through a return of Crimea to Ukrainian sovereignty, or through a treaty between Russia and Ukraine in which an independent Ukrainian leadership freely surrenders its rights to the peninsula in accordance with international law.
In light of Putin's authoritarian path, both of these scenarios are utterly illusory at the moment. Logically, a political transformation must take place in Russia before an internationally acceptable solution to the Crimean question can be found. Crimea has thus become the reflection of Russia's fate. It truly is a very special place for Russians.