The distinctions between Russia and Ukraine became deeply blurred in the days of the Soviet Union, of which both countries were members. Longtime Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev had been born just west of the present border and reportedly retained a lifelong fondness for all things Ukrainian. He became leader of the Soviet Union in September 1953, and one of his early acts in office was to reassign overlordship of Crimea from the Russian Soviet Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, as a gesture of friendship to Ukraine. (In both cases, Crimea enjoyed a degree of autonomy from the central government.)
When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, Ukraine gained international recognition as an independent state with the borders that Krushchev had earlier delineated.
Throughout the twentieth century and until recently, Crimea and other parts of eastern Ukraine contained many ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking citizens. (In the 2001 census, 29.6% of Ukrainians described themselves as native Russian speakers.) In the 31 years since 1991, several Ukrainian governments have tried to curtail the rights of the Russian speakers. The most recent such move was a law that came into force in January 2022, that forbade the publication and distribution in Ukraine of print materials in Russian, Belarusian, and Yiddish.
In March 2014, Crimea’s regional parliament held a referendum of the province’s population: 97% of them voted to end its association with Ukraine and return to its previous relationship with Russia. The following month the heavily-ethnic-Russian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk located in the eastern Donbas region also announced their secession from Kyiv; but instead of integrating with Russia as Crimeans had, they both declared themselves to be independent People’s Republics.
Those moves towards secession occurred in the context of the central government in Kyiv still being convulsed by the fallout from the recent pro-EU “Euromaidan” protests. The US-backed rulers in Kyiv who’d emerged out of that chaos sent military units to try to suppress the secessionists in D0nestk and Luhansk. (For Crimea, the Kyiv authorities tried to rely more on cutting off the water supplies on which the peninsular was deeply reliant.) In Donetsk and Luhansk, the Ukrainian military met tough resistance. A slogging civil war ensued in both areas, in which the separatists received some support from Russia.
In September 2014, and then in early 2015, Russia, Ukraine, the heads of the two secessionary republics, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) all signed onto two linked agreements called Minsk I and Minsk II. Those agreements stipulated a ceasefire across the Donbas region and to a negotiated resolution of all the political issues outstanding between Kyiv and the secessionists, including language rights and political decentralization within Ukraine.
The ceasefire agreed to in the Minsk Accords was monitored by the OSCE, a pan-European body created by the Helsinki Accords of 1975. It was only partly successful in tamping down the violence. The fighting in the Donbas claimed the lives of some 14,400 people between 2014 and 2021. Meantime, the political-reform talks promised in Minsk never got off the ground.
In an in-depth discussion on Ukraine that I co-led in March 2022, the long-time expert on Ukraine-Russia relations Anatol Lieven laid out his view of how these issues might be resolved:
The Ukrainian side should not seem to bow to Russian pressure on Russian language rights in Ukraine. It should make a free offer on its own to withdraw the laws discriminating against the Russian language, because after all, the Russians and Russian speakers of Ukraine have deserved this by their loyalty and resistance.
Now the biggest problem, it seems to me, is the territorial issue. Ukraine would not lose anything by recognizing Russian sovereignty over Crimea because Crimea has been lost for the past eight years. And no expert I know thinks that Ukraine can ever reconnect and no successor regime to Putin’s, if such there ever is, will agree to sacred to give up Crimea again. Navalny has said that. He said we need a second referendum in Crimea to confirm its part of Russia. Absolutely, fair enough… But the Ukrainians have suggested that this could be compartmentalized. In other words, kicked into the diplomatic long grass for future negotiations.
What Russia will definitely require, however—this kind of thing should be part of a peace settlement anyway—are guarantees that Ukraine won’t do what Ukraine very foolishly has been doing for the past couple of years, which is blockading the water supply to Crimea, which was doing terrible damage to Crimea and agriculture and the Crimean economy. One of the reasons why Russia is demanding recognition is to rule that out in future. But obviously a peace agreement would have to have elements saying no military pressure, no military threats, and no economic pressure from either side on this while the negotiating process continues.
The Donbas is a bigger issue because, of course, Russia has recognized the Donbas republics in the entire territory of the two Donbas provinces, but at the start of this war, it only held part of those provinces. That means that either the Ukrainians have to give up more territory or the Russians have to retreat from territory that they’ve conquered. But there is an elegant way out of this, which is that what could be could be internationally supervised referenda on the whole territory of these provinces, but on a district by district basis. And one would assume that the areas that have been separatists for the past eight years and have been repeatedly shelled—people forget this—and bombarded by the Ukrainians, would vote to stay with Russia.
And I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that the areas that have recently been attacked by Russia (and of course, many civilians have been killed) would probably vote to stay in Ukraine and so you would have those areas partitioned. Now, in a reasonable world, all of this seems to me actually fairly obvious and negotiable, and it also seems to be the kind of thing which in other circumstances, the west itself would put forward as a solution for a conflict of this kind.
But A, of course, we don’t live in a reasonable world, alas… And secondly, of course, the west is hardly a neutral broker in this.