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Raeesah Kabir Headshot

What Crimea Means for US-Russian Relations

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On March 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russian plans to annex Crimea into the Russian Federation. The move came after weeks of back-and-forth between the governments of Ukraine, Russia and recent clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian forces. Putin cited Crimea's historical connection to Russia and need to combat NATO's growing influence over the region as the impetus for Russian Parliament's approval of the measure. While Russia claimed to uphold a Crimean vote on Wednesday to secede from Ukraine, NATO and the U.S. considered it illegal and conducted without international monitoring. Putin's action belies Russia's motivations in expanding the Russian Federation to include former Soviet-bloc territories and shows Russia's gaining political advantage in relations with the US on talks with Iran and Syria.

When Crimean activists called for secession from Ukraine in February, Russia indicated that it would support the actions of the protesters, forgoing respect for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial borders. Initially, the United States had warned of the destabilizing effect of the secession of Crimea would have on eastern Europe, but Pres. Obama delayed imposing sanctions or calling on NATO countries in eastern Europe to stand against Russia. The United States and European allies have been slow to respond to threats to Ukrainian sovereignty, as US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Powers only recently came out against Russia's plan to annex Crimea, equating it with "theft."

In response to Russia's annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian government recently introduced legislation to exclude citizenship right to those with pro-Russian sentiments, because of a fear of a domino effect of other territories Kharkiv, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya joining the Russian Federation. Putin's appeal harkens to the Soviet ideal of a centralized state in Moscow governing over differing ethnic groups, which could lead to destabilization in Eastern Europe. Leaders in former Soviet-bloc countries fear that Putin's annexation does not mark an end, but a beginning to further Russian land claims and Russian political influence in neighboring Moldova, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

In response to the influx of pro-Russian forces in Crimea, the United States and European countries' have done little to deter Putin. Militarily, the United States has reverted to Cold-War era tactic and sent navy ships closer to the Baltic and deployed fighter jets to Poland and other Baltic States. While some congressional Republicans have suggested a return to Pres. Bush's missile defense program and place a radar station in the Czech Republic 10 station-based interceptors in Poland, Pres. Obama is restricted to economic sanctions because of pressures to secure negotiations on nuclear weapons by the end of his second term. In this back-and-forth, Russia has maintained the diplomatic advantage, as Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin vowed that economic sanctions might lead to Russia's involvement in talks with Syria and Iran.

Putin's annexation of Crimea is a rejection of the sovereignty of nations and their territorial boundaries for the purpose of reestablishing the Russian Federation in the visage of Cold-War Soviet Union. Pres. Obama might be experiencing déjà-vu as the US will soon be forced to the Cold War playbook of frequent diplomatic skirmishes over Russia's actions in former Soviet-bloc nations. Ultimately, Russia's annexation of Crimea leaves the US and European allies beholden to react according to Putin's continued re-imagining of territorial boundaries, without deference to the UN or the international community, at large.