Identity Politics in Russia’s Annexation of Crimea in 2014
A man with a Russian flag greets armed men in military fatigues blocking access to a Ukrainian border guards base not far from the village of Perevalne near Simferopol on March 3, 2014.
When NATO began expanding into ex-Soviet countries in the early 21st century, the Putin-led Russian government found its security threatened. In order to create a defining line between Europe and Russia, it began to push back against this NATO expansion. The first time it did this was in 2008 when it took over Georgian territory to create a “frozen conflict”, compromising the country’s borders, therefore stopping Georgia from joining NATO. In a similar fashion, Russia took over the Crimean peninsula in 2014, challenging Ukrainian sovereignty. It used the media to manufacture a sense of “ethnic Russian identity” based on deep linguistic and historic links between the peninsula and the state. This was the Russian government’s way of trying to legitimise its claim over the peninsula by manufacturing the consent of the people.
Ukraine’s sovereignty was consistently compromised by the Russian government’s portrayal of Ukraine as a follower, and later its takeover of parts of the country’s sovereign land in order to restrict the choices that the Ukrainian government had. The Russian government exploited its greater soft power influence on politics and advanced military to compromise Ukraine’s identity as a sovereign state and exploit the identity of the inhabitants of Crimea.
Identity was the driving force behind the invasion of Crimea, due to the integral roles that ethnic nationalism, linguistic nationalism and political ideologies played in it. The Russian government exploited the meaning of a Russian Identity to show their actions as the correct way forward. It consistently used media to undermine Ukraine’s identity as a sovereign state. Further, it used the identities of groups potentially opposing its ideologies against them –– creating a basis for discrimination.
The two main perspectives that will be looked at here are of Russia and Ukraine, concerning how each of these countries used identity or had their identity moulded by the events leading up to and of the invasion of Crimea. The theories which will be used to evaluate their perspectives will be Offensive Realism, Gramsci’s theory of Hegemony and Liberalism.
The Russian Approach
To begin with, I will be exploring Russia’s perspective. When Ukraine first became a sovereign state, Russia constantly pushed it as a “sister state”, meaning that the Ukrainian government should always follow its lead. It was trying to mould Ukraine’s identity in the favour of Russia, and take away from its image of sovereignty. In 2013, however, when a West-leaning government came into power in Ukraine, Putin found this Russia-centric ideology that they had been trying to push for the Ukrainian government was at risk.
The Russian government knew that a West-leaning government in Ukraine meant that Ukraine would potentially join EU and NATO. This threatened Russia because it sees NATO entering Eastern Europe as a threat to Russian sovereignty. Therefore, Russia felt the need to ensure that Ukraine could not take this decision to move away from supporting the Russian government and that Russia’s interests in Ukraine were secured. To do this, Russia needed control of the Crimean Peninsula, which held Russia’s only warm water port, Sevastopol.
Based on Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, to enforce the Russian government’s power upon the Crimean citizens, the Kremlin needed to gain the people's consent. As Gramsci’s theory states, one of the ways consent is manufactured is when those with economic and political power, such as governments, manipulate media or exploit informational power to reform the ideologies of people.
This was done by Putin using the existing unrest in Kyiv, caused by pro-democratic and pro-west movements that were taking place in the capital at that time. They spread false information regarding the protests, painting the Ukrainian government as violent and oppressive of free speech. It used its monopoly over Russian media to portray the Russian style of governance as peaceful and purposefully excluded any news of unrest within Russian borders. This in turn made the Russian-speaking population of Crimea begin to identify more strongly with the supposed peace and stability of the Russian government than the fabricated violence of the Ukrainian government. In this way, the Kremlin manufactured the consent of the Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens of Crimea for the invasion of Ukraine.
Through its adoption of an offensive realist strategy, Russia broke international law, indicating its refusal to recognise any authority greater than the state, challenged the post-war world order by challenging the Western dominance over global politics, used violence to rewrite borders and challenged the Westphalian system by interfering in the internal affairs of Ukraine. Its motivations in Crimea were to avoid a security dilemma –– the driving force behind global politics according to John Mearsheimer.
Map of Russia, Ukraine and Crimea
Russia seized Crimea through the usage of hard power, where it disguised Russian troops as unnamed soldiers with no national marking and infiltrated the Crimean peninsula. Soft power, or informational power, was greatly exploited in Russian language media which Putin used to turn the largely Russian-speaking population of Crimea against the revolutions and shifts toward democracy that were taking place in Ukraine. Russia amplified only the negative impacts of the democratic revolution in Ukraine in order to keep its power over not only the state but the Russian-speaking population of Crimea, making everyone more open to the idea of Russia invading Crimea as a form of “salvation”. This is an example of hybrid warfare, with Russia using military warfare to actually take over the sovereign territory of Ukraine, but it also uses informational warfare to compromise the internal legitimacy of the Ukrainian government by turning a part of Ukraine’s population against the central government.
Up until 2013, Ukraine was willing to allow the Russian government to mould its identity as it had a lot to gain from the Russian government’s proximity and offers. Earlier governments preferred the matching offers that Russia gave them to the offers of the West. This fed into Russian propaganda of Ukraine being a state whose decisions were influenced by the Russian government, reducing its recognition of it as a sovereign state.
For the Ukrainian government in power at the time of the Crimean invasion, Russia was an aggressor who was compromising their sovereignty and held illegitimate claims to sovereign Ukrainian land. This Ukrainian government was also backed by the West and a majority of the international community. Ukraine and the international community denied the legitimacy of Russia’s claims on the Crimean peninsula as it was legally recognized as Ukrainian territory. This is what undermined the legitimacy of the Russian government, as Russia was now seen as an aggressive and unlawful state –– redefining its identity in global politics.
Ukraine wanted to adopt a liberal philosophy, indicating a preference for international cooperation rather than militaristic tendencies –– the state wanted the freedom to choose who they could cooperate with and wanted to be a part of larger international discussions and systems rather than work independently in the manner which Russia wanted it to. Ukraine wanted in on the shared security that came with cooperation, indicating that it bought into the idea of interdependence in the international system, wanting mutual reliance and protection, an idea that Russia repeatedly rejected and wanted Ukraine to follow suit in rejecting.
On Ukraine’s end, its citizens were also denied their basic democratic rights by Russia. Its citizens, such as the Crimean Tatars were denied the human right to freedom of speech and expression as declared by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when Russia mass incarcerated the youth of the community for speaking out against the invasion. The manipulation of media also compromised the right to freedom of belief because the Russian government manipulated the opinions of the Crimeans. Russia, therefore, violated one of the fundamental agreements of all UN members, which gave Ukraine’s claim on Crimea international legitimacy.
There were existing questions on Ukraine’s internal legitimacy before the Russian government’s manipulation of public opinion. In 2014, Ukraine ranked 142nd on the Corruption Perception Index, indicating that people would have existing questions about the Ukrainian government and its motivations. This, alongside the extreme inequality caused by an oligarchy similar to the Russian one, created deep-rooted unrest in regions of Ukraine. With Russia challenging Ukraine’s sovereignty and manipulating public opinion further, a large portion of Crimeans and Eastern Ukraine no longer recognised the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government, demonstrating how the government’s international legitimacy did not match its internal legitimacy.
Ukrainian citizens had their identity as Ukrainians challenged, especially those in Crimea as they were forced to choose sides between their ethnic backgrounds and their citizenship. Fuelling the existing unrest between Crimeans and the Ukrainian government, Russia was able to gain control of Crimea with greater ease.
Taking a step back, a broader trend of governments manipulating identity to fit their narrative and reintegrate parts of what they view as their sovereign territory can be observed. This tendency of governments to create or modify the identities of people is often used to legitimise their claims. The two examples that will be discussed are China & Hong Kong, and Turkey with the Kurds.
When Britain relinquished control of Hong Kong, the Chinese government agreed to give them a degree of autonomy and democracy for 50 years. However, the Chinese government has begun going back on that promise and started to try to integrate Hong Kong into the Chinese system much earlier than agreed to. This was done because China saw Hong Kong citizens as “ethnically Chinese” just as Russia saw Crimeans as “ethnic Russians”. The key difference between these two case studies is that the Chinese government mostly used hard power and intimidation tactics whereas the Russian government used a form of hybrid warfare and actually manufactured the consent of the people before taking over the region.
Next, the Turkish government has been suppressing the Kurdish separatist movement for many decades now. The Kurds seek autonomy and a separate state, whereas the Turkish government wants to keep them as a part of the country. In order to do this, the Turkish government outright denies the cultural and ethnic identity of the Kurds in order to retain control over the regions occupied by the Kurds. This shows an example of how a government may manipulate identity to be less important and less nationalist, as compared to Russia who was drumming up the ethnic and linguistic links between Russia and Crimea rather than suppressing them.
These two case studies provide further insight into how governments manipulate identity in order to gain control over a territory over which they do not have a legitimate claim.
To conclude, this case study discussed the Russian government’s exploitation of the identity of Crimeans to gain control over the Crimean peninsula and helped us understand how governments use their power in order to control identity and promote a narrative in their favour. This case study shows the importance of identity in global politics by showing how it can be used against countries’ sovereignty and legitimacy, while also showing how it challenges human rights.