KYIV – The seventh anniversary of Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea passed on February 27 as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a number of measures and announced the creation of an international platform to free the peninsula and protect the rights of Crimean Tatars.
In a video address to the nation on February 26, Mr. Zelenskyy said the presidential decrees are “aimed at the de-occupation and reintegration of the Crimean Peninsula.”
Without mentioning Russia in the four-and-a-half-minute video, the president compared the illegal annexation of Crimea as tearing “the heart” out of the country.
He continued: “We will never forget who did this and we will never forget who allowed it to be done.”
Statements of support from Ukraine’s allies were made public during the week in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
“The United States does not, and will never, recognize Russia’s purported annexation of the peninsula, and we will stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggressive acts,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a White House statement on February 26. “We will continue to work to hold Russia accountable for its abuses and aggression in Ukraine.”
The following day, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that “Russia’s invasion and seizure of Crimea is a brazen affront to the international order, and we call on Russia to end its occupation of Crimea immediately.”
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign affairs minister, referred to Russia’s annexation as “violent” and “illegal” while saying that Brussels “remains steadfast in its commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Before The Ukrainian Weekly went to print, the 27 EU ambassadors in Brussels agreed on March 3 to extend sanctions on 177 individuals and 48 entities for an additional six months for allegedly undermining the territorial integrity of Ukraine, according to reporting by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
In a separate decision, asset freezes imposed on former President Viktor Yanukovych and seven others from his cohort were also prolonged. In January 2019, a Ukrainian court found Mr. Yanukovych guilty of high treason in absentia.
In a similar move, President Biden on March 3 signed an executive order extending for one year Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia.
Meanwhile, during a two-day visit to Ukraine, which included a stop at the front in the Donbas where a war against Russian-led, supplied and trained forces simmers in a seventh year, European Council President Charles Michel blamed Moscow for not doing enough to uphold a cease-fire agreement that still hasn’t taken hold since it was brokered twice in 2014 and 2015.
Speaking at the Shchastya civilian entry-exit crossing point in the Luhansk region, Mr. Michel said sanctions would be prolonged against Russia for its inaction in holding to the terms of the agreement.
He added that “Russia is a party to this conflict and not a mediator.”
According to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights’ (ECHR) decision from December, Russia’s occupation of Crimea started on February 27, 2014.
“On February 27, 2014, over 100 heavily armed men stormed the buildings of the Supreme Council and the Council of Ministers of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea,” the ECHR decision said. The militants also blocked key infrastructure, including Ukrainian military and naval posts based on the peninsula.
The previous day, Crimean Tatars held their biggest rally at the peninsula’s parliamentary building in Simferopol in support of a unitary Ukraine. Since Russia’s takeover of the region, those individuals who have remained have been systemically persecuted, kidnapped, killed or disappeared.
The invasion came in the wake of the Euro-Maidan revolution that saw Mr. Yanukovych abandon office for self-exile in Russia amid a popular uprising against his kleptocratic and increasingly authoritarian rule.
On March 1, 2014, he wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking him to send military personnel into Ukraine.
Initially, Mr. Putin denied Russian soldiers took part in the Crimean invasion.
“Russia has not deployed any troops in Crimea,” Mr. Putin was quoted as saying on March 4, 2014. He instead called the armed men “local self-defense forces.”
A month later on April 17, 2014, the Russian president gloated that he had ordered the invasion of Crimea in which Russian military personnel were deployed.
Nearly 50 countries, including the U.S., Canada, Britain, Japan, Australia and Switzerland have sanctioned Russia for its aggression toward Ukraine. Some of the restrictive measures include a ban on importing products from Crimea, on flights to airports and calls to seaports, and limitations on trade and investment.
Meanwhile, the Russia-instigated war in Donbas has killed more than 14,000 people and internally displaced over a million more.
On March 1, the Pentagon announced it had awarded Ukraine a $125 million U.S. military aid package. The assistance includes two Mark VI patrol boats for Ukraine’s growing mosquito fleet, counter-artillery radar, as well as satellite imagery augmentation and analysis capability.
Another $150 million is contingent upon Kyiv meeting key reform benchmarks this year, the U.S. Defense Department said. Since 2014, Ukraine has received more than $2 billion in security aid from Washington.
In February, 11 Ukrainian servicemen were killed, mostly from sniper fire, in eastern Ukraine where the war simmers in two regions. Ukrainian military intelligence recently stated that at any given time a group of 50 snipers from Russia operate in the area.
Defense intelligence officer Vadym Skibitskyi told Donbas Reality, a project of RFE/RL, that “according to our data, now the number of such units is about 450 snipers.”
Former President Leonid Kravchuk, who is part of the Ukrainian delegation of the Trilateral Contact Group for ongoing peace talks, said on March 3 that there is the risk that Russia might pull out of the truce.
He stated that troops on the ground in the Donbas have received permission to fire “warning shots for suppressing enemy firing points.”
“We regard to this statement [by the self-proclaimed authorities of Donetsk People’s Republic] as a threat to Russia’s unilateral withdrawal from the ceasefire and a threat to disrupt the implementation of the Minsk agreements,” Mr. Kravchuk said in reference to the Belarusian capital where two peace agreements were brokered between Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France.