Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 92

Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov and senior members of Russia’s Duma persist in making territorial claims to Sevastopol, following Luzhkov’s foray into the Ukrainian territory of the Crimea (see EDM, May 13). These continuing statements appear designed to question Ukraine’s sovereignty in Sevastopol, and more broadly in the Crimea, at the Russian-Ukrainian level and even internationally.

Russia’s executive branch of government is itself moving, albeit less demonstratively than the politicians, from unqualified recognition of Ukraine’s territorial integrity to a qualified recognition, contingent on Ukraine’s decisions with regard to Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol and Ukraine-NATO relations. Russia is building leverage to pressure Ukraine on those issues by questioning the territorial status quo.

On his return to Moscow, Luzhkov escalated the demands for territorial revision in a televised interview and a communiqué from his office. “Ukraine thinks that the Crimea belongs to Ukraine and that Sevastopol also does. I say that this state has no grounds whatsoever for appropriating the Crimea and Sevastopol.” At a minimum, “it is our obligation to confirm the Russian status and the Russian ownership of Sevastopol.” Furthermore, Russia must act before the expiry of the Russian Fleet’s lease of the Sevastopol base [it expires in 2017, but the evacuation would have to start much earlier]. Along with “our special attitude to our history, our special memories,” he argues, “Russia can not provide security for our southern borders without Sevastopol. The consequences of losing it are unimaginable.” (Interfax, Center TV, May 13).

According to the Duma’s vice-chairman from the One Russia governing party, Lyubov Sliska, “Luzhkov’s statements correspond to reality. We shall have to resolve the Crimea problem in any case.” Sliska and other Duma members support the proposal to launch legal action in international courts for the return of Sevastopol, and potentially the Crimea, to Russia (Interfax, Itar-Tass, May 12, 13).

Russian politicians often cite Sevastopol’s status bestowed in 1948 as an administrative entity distinct from the rest of the Crimea and subordinated (as was the rest of the Crimea for a period of time) directly to the central authorities in Moscow. According to this argument, Sevastopol’s status of direct subordination to Moscow did not change when the USSR government transferred the Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. Russian revisionist politicians now regard that transfer as an illegitimate “personal” decision by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, although the decision was in fact made collectively by the USSR bodies of power in accordance with the Soviet law of the time.

The revisionist arguments also ignore the legal situation that has existed since 1991, with international recognition of Ukraine’s sovereignty in the Crimea and Sevastopol (with no distinction made between them). In addition, Russia itself recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty over the area in the 1997 interstate treaty, 1997 agreement on the basing of the fleet and the 2004 Russia-Ukraine treaty on the mutual borders.

The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s May 12 statement defending Luzhkov omitted the customary acknowledgement of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Such acknowledgements have been a matter of routine in official statements even with regard to countries where Russia violates that integrity de facto, such as Georgia and Moldova. Meanwhile, Russia has openly withdrawn its recognition of Georgia’s territorial integrity and is moving toward a conditional form of recognition of Ukraine’s integrity. Its omission from the Russian MFA’s statement, along with its support for Luzhkov, reflects this incipient process.

Vladimir Putin’s recent remarks while still president of Russia clarified Russia’s position on that account. During the recent NATO summit and in the follow-up meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Sochi, Putin commented that much of Ukraine’s territory had been “given away” by Russia and that Ukraine would “cease to exist as a state” if it joined NATO. In that case, Putin hinted, Russia would encourage secession of the Crimea and eastern regions of Ukraine. While Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to deny Putin’s comments, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov confirmed them almost explicitly, though more diplomatically, for the media. Duma politicians and Kremlin consultants, such as Gleb Pavlovsky, have suggested that Russia withdraw from the 1997 treaty or, technically speaking, not renew its validity upon its expiry in 2009 (see EDM, March 24, April 10, 14).

Non-renewal of the treaty, or suspension pending renegotiation, would also reflect Russia’s move toward conditional recognition of territorial integrity in the case of Ukraine and potentially with other countries also.

Moscow seems interested in generating some kind of bilateral or international debate about the status of the Crimea and Sevastopol. It may also want to increase its influence on the peninsula by sending encouraging signals to local activist groups. The Ukrainian government is reacting calmly, aware that polemical reactions could play into Moscow’s hands.