Ukrainian Ambassador to Ankara Sergiy Korsunsky has stated that due to international pressure, Ukraine did not fight back against the Russian annexation of the CrimeanPeninsula -- a move that has been rejected by the international community -- adding that time will be the best warrior on their side.
“The question was why Ukrainians were not fighting for Crimea. We had two reasons for that. First, we were not ready militarily. Second, if we had fought back, this would have led to a full-scale war. That was what Russia wanted in order to legitimize its annexation. But the international community advised us not to fight,” said Korsunsky.
Russia's annexation of Crimea came shortly after mass protests in February toppled Ukraine's pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovich. Through a controversial referendum in mid-March, Crimea unilaterally decided to leave Ukraine and join Russia; the Crimean parliament declared the autonomous region's independence and formally applied to join the Russian Federation. Western powers opposed the Russian annexation of Crimea; they accuse Moscow of violating international law vis-à-vis the annexation.
“They made a referendum and said it was the will of the Crimean people. Which Crimean people? This is really ridiculous,” said Korsunsky.
In an exclusive interview with Today's Zaman, Korsunsky stated the Crimean crisis was affected by many forces from inside and outside of Crimea. “The international community kept on advising us to remain restrained, not to launch a war. However, we are at a point now where Crimea is occupied by Russia, which is a situation considered by us a great mistake and unacceptable. We could even say it was fine if Crimea was not occupied by Russia but was liberated and became independent. However, after World War II, it is the first time a territory has been occupied by a country for no reason,” said the ambassador.
When asked what would have happened if Ukraine had fought back against Russia for Crimea, the Ukrainian envoy noted that a full-scale war would be a disaster for Europe. “We have 15 nuclear reactors in our territory. We have 36,000 kilometers of oil and gas pipelines and a huge chemical industry in the eastern part of Ukraine. If such a full-scale war had started at that time, with the 15 nuclear reactors, it would be the end of Europe. That is the point. We are in the 21st century and we unfortunately still feel the consequences of World War II,” said Korsunsky.
When asked about the timing of the Russian move, the ambassador stated that the Russians had been preparing to occupy the peninsula for years.
“Since Ukraine became independent, we always knew that there was one very weak point in the country. This weak point was Crimea because of the Russian claims over the territory. If you look at the history of Ukraine, you will see that Russia has always tried to erase Ukrainian culture and presence in Crimea. Therefore, every leader of Ukraine tried to conduct policies towards Crimea. Crimea receives a special status,” said the Ukrainian ambassador.
When the violence escalated in the CrimeanPeninsula, Russia stated that it was ready to fight a war over Crimea to protect the ethnic Russian population and its military base there. On the peninsula, located on the northern coast of the Black Sea where Russia's Black Sea fleet is stationed, ethnic Russians make up almost 60 percent of the population, with Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars accounting for the rest. Russia's Black Sea fleet has a base in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol.
“Despite the Russian move, we believe with no doubt that, one day, Ukraine will have Crimea again and this is only when the leadership changes in Russia. No leader lives forever,” said Korsunsky. Crimea is a historical battleground of rival powers Russia and Ukraine.
Russia carries out a propaganda war for Crimea
The Ukrainian ambassador noted that Russia was carrying out a propaganda war, misleading the people against the Ukrainian leadership.
“Everything is distorted, nothing is true. For example, they [Russians] show a video from the Chechnya war saying that those in the video are fascist Ukrainians. This kind of propaganda is unbelievable. This is complete brainwashing,” said the envoy.
When asked what was the attitude towards the majority of the Ukrainians towards the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the ambassador replied that it was mixed.
“Some believe that Crimea can stay with Russia because Ukraine was subsidizing the peninsula. However, there will never be a Ukrainian leader who will be bold enough to say: Let Crimea go. Also the majority of Ukrainians will not accept it,” said Korsunsky.
Saying that the annexation of the peninsula was totally illegal, Korsunsky noted that Crimea was brutally taken from Ukraine without any legal or historical explanation.
“If in Crimea, one day, a political movement demanded for independence, we would be fine with it. In such a case, after a referendum, an independent state could be established. Then, we will try to figure out how we could establish relations with that state. But now what happened to Crimea is unacceptable,” said the ambassador.
Apart from its military importance, Crimea is historically valued by Russians more than other Ukrainian regions because of the controversy over a decision made by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev -- who was born in Ukraine -– to sign it over from Russia to Ukraine in 1954.
“After World War II, Khrushchev visited Crimea. What he found was a completely destroyed peninsula due to the war. He went to Kiev and asked Ukraine to take Crimea. At that time, Crimea was not a gift but was a burden given to us. We spent years building the infrastructure of a territory which was totally destroyed,” said the ambassador.
Crimean crisis shifted balances in region
The Ukrainian ambassador stated that the crisis in Crimea changed the balances in the region, particularly referring to the Russian and Western move to increase military power in the Black Sea region.
“Look at the map. Crimea will very quickly transform into a military base. Russians can completely block half of the Black Sea in the case of a war. Without Crimea, Russia will be isolated in the Black Sea. Today, Crimea is used as a base against NATO. The military balance in the Black Sea is changed today,” said the ambassador.
The ambassador noted that the increase of the military presence by Russia and NATO in the Black Sea was disturbing.
“From the military and the security point of view, everything is changed in the region and this change will have important implications,” said Korsunsky.
NATO suspended all practical cooperation with Russia in protest at its annexation of Crimea, and ordered military planners to draft measures to strengthen its defenses and reassure nervous Eastern European countries.
The United States and other NATO allies have already responded to the crisis by offering more planes to take part in regular NATO air patrols over the Baltic states, which were once Soviet republics. The United States has beefed up a previously planned training exercise with the Polish air force.
According to reports, the Russian military believes that NATO is assembling a battle fleet in the region due to the appearance of US warships in the Black Sea.
Montreux Convention soon to be on agenda
Korsunsky also added that the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits will be soon brought onto the agenda for discussion.
“Very soon, we will be discussing Montreux. Turkey will be against the desire of anybody increasing military power in the peninsula,” underlined the ambassador.
Turkey has chosen to act cautiously over the Crimean crisis that erupted when Russia dispatched troops to the peninsula during the turmoil in Ukraine in late February.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has recently expressed Turkey's commitment to the Montreux Convention and said the government will not allow a contravention of its provisions.
“Turkey has never evaded its responsibilities and has always been committed to the Montreux Convention. Turkey is implementing the [provisions of the] Montreux Convention and maintaining its relations with Ukraine and Russia as a strategic partner,” said Davutoğlu.
The Montreux Convention gives Turkey control over the Bosporus Strait and the Dardanelles, and regulates the transit of warships. It specifies that warships from states without a Black Sea coast can remain in the Black Sea for a maximum of 21 days.
Davutoğlu emphasized that Turkey places importance on the stability of Crimea and is always ready to serve. Crimea is situated only 278 kilometers across the Black Sea from Turkey and is home to a community of Turkic Tatars, who are ethnic and linguistic kin of Anatolian Turks and who opposed the Russian annexation of the peninsula.
Ukraine needs Turkey's support as a strategic partner
The ambassador noted that it would be more constructive if Turkey would support Ukraine and continue to cooperate with the country as a strategic partner.
“Turkey had very harsh statements against the annexation of Crimea. But it is very complicated to understand the Turkish leadership and Turkish internal politics. I am absolutely sure, at the end of the day, people will see that Turkey would be unable to resolve the issues of the Crimean Tatars -- for example, the issue of the ban on Tatar leader Mustafa Abdülcemil Kırımoğlu's entry into Crimea,” said Korsunsky.
Kırımoğlu, who is being prevented from entering the CrimeanPeninsula by pro-Russian forces, has stated recently that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has pledged to resolve the matter.
The central reason that the CrimeanPeninsula is important to Turkey is its population of Turkic Muslim Tatars, who were exiled en masse in the 1940s by Soviet rule. Tatars have called on Ankara to play a more active role in the crisis. Turkey, however, has urged that diplomatic measures be used to resolve the standoff between pro-Russian groups in the restive eastern sections of the country and the interim government in Kiev.
“No results, nothing happens. At the end of the day, who will answer the question of the Crimean Tatar community on what is going on? A person whose home is Crimea. His wife is there, and his son is there, but he is not able to enter his territory, what is this? This is not a violation of human rights? This is a real leader, not the artificial one invited to Moscow to pretend that Crimean Tatars support the annexation of Crimea. This is absolutely ridiculous,” said Korsunsky.
Kırımoğlu was awarded the Order of the Republic Medal of Turkey in an official ceremony at the Çankaya presidential palace in Mid-April.
“He [Kırımoğlu] has no fear. He already suffered so much that he is internally very strong. I am extremely proud of his stance. I appreciate his sincerity. He is more pro-Ukrainian than Ukrainians. Since the crisis, I simply cannot stop admiring him. What he is doing is unbelievable. Whatever they say to him, he says no. When he spoke to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin on the phone, he said: No way. I don't care what you promise, return Crimea back to Ukraine, and that's it,” said Korsunsky.
Crimean Tatars searching ways to survive under Russian rule
When asked the situation of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (assembly), Korsunsky noted that it still exists but under the pressure of Russian rule and it is trying to find ways for the 200,000 Tatars to survive.
“Now, they [Tatars] are forced to take a Russian passport. If they not, they are threatened to be persecuted. They will be deprived of the right to work and so on. Those who do not want to change their passport are forced to report themselves. This is a great violation of human rights. They are going through very difficult choices every day,” said Korsunsky.
Crimean Tatars were deported to Central Asia in 1944 at the hands of the Soviet Union, which accused the ethnic group of collaborating with the German Nazis. Tatars argue that this was a fabrication created by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to justify a brutal ethnic engineering program. The deportees and their descendants have returned since the late 1980s, particularly after Ukrainian independence. Crimean Tatars have also harshly opposed the annexation the peninsula by Russia.
After annexation, residents of Crimea and the Black Sea port of Sevastopol were obliged to choose between Russian and Ukrainian citizenships. To turn down Russian citizenship, local residents have to officially apply to authorities within a month.
The Crimean Tatars' highly politicized struggle is fueling a much wider struggle in which Russia is controlling the strategic Black Sea peninsula.
Court decision over Crimea to open a new debate
Ukraine will take Russia's annexation of Crimea to the International Court of Justice, said Korsunsky.
“We have already submitted two different cases to the International Court of Human Rights. But we will also take the issue to the International Court of Justice. That's what we will definitely do,” said Korsunsky.
The ambassador noted that with good legal preparation, Ukraine would come out victorious in a case against Russia at the court.
“Our minister of justice is working with international experts to finalize the claims for the International Court of Justice. Documents are already prepared. We think that it will be very painful for Russia. They cannot win,” said the Ukrainian envoy.
Korsunsky noted that a court decision would pave the way for a new discussion.
“We need support from the international community for our stance. We want the international community to isolate Russia because we cannot do it alone ourselves,” said the envoy.
Kosova case cannot be compared to Crimea
The most frequent comparison of Crimea has been with Kosovo, as well as with the Russian incursion into the peninsula with the NATO military intervention against Serbia in 1999.
According to Korsunsky, the court's advisory decision on Kosovo's proclamation of independence from Serbia, in which the court said Kosovo's declaration of independence does not violate international law, does not serve as a proper example in the case of Crimea.
"Funny that the Russians say Ukraine cannot win because of Kosovo, but I cannot comprehend how they can compare those two cases. First, Kosovo became an independent country, not part of Albania or whatever. Second, it came after a long bloody war, and this is a kind of special case. Crimea is completely different; there was not one shot fired -- it was a direct occupation. In Kosovo, Albania did not come to Kosovo and occupy or claim Kosovo. It is absolute nonsense, but that is how they [Russians] present those cases to the public, and in the media. They say if you recognize Kosovo, you should recognize Crimea," said Korsunsky.