Mark Kramer, a Russia expert at Harvard University, said the Russian Foreign Ministry’s claim that the sanctions were in response to Moscow conducting an “independent foreign policy” is “self-serving blather.”
“The notion that Western leaders do not want Russia to be ‘independent’ is absurd,” he told Polygraph.info. “The Russian Federation, from the time it was founded as an independent state at the end of 1991, has had an independent foreign policy. No one has forced the Russian government to pursue someone else's foreign policy. Russian leaders and the Russian public have determined their own country's fate.”
Kramer added: “The mere fact that Russia under Vladimir Putin has moved far back toward being an authoritarian state and has engaged in anti-Western posturing does not mean that its foreign policy is any more ‘independent’ than it was 25 years ago. Russian foreign policy was independent back then, and it is independent now.”
The sanctions cited by Russia’s Foreign Ministry were first imposed in 2014, after Moscow annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine.
“The United States, in coordination with our G7 partners and the European Union, imposed sanctions against Russia in response to its violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA.
”Sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine and fully implements its commitments in the Minsk agreements,” the spokesperson said.
Although Russian officials and politicians claim Crimea has always been Russian and has simply been “returned” to Moscow’s control, Vladimir Putin himself denied any legitimacy of Russia’s claim over Crimea in a 2008 interview with German media.
“Russia's annexation of Crimea was illegal, pure and simple,” said Harvard's Kramer. “Neither the UN Charter nor any viable international legal structure confers a ‘legal right’ to undertake forceful annexation of territory. Quite the contrary. The whole international legal structure that has taken shape over the past 70 years explicitly prohibits seizure of territory by one country from another."
Moscow rejects the use of the word “annexation” in reference to Crimea, claiming that the peninsula’s separation from Ukraine was a choice the Crimean people made freely and expressed in a March 16, 2014 referendum.
However, Crimea’s indigenous Tatars reportedly refused to participate in the referendum, making its official results questionable.
The United Nations declared the results of the referendum had “no validity” and called on “all States, international organizations and specialized agencies not to recognize any alteration of the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea” based on the March 16 referendum.
The annexation was the result of an operation that started with the appearance in Crimea of so-called “polite green men” – groups of armed men wearing khaki uniforms without insignia – who took control of all administrative buildings and media on the peninsula. Russia denied any link to the “polite green men,” insisting that the events in Crimea were unfolding spontaneously, without Moscow’s involvement. Later on, President Vladimir Putin admitted the men in uniforms without insignia were indeed Russian special troops.
A new civilian administration was then installed in Crimea, which declared its independence from Ukraine and intention to join Russia. That was followed by the referendum, which sealed Crimea’s separation from Kyiv and union with Russia.
Such was the chain of events that induced the United States, the European Union and more than 30 nations to impose sanctions on Russian government officials and institutions involved in Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.
“Russia continues to occupy Crimea, following its attempted annexation,” the U.S. State Department spokesperson told VOA. “Russia also continues to foment and support a violent separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, including with the active support of Russian military forces, hardware, and training.”
“Sanctions are intended to press Russia to implement its commitments under the Minsk agreement,” the spokesperson added. “They also represent the United States’ commitment to holding accountable those who are responsible for the situation in Ukraine, including those who have committed and continue to commit violence against the sovereign nation of Ukraine.”
Mark Kramer thinks the Russian government's “highly selective espousal of self-determination” might “come back to haunt it” in Russia’s North Caucasus.
“The Russian authorities continue to promote their hypocritical endorsement of ‘self-determination’, but they might want to be careful about this,” he said. “Russia fought two bloody wars in the 1990s and 2000s to prevent Chechnya from becoming independent. Putin was willing to kill tens of thousands of Chechens for the sake of keeping the Russian Federation intact.”