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‘Victims of war for generations’ Journalist Konstantin Skorkin revisits the conflicts that shaped Crimea’s past and looks to the not-so-distant future

Source: Meduza

‘Victims of war for generations’ Journalist Konstantin Skorkin revisits the conflicts that shaped Crimea’s past and looks to the not-so-distant future

Source: Meduza
Flames and smoke rise from the bridge connecting Russia to Crimea. October 8, 2022.
Flames and smoke rise from the bridge connecting Russia to Crimea. October 8, 2022.
AP / Scanpix / LETA

Essay by Konstantin Skorkin. Abridged translation by Eilish Hart.

The following is an abridged translation that appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox. The original article was published by Kit, a Russian-language newsletter from the creators of Meduza.

The annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in the spring of 2014 was the starting point of Russia’s current aggression against Ukraine. At the time, it provoked euphoria in Russian society, and Vladimir Putin’s ratings hit a record high. The Kremlin framed its actions as the “restoration of historical justice” and many Russian citizens saw it that way, too. Supposedly, Crimea had “returned home.”

In the preceding decades, the fact that Crimea had become part of Ukraine was a source of powerful imperialist resentment in Russia. There were many myths about the peninsula’s past — and now new myths are emerging about its future. Billionaire Elon Musk, for example, provoked harsh criticism from Kyiv for suggesting a formal handover of Crimea to Moscow as one of the conditions for a potential peace deal between Russia and Ukraine. Days later, an unexpected explosion rocked the bridge connecting Russia to Crimea. In response, Russian forces launched a barrage of fresh missile attacks on Ukrainian cities.

A history of war and occupation

Before the Russian Empire conquered Crimea in 1783, it was ruled by the Crimean Khanate — a centuries-old Crimean Tatar state that was the successor to the Golden Horde and, later, a vassal of the Ottoman Empire. Russia endeavored to make the peninsula a stronghold for its further expansion towards the Black Sea straits and the Mediterranean Sea. Less than 100 years later, in 1854–1855, it became the theater of a war that pitted the Russian Empire against an alliance of Britain, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire. 

The Crimean War went down in history as an inglorious defeat for Russia, but the empire remained intact until 1917. After it collapsed into civil war, multiple political forces vied for control of Crimea, including the Whites and the Reds, as well as a nascent Ukrainian state. Initially, however, the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR) made no claims to Crimea, recognizing it as the land of the Crimean Tatar people. Kyiv changed its stance at the end of 1917, when the UNR began fighting the newly formed Soviet Russia. The Crimean Tatar government turned out to be too weak a political force to hold the peninsula, which fell to the Bolsheviks. Thus, at the beginning of 1918, Kyiv decided to try and integrate Crimea into the UNR. 

UNR forces captured the peninsula from the Bolsheviks in April 1918, only to be forced to cede their positions to the German Empire, which had sent occupying troops into Ukraine in accordance with the recently-signed Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Germany set up a puppet government on the peninsula, but was then defeated in World War I. The Bolsheviks recaptured both Crimea and Ukraine, and, in 1921, created the Crimean Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic under the jurisdiction of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR).

During World War II, Nazi Germany occupied Crimea and dealt a crushing blow to its ethno-cultural diversity: of the peninsula’s 70,000 Jews, 40,000 were killed in the Holocaust. At the same time, German forces sought to recruit the USSR’s Muslim populations, including the Crimean Tatars, to their side. Some, especially those opposed to Joseph Stalin’s repressions and religious persecution in the USSR, joined collaborationist units. Ukrainian historian Serhii Hromenko estimates that these units included about 3,500 Crimean Tatars in total. The Soviet authorities, however, claimed there were 20,000. 

After Soviet forces recaptured Crimea in 1944, Stalin initiated mass deportations of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia — holding all of them collectively responsible for collaboration with Nazi troops. More than 200,000 Crimean Tatars were deported in total, up to 46 percent of whom died during their first years in exile from hunger and dire living conditions. (In 2015, Ukraine’s parliament recognized the 1944 deportations as an act of genocide.) 

The Soviet authorities deported other ethnic minorities from the peninsula, as well, including Greeks, Bulgarians, and Armenians. This quickly tipped Crimea’s ethnic balance in favor of Russians, who relocated to the peninsula from other parts of the RSFSR. According to the 1939 Soviet Census, Crimea’s pre-war population was 49.5 percent Russian, 19.4 percent Crimean Tatar, 13.6 percent Ukrainian, and 5.8 percent Jewish. By the end of the 1950s, census data showed that the population was 71.4 percent Russian and 22.2 percent Ukrainian, while other ethnic groups totaled one percent or even less.

Soviet sailors swimming alongside floats with portraits of Joseph Stalin in celebration of Navy Day. Sevastopol, USSR. July 1950.
Sovfoto / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

In 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev “gifted Crimea to Ukraine.” The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (the USSR’s body of state power) issued a decree that transferred the peninsula — which had lost its autonomous status and been demoted to a region — to the Ukrainian SSR’s jurisdiction. 

Formally, this “gift” marked the 300th anniversary of the Pereiaslav Agreement — a 17th century military and political alliance between the Zaporizhian Host, a Ukrainian Cossack state led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytskyi, with the Tsardom of Russia. Both Imperial Russian and Soviet historical literature framed this event as a “reunification of brotherly nations.” The transfer of Crimea was supposed to carry the same symbolism of “unbreakable brotherhood.” In reality, however, economic needs underpinned the decision. Nearly a decade after World War II’s end, the peninsula was in decline, and making it part of the Ukrainian SSR was expedient from an economic and infrastructural point of view. 

The Crimean port city of Sevastopol was granted special status within the Ukrainian SSR in 1978, following the adoption of the Brezhnev Constitution. By that time, Crimea’s economy was oriented not towards Kyiv, but towards the Soviet Union’s center: Moscow. The peninsula’s health resorts and hotels were also favorite vacation spots for the Soviet elite.

In a January 1991 referendum, 93 percent of Crimea’s voters supported the restoration of the Crimean ASSR (the official turnout was 80 percent). The peninsula regained this “special standing” just in time for the Soviet Union’s collapse. During the December 1991 referendum on Ukraine’s independence, 54 percent of Crimea’s residents voted “yes” — the lowest percentage in the country. 

Divvying up Crimea

In post-Soviet Russia, even liberal politicians like St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak and his Moscow counterpart Gavriil Popov couldn’t bring themselves to recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine. 

The Russian Federation’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, also put pressure on Kyiv. In The Gates of Europe, Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy writes that in August 1991, Yeltsin had his press secretary state that a declaration of independence would give Russia “the right to open the question of its borders” with Ukraine. “Yeltsin’s press secretary indicated the Crimea and eastern parts of Ukraine, including the Donbas coal region, as possible areas of contention. The threat was partition if Ukraine insisted on independence.” 

The new Ukrainian authorities didn’t want to lose control over such an important strategic territory. But maintaining control over Crimea wasn’t so simple. Almost simultaneously with the USSR’s disintegration, a strong separatist movement emerged on the peninsula: the Republican Party of Crimea, headed by lawyer Yuriy Meshkov and member of parliament Sergey Tsekov (one of just three Ukrainian deputies who voted against the country’s declaration of sovereignty). 

The repatriation of Crimean Tatars, which began during Perestroika, added to the tensions. The USSR’s Supreme Soviet fully rehabilitated the Crimean Tatar people in 1989, allowing them to return to their homeland. In 1990, they were allocated free land plots for the construction of new homes. 

But upon returning to Crimea, the deportees’ descendents came face to face with those who had moved into the Crimean Tatars’ houses after 1944. According to Ukrainian historian Georgiy Kasianov, local residents treated the returnees — who numbered about 200,000 — like outcasts, and they were also forced to contend with corrupt local officials. In addition, the peninsula’s highest executive authority took a hostile stance towards the Mejlis and the Qurultay, the representative bodies of the Crimean Tatar people.

In late February 1992, Crimea’s parliament announced the creation of the Republic of Crimea — a self-proclaimed state with its own constitution and president, Yuriy Meshkov. (Meshkov and his prime minister, Russian economist Evgeny Saburov, both envisioned Crimea as part of a “ruble zone” and wanted to introduce dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship for residents.) Naturally, this didn’t go over well with Kyiv: the Ukrainian parliament deemed the Crimean parliament’s decision unconstitutional. The standoff ended in a compromise months later, with Crimea becoming an autonomous republic within Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the partitioning of the Black Sea Fleet and its bases in Sevastopol was a constant source of tension in Russian-Ukrainian relations. The negotiations dragged on, with varying degrees of success, until the two sides finally reached an agreement in 1997. Ukraine received part of the divided fleet and agreed to lease naval facilities in Sevastopol to Russia for $97 million per year (the Kremlin used this money to pay off Ukraine’s energy debts). 

At the time, the resolution of the conflict surrounding Crimea was facilitated, among other things, by the Russian leadership’s position. In Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War, American political scientist Paul D’Anieri argues that “Russia’s restraint in this instance shows that, despite its claims on the peninsula, Russia was not pulling all the levers at its disposal.” Moscow, he explains, was reluctant to back Crimean separatism — despite the fact that many Russian elites supported it — for fear that Kyiv would delay the ongoing process of transferring its Soviet nuclear arsenal to Russia. 

Be that as it may, the topic of Crimea remained on the agenda. In Russia, it was raised over and over again as part of an ideology of revanchism. The situation deteriorated further in 2004, when pro-Western politician Viktor Yushchenko won Ukraine’s presidency on the heels of the Orange Revolution. Crimea had become a support base for a key pro-Russian political force: the Party of Regions. Led by Viktor Yanukovych, the party was also popular in the Donetsk region, where he previously served as governor. 

In the 2006 Crimean parliamentary election, the For Yanukovych bloc — a pro-Russian political alliance between the Party of Regions and the radical Russian Bloc — won 44 of the parliament’s 100 seats. But the Party of Regions’s real triumph came in 2010, when Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine. 

Although the pro-Russian leader temporarily quelled ongoing conflicts with Moscow (for example, Ukrainian lawmakers ratified the so-called Kharkiv Pact, thereby extending the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s presence in Sevastopol), Yanukovych’s victory also reignited separatist sentiments in Crimea. Crimean elites were deeply dissatisfied with former Donetsk officials installed on the peninsula (such as Crimean Prime Minister Vasyl Dzharty and his successor Anatolii Mohyliov) and Yanukovych’s people were actively commandeering Crimean businesses.

Soon enough, a new separatist movement emerged. Dubbed Russian Unity, its top brass comprised the future facilitators of the 2014 annexation, including Crimea’s current Moscow-appointed head Sergey Aksyonov and the Russian Federation Council’s current senator from Crimea, the aforementioned Sergey Tsekov.

During the 2010 Crimean parliamentary election, Russian Unity won just 4 percent of the vote, securing only three seats, but Moscow didn’t miss its chance to support the Crimean separatists this time around. Russian politicians frequented the peninsula along with propagandists and spin doctors. Evidently, the Kremlin’s policy vector had changed.

Annexation and its consequences 

The 2014 Maidan Revolution served as a trigger for the Kremlin’s latent aggression. Relying on the Black Sea Fleet’s military bases and the help of local separatists, Vladimir Putin carried out a swift military operation to seize the peninsula — and in doing so opened a Pandora’s box. Everything that has followed — the war in the Donbas, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and the subsequent annexation of other Ukrainian territories — has been a continuation of the Crimean precedent

The Kremlin diligently tried to cover up the annexation with a pseudo-referendum, which took place on March 16, 2014. Allegedly, 97 percent of Crimeans voted to join Russia. In actuality, the vote only served to consolidate Russia’s occupation of the peninsula, which was at that point a fait accompli. The entire process was overseen by the so-called “little green men” (Russian troops in unmarked uniforms) and the Crimean self-defense forces (local armed formations created with the help of the Russian FSB and GRU). 

Russian human rights defenders who paid an official visit to the peninsula concluded that Crimea’s residents voted not so much for accession to Russia, as for an end to the “corrupt lawlessness and larcenous dominance” of Yanukovych’s “Donetsk protégés.” According to their estimates, voter turnout ranged from 30 to 50 percent, instead of the purported 83.1 percent. And the proportion of votes in favor of joining Russia was 50–60 percent, not the proclaimed 96.7 percent. Remarkably, the activists’ data closely correlates with an opinion poll conducted just before the annexation, in February 2014, which found that 41 percent of Crimea’s population supported the idea of Ukraine joining Russia.

The Crimea annexation was accompanied by a Russian propaganda blitz: state television channels and Kremlin-controlled publications constantly claimed that Crimea was a “stepson” to Ukraine and only Russia could unlock its full potential. But rather than solve Crimea’s problems, the annexation added fresh momentum. To this day, the peninsula remains mired in corruption scandals, and the promised investments in infrastructure mainly serve to enrich members of the ruling elite. 

Crimea’s business climate has also suffered due to Western sanctions, which were yet another consequence of Russia’s annexation. These restrictions put a halt to foreign investment in the Crimean economy and the full development of the tourism sector. Federal subsidies from Moscow make up two thirds of Crimea’s budget. 

What happens next?

Even after the February invasion, the Ukrainian authorities initially aimed to de-occupy Crimea through peaceful, diplomatic means. In the face of Russian escalation and against the backdrop of the Ukrainian army’s successful counter-offensives, however, Kyiv’s position changed. Ukrainian military officials began increasingly to discuss the need to recapture the peninsula by force (seemingly, this is already underway). The Ukrainian army’s successes also forced Western military experts to reassess. In late September, retired U.S. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges predicted that the Ukrainian Armed Forces could be in Crimea by mid-2023

According to Ukrainian security expert Volodymyr Horbulin, the 2014 annexation of Crimea occurred “not so much because of the Russian Federation’s prevailing military power but because of Ukraine’s military weakness at the time.” Today, Ukraine can no longer be called weak: the country is receiving unprecedented military assistance from the West and its army is highly motivated. 

That said, a military operation to de-occupy Crimea may still prove too costly for Ukraine. After all, it would inevitably prolong the war and, in doing so, increase the number of victims and the scale of the destruction. Moreover, Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons indicate growing risks for the entire planet. At the same time, Zelensky’s office warns that freezing the conflict in its current configuration would simply pave the way for a future war and fail to rid the world of Russian aggression. 

As such, the conflict over the peninsula appears unsolvable today. Putin has repeatedly made clear that the security and inviolability of Crimea as part of Russia is one of the Kremlin’s “red lines.” Russia’s mass missile strikes on Ukrainian cities in response to the Crimean Bridge explosion only confirmed this thesis: Putin perceives the occupation of Crimea as a cornerstone of his rule, without which his entire power system will collapse. As the French newspaper Le Monde notes, “Having himself made Crimea a red line, he [Putin] will have no choice but to escalate matters if attacks continue on the peninsula.”

The Ukrainian side, meanwhile, appears determined to liberate Crimea. President Zelensky’s policies rely heavily on public support, and Ukrainian society is all but unanimous on this issue. Public opinion polls show that 87 percent of Ukrainians oppose making any territorial concessions to Russia, even if it means facing a prolonged war and potential threats to Ukraine’s independence. What’s more, this sentiment prevails throughout the country. Officials in Kyiv understand this perfectly well. Therefore, Zelensky is unlikely to abandon his plans to liberate Crimea at all costs. 

* * *

In this context, a peaceful resolution seems out of reach so long as Putin is in power. Even Zelensky has come to the conclusion that peace negotiations will only be possible with a different Russian president. It appears that only the dismantling of the Putin regime can guarantee a long-term and just solution regarding Crimea.

For centuries, Crimea has been an arena for clashes between great powers, and the peninsula’s inhabitants have been hostages of high politics and victims of war for generations. Breaking this vicious cycle may only be possible through a radical reorganization of post-Soviet space. But first, Russia must abandon any revanchist ideas and imperialist policies. Though this may seem utopian today, it’s perhaps the only way to ensure peace. 

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Essay by Konstantin Skorkin for Kit

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart for The Beet

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