LONG READ by Marc Bennetts, Jack Clover
— It has been nine years since Russia took the peninsula. Now Ukraine is preparing to win it back —
Saturday May 13 2023
In the classroom Crimean children race each other to assemble their assault rifles. A young girl, her brown hair hanging over her eyes, slams a magazine into her weapon and a teacher asks: “Who won?”
Elsewhere in the building, primary school age boys and girls wearing camouflage gear pose with Kalashnikov rifles and show off hand-to-hand combat moves.
The intended message behind the video, published recently by Russian state media, is clear: Crimeans of all ages are getting ready to fight.
But Oleksiy, a lawyer living on the peninsula, has his doubts. “Russia has killed civil society and most people are just part of a grey mass,” he says. “If Ukraine takes Crimea back they will just sigh and live under Ukrainian rule again.”
It’s hard to tell which view is more plausible because the fabled land has become an information void.
“There is no freedom of speech at all,” he adds.
It has been nine years since President Putin deployed his notorious “little green men” — troops without insignia — to seize Crimea from Ukraine and oversee a sham referendum on joining Russia.
The annexation has been relentlessly marketed by the Kremlin as one of the greatest triumphs of Putin’s presidency.
Now, for the first time since 2014, Crimea’s status is once again up for grabs.
Along the 600-mile front of the war in Ukraine, President Zelensky’s forces are preparing to launch a long-awaited counteroffensive. Kyiv hopes and claims that this will eventually result in the return of Crimea to Ukraine. Moscow has constructed a vast network of trenches, minefields and concrete anti-tank barriers known as “dragons’ teeth” to fortify the northern reaches of Crimea and has threatened to use nuclear weapons to defend it.
But Ukrainian drone strikes are continuing to pepper targets behind the lines and last week the Russian authorities in Crimea cancelled their Victory Day celebrations, perhaps fearing a partisan attack.
Why does Crimea exert such a powerful hold on both the Russian and Ukrainian imaginations and just how dangerous could that emotional attachment become for both sides, and the world at large?
Putin has described Crimea as a “holy land” because it was where Vladimir the Great converted to Christianity in 998, laying the foundations for Russia to become an Orthodox Christian state. But Ukrainians believe they have an even stronger claim because Vladimir the Great was the ruler of Kievan Rus, a Slavic kingdom run from present-day Kyiv.
The stunningly beautiful region has been a frontier between empires for millennia. In Greek mythology, the goddess Artemis swept the princess Iphigenia off to Crimea to save her from her father Agamemnon, who, hell-bent on setting sail for Troy, was ready to sacrifice her to calm the seas. Greeks, Genoese, Tatars and later Slavs, all called it home. The remnants of the Germanic tribe who sacked Rome, the Goths, were still living in the mountainous south well into the 18th century when Catherine the Great first incorporated Crimea into the Russian Empire.
In 1853 the Ottomans declared war on Russia. Britain and France joined the fray and attacked the Russian naval base of Sevastopol, which is still home to the Russian Black Sea fleet today.
The ensuing Crimean War became etched into the Victorian psyche: Florence Nightingale tending the wounded, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of The Light Brigade, immortalising the bloody Battle of Balaclava. Crimea is also the birthplace of modern war reporting, pioneered by the Irishman William Howard Russell in lengthy dispatches for The Times and a young Leo Tolstoy in his Sevastopol Sketches, his semi-fictionalised account of the siege which brought home its horrors to the St Petersburg elite.
Then as now, controlling Crimea meant controlling the Black Sea.
In the 20th century Crimea’s beaches, cultural attractions and health resorts made it a popular destination for Soviet tourists.
In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, transferred the peninsula to Ukraine from Russia, a move that had few tangible consequences while both countries were part of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the communist state in 1991, Crimea became an autonomous republic within independent Ukraine. That created a tinderbox.
Pro-Moscow sentiments were always high in Crimea yet there was no significant separatist movement on the peninsula until the weeks leading up to the Kremlin’s annexation in 2014. Even Putin, speaking in 2008, stated unequivocally that Crimea was and should remain part of Ukraine and that Russia had no claims to it. “Crimea is not disputed territory,” he told ARD, the German broadcaster.
All that changed on the night of February 21, 2014 when Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian-backed president of Ukraine, fled Kyiv by helicopter. Months of pro-Europe protests in central Kyiv had taken a violent turn as his police snipers opened fire on crowds, who refused to be cowed into submission. Meanwhile in Crimea, pro-Russian biker gangs and separatists clashed with hipsters and Tatars — supporters of the revolution in Kyiv.
On February 27, unmarked armed militiamen seized the parliament building in Simferopol. Anatolii Mohyliov, the head of the Crimean government who recognised the new authorities in Kyiv, was barred from entry.
Under the gaze of the gunmen the parliamentarians elected Sergei Aksyonov, leader of an obscure a pro-Russian party, as their new prime minister. They also decided to hold a referendum on joining Russia. Three weeks later, with Russian troops spread across the peninsula, 97 per cent of Crimeans “voted” in favour.
The annexation sparked a wave of euphoria in Russia and celebrations in Crimea, where it enjoyed genuine popular support. Thousands of Crimeans sympathetic with Kyiv fled north across the new border. Putin appeared before crowds in Moscow’s Red Square, telling them: “Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their home shores, to their home port, to Russia!”
According to Russian law, anyone residing in Crimea automatically became a citizen of Russia. Those who refused to accept Russian passports were deprived of the automatic right to work, receive state medical care, or even live permanently in Crimea.
‘It’s great here’ — or not
About half a million Russians from as far away as Siberia are thought to have settled in Crimea since 2014, including FSB state security officers and their families.
The Kremlin has pumped in more than £20 billion — more than it has invested in almost any Russian region over the period. It constructed a 12-mile bridge over the Kerch Strait linking Crimea with the Russian mainland, one of the signature infrastructure achievements of Putin’s rule.
The Kerch bridge was badly damaged in October by what Moscow said was a truck bombing orchestrated by Ukraine. Kyiv celebrated the explosion, but stopped short of claiming responsibility. Suspected Ukrainian drones have hit military infrastructure in Crimea, triggering a massive exodus of terrified Russian holidaymakers.
“I don’t want to leave at all,” a tearful Russian woman said last year after a huge blast at an airbase. “It’s so great here, just like we are at home.” Her comments became an instant internet meme in Ukraine. Many of the Russians who moved to Crimea after the annexation also suspect it could be time to pack their belongings. “It looks like it’s time to sell up,” said Viktor, who bought property in Crimea in 2018.
The resorts of southern Crimea, a favourite for Russians taking the waters since the heroines of Chekhov short stories, have a new claim to fame, however. Hotels and sanatoriums such as Zdravnitsa in Yevpatoria, hosted Ukrainian children on “summer camps” last year where they were forced to sing the Russian national anthem and threatened to have their “lips sewn shut” if they uttered support for Ukraine. Camps like these were the first step in Russia’s state-sanctioned programme to abduct more than 16,000 Ukrainian children, for which Putin has been indicted at the Hague.
Back in the USSR
Crimeans say that Aksyonov, who is still prime minister, was a notorious enforcer for an organised crime gang in the 1990s, when his nickname was “the Goblin”. Aksyonov denies the allegations.
Yet as Putin’s muscle in Crimea, he has overseen a ruthless crackdown on pro-Ukrainian activists, including dozens of enforced disappearances. Among the first victims was Reshat Ametov, a Crimean Tatar, who was bundled into a car by three men wearing military-style uniforms less than a week after Kremlin-backed gunmen had raised the Russian flag over Crimea’s parliament. His handcuffed and badly beaten body was later found in woodland. No one has been charged over his death, even though the faces of his kidnappers are visible in online footage of his abduction.
The outlook for dissenters has not improved in the interim.
“They have turned Crimea into a mini Soviet Union,” a pro-Ukrainian activist whispered in a café in Simferopol in 2019. “There are informers everywhere.”
“I’d tell you what I think about Russian rule, but I’m afraid of getting my head bashed in,” a woman said.
Unsurprisingly, tens of thousands of people opposed to Putin’s rule have fled Crimea. Among them was Anton, a 49-year-old native Russian speaker who had lived in Crimea all his life and began learning Ukrainian in protest at the Kremlin’s takeover. He was forced to leave Crimea in a rush in 2020, after a fellow activist was arrested on espionage charges and an FSB investigator warned him that he would be next.
“He told me: ‘We will come to your house and find a flash drive with secret information on it,’” Anton said. “I went home and packed my entire life into a suitcase in two hours.” He was then driven out of Crimea to safety before an alert for his arrest had been issued to Russian border guards. His wife joined him and the couple have not been back to Crimea since. “But we will be there again soon, I am sure of it,” he said. “I trust in the Ukrainian army.”
Tatars under attack
Crimean Tatars have borne the brunt of political repression in Crimea since 2014, and their fate could yet be decisive in the outcome of the war. The Tatars are a mainly Muslim ethnic group indigenous to Crimea, descended from the nomadic Turkic people of the Eurasian steppe that settled the peninsula in the Middle Ages. In 1944, Stalin deported as many as 400,000 Crimean Tatars in 72 hours claiming they had collaborated with the invading Nazis. Entire villages were crammed into cargo trains destined for central Asia. Many did not survive exile.
In the 1990s, thousands tentatively returned to their homeland, by then in an independent Ukraine, but were forced into shanty towns in rural areas away from the urban centres in the south. Since 2014, Tatar communities have been subject to dawn raids with dozens of men arrested and tried under drummed-up terrorism charges, citing alleged links to the Hizb ut-Tahrir fundamentalist group. On the other side of an effective information blackout, little information has emerged about the Crimean Tatar resistance.
In September, the vast majority of Crimean residents forcibly drafted into the Russian army were from Tatar communities.
In November, the obscure partisan group Atesh, meaning “fire” in Crimean Tatar, claimed responsibility for “liquidising” 30 Russian soldiers in the military hospitals of Simferopol. “Check the wards, check the morgues . . . you can check this fact 300 times but it’s the truth,” the Telegram post reads. Last weekend, the group claimed responsibility for the attempted murder of the Russian nationalist author Zakhar Pilepin in a car bomb attack.
Fatalism about the future
Most people, though, want a quiet life. “Visually, not much has changed,” said Sergei, a middle-aged man in the port city of Sevastopol. “The only people who really worry about the war are the ones who get their information from places other than the television. They realise that they could be mobilised, if fighting begins here.”
It is unlikely that pro-Moscow Crimeans will resist Ukrainian troops, if they storm the peninsula, locals said. “Very few people believe the Kremlin propaganda about Nazis in Ukraine,” said Iryna, who fled Crimea shortly after the start of the war. “After all, it wasn’t that long ago that they actually lived in Ukraine.”
Zelensky has vowed that there can be no peace until Ukraine takes back all the territory seized by Russia, including Crimea. “Any end to the war that does not see the return of all our territory will be considered a defeat in Ukraine,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, told The Sunday Times.
Russia’s paranoia about losing the peninsula is evident from space. A vast network of trenches and fortifications have been dug in the north along the lagoon-lined steppeland between Armiansk and Dzhankoi, while Normandy-style defences line a 20km stretch of beach near Vitino in the west, reflecting fears of an invasion from the sea.
But recapturing Crimea poses massive challenges for Ukraine.
“I don’t think they will attempt to retake [Crimea]. I think they’ll attempt to isolate it and threaten it because that’s well within their capabilities,” said Michael Clarke, a British defence analyst. “Taking Crimea: that might be something for next year, if they’re successful this year. But to [even] have it as a threatened territory where Russians don’t feel safe to live any more, that is a big, big blow to Kremlin prestige.”
In a war of many humiliations for Putin, the loss of Crimea would be the greatest.
The authors correctly describe it as a “stunningly beautiful region.”
There are 1000 reasons why Crimea must return to its legal ownership. Here is just one : Degenerate savages are incompatible with beauty.
The cockroaches have ruined a lot on the Crimea, and the longer they are there, the more they will turn it into a shithole.
“It’s hard to tell which view is more plausible because the fabled land has become an information void.”
Make no mistake! Information does get into the Crimea. I personally know this. Sometimes I get info and videos from people I know there about the war that really surprise me. Thus, there are no excuses for those who are slipping around on their knees in front of the orcs. They cannot say, we didn’t know.