“From Crimea it all started, and in Crimea it will end”
Talks about a possible de-occupation of Crimea in Ukraine began in May, when Ukrainian foreign minister Dimitry Kuleba in an interview with the Financial Times declared a change in Ukraine's perception of the war against Russia. This was no longer the withdrawal of Russian troops to the positions prior to February 24, 2022, as had been said until then, but the complete liberation of all occupied Ukrainian territories. Including Crimea.
Already in autumn, after the de-occupation of part of Kharkiv Oblast, the Armed Forces of Ukraine focused on the city of Kherson and specifically the right side of the city, as plans to liberate Crimea have become much more realistic. This was acknowledged even by pro-Kremlin bloggers and politicians. In particular, former member of the Verkhovna Rada, Oleg Tsarev, who fled to Russia in 2014 after the victory of the Dignity Revolution. In one of his interviews, said that “in the event of Russia's defeat in the Special Military Operation - Russia will lose Crimea.”
Kirill Budanov, the head of foreign intelligence of Ukraine, is convinced: the liberation of Crimea will take place in the summer of 2023. Therefore, Ukrainians can already plan their vacations there. The peninsula will be returned in a combination of methods: both by force and diplomacy. “But without force nothing will happen. Our units will go there with weapons in their hands”, he stressed on December 27, 2022 in an interview with the Ukrainian edition liga.net.
It is estimated by the former commander of US troops in Europe, Ben Hodges, that the de-occupation of Crimea may occur by August 2023. He said this on December 29, 2022 in the DW Conflict Zone program. At the same time, the general does not know which part of Donbas will still be occupied at that time.
“Ukraine will not be safe as long as Crimea is under Russian occupation. The Ukrainian General Staff is doing a great job of striking the main supply routes. There are only two roads in Crimea. One is across the Kerch Bridge, which is already severely damaged. And the second is the so-called land bridge, which passes through Mariupol and Melitopol. Ukrainians are also hitting him. In my opinion, Crimea is increasingly like a trap for Russian troops”, Hodges stressed.
Crimea was handed over to Ukraine in 1954
Geographically, Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine. During World War II, from 1941 to 1944, the peninsula was under German occupation. After his release, an official in Moscow accused the indigenous people of Crimea, the Crimean Tatars, of collaborating with the Nazis, and forcibly deported more than 200,000 people to Central Asia. During the first few years of exile, 20-25% of Crimean Tatars died, and this deportation became a tragedy for Crimean Tatars.
In the place of the deported indigenous people, the Soviet government massively relocated a loyal population to the Crimea, mostly Russians. Eventually, this affected the ethnic structure of the peninsula, which the now independent Ukraine was left to deal with as Crimea’s ethnic Tatars had been deported away in favor of Russians during the period of Soviet administration.
In 1954, the then-secretary-general of the communist party, Nikita Khrushchev, handed over the Crimea Peninsula to Ukrainian control. The main reason was his government’s inability to maintain the provision of normal life. “Taking into account the common economy, territorial proximity and close economic and cultural ties between the Crimean region and the Ukrainian SSR” – was offered as justification in the official decision of the then-leadership of the USSR.
The accession of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol into Ukraine in 1954 was officially formalized in compliance with all legal requirements. Relevant decisions were made by the governments and parliaments of the USSR, Russia and Ukraine, and the necessary changes were also made to the constitutions of the republics. Crimea spent 37 years as part of Soviet Ukraine, from 1954 to 1991, until the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On January 20, 1991, in a general Crimean referendum, most Crimeans called for the restoration of Crimean autonomy. In the future, this determined the status of Crimea as part of Ukraine, namely the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. On December 1, 1991, the All-Ukrainian Referendum on Ukraine's Independence took place in Ukraine. 90.32% of Ukrainians voted for an independent Ukraine. Among the Crimeans, 54.19% voted for the independence of the Ukrainian state with Crimea as an autonomous republic within it. Thus, Crimea remained part of Ukraine on the rights of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.
How Russia annexed Crimea
February 20, 2014 was the beginning of the Russian annexation of the peninsula. This happened after the victory of the Dignity Revolution and the escape to Russia of the then-president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. A rally of pro-Russian forces gathered in the city of Sevastopol, where for the first time there were calls not to recognize the current Ukrainian authorities. According to the Ukrainian Constitution, after Yanukovych's escape, the then-head of the Verkhovna Rada, Oleksandr Turchynov, was elected interim president.
Only four days after the rallies, on February 24, the ships of the Russian Navy, which guarded the marine waters in the area of the Sochi Olympics, brought on board the so-called “green men.” These were Russian servicemen without any official insignia of the Russian Federation, dressed in green uniforms. Hence the origin of the name. They seized administrative buildings and began blocking Ukrainian military units.
On March 16, 2014, the so-called referendum took place in Crimea for the accession of the peninsula to Russia. It contradicted the Constitution of Ukraine and the fundamental norms of international law and was not recognized by the international community. On March 21, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the so-called “Treaty on the Admission of the Republic of Crimea to Russia.” However, neither Ukraine, nor the European Union, nor the United States recognized the results of the referendum, and the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine.” Since then, Ukraine has fought desperately for Crimea in the international arena. The struggle was for the complete non-recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea by the international community.
The West was afraid of de-occupation of Crimea, but has now changed its mind?
At first, the West was quite skeptical about the idea of the Ukrainian authorities liberating Crimea, according to the comments of an American diplomat who provided comment on condition of anonymity. The reason for the skepticism is the probable use of nuclear weapons by Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
However, on January 18, 2023, The New York Times wrote with reference to its sources, that the administration of US President Joe Biden, after months of discussions with Ukrainian officials, has begun discussing the transfer of funds for a possible strike on the land corridor that connects Crimea with Russia through the occupied cities of Melitopol and Mariupol.
Now not only the Ukrainian military believes in this idea. These sentiments are felt in Crimea, - according to the Crimeans with whom we spoke. Talks about Ukraine's return here have been particularly intensified since August 9, 2022. Explosions thundered at the air base in the village of Novofedorivka in the Saxe district that day — an air alarm sounded in Crimea for the first time.
The next day, August 10, the command of the Air Force of Ukraine stated that 9 Russian aircraft had been destroyed as a result of the explosions. This came as a complete surprise to the Russian authorities. An even greater surprise was the damage caused to the Crimean Bridge on October 8, 2022. It connects the Ukrainian peninsula with mainland Russia through the Kerch Strait. This bridge is a kind of symbol of the Russian occupation and cost the Russian budget nearly 4 billion dollars. However, Ukraine has not yet claimed responsibility for the operation.
Ukrainian sentiments have reappeared in Crimea
Recent military operations in occupied Crimea have given hope to pro-Ukrainian residents, especially Crimean Tatars, according to Lenur Islyamov. He is vice-president of the World Crimean Tatar Congress and commander of the volunteer formation named after Noman Chelebidzhihan.
“Last year, many Crimeans were sent to the front as cannon fodder, where many of them died near Kherson and Donetsk. Among them were those who voted for the referendum in 2014. And at the end of the summer, after the first sirens, FSB generals and businessmen left Crimea. Those who between 2014 and 2018 had bought expensive, elite real estate on the south bank of the Crimean peninsula”, says Islyamov.
According to him, now the Crimeans live in war. There, so many are buried in coffins, or in other cases, have families receiving the message - “ your son is burned in a crematorium.” There is no confidence amongst Crimeans in tomorrow or the future. Most understand what awaits them in the coming months.
Trenches are dug not only on the border with Ukraine in the north of the peninsula, but also around large cities. Air defense systems are deployed everywhere, even around residential areas.
"Politicians and deputies have long since taken their families to St. Petersburg, and those who are more fortunate - to Krasnodar. Everyone is preparing for the fact that Crimea will have to be given away. I think Ukrainian troops will be there in the summer," concluded Islyamov.
This thesis was confirmed for KATAPULT-Ukraine by dozens of Crimeans who have been living under occupation since 2014. According to them, since autumn, the patriotic movement of resistance has intensified on the peninsula, Ukrainian-language songs are often heard from cars, leaflets about the return of Ukraine secretly appear on the streets of cities. People are convinced: Crimea is beginning to feel like Ukraine again.