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KYIV — Russia started its intimidation of Ukraine not with the ongoing buildup of troops, but eight years ago with the invasion and annexation of Crimea.
The peninsula remains at an intractable point of antagonism between Russia, Ukraine and the West.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made that clear earlier this week in an address to the nation.
“Both Donbass and Crimea will return to Ukraine. Exclusively through diplomacy. We do not encroach on what’s not ours, but we will not give up our land,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shows no sign of retreating from his contention that Crimea belongs to Russia, and he’s warned that allowing Ukraine to join NATO could draw the West into a war with Russia over the peninsula.
“European countries, including France, believe that Crimea is part of Ukraine, but we think that it is part of the Russian Federation. And what happens if attempts are made to change this situation by military means?” hey said following last week’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. “Bear in mind that Ukraine’s doctrines declare Russia an adversary and state the possibility of regaining Crimea, even using military force.”
Even raising Crimea as an issue goes against the Kremlin’s policy, which insists that Crimea’s status as part of Russia is settled, stressing that the overwhelming majority of people on the peninsula are Russian.
The EU and the US have slapped sanctions on Russia over the annexation and there have been largely toothless resolutions from the UN and the Council of Europe, but until the recent standoff with Russia, the issue had slipped from international agendas.
Keeping memory alive
However, Kyiv isn’t forgetting.
Last year Ukraine stepped up internal and international attempts to return it to the foreground, contributing to the all-time low in today’s Ukraine-Russia relations.
Ukraine adopted a State strategy for De-occupation and Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territory of Crimea in March 2021. It lists legal and administrative measures to track human rights violations in Crimea and prosecute perpetrators, encourage international sanctions, prosecute Russia in international courts, boost the economy of Ukraine to provide an attractive alternative to Russian rule and ease administrative matters for Crimeans such as registering births and deaths in Ukraine.
Other than sanctions the strategy has little on how to actually bring Crimea back under Ukrainian control — and nothing about the military solution Putin has referred to.
“The strategy strictly provides that Ukraine considers political and diplomatic means to deoccupy and reintegrate Crimea,” said Anton Korynevych, permanent representative of Ukraine’s president for the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. “Nobody now thinks about something else.”
Instead, Ukraine has emphasized repression and Russification of the peninsula to push nonrecognition based on Russia’s violation of international law.
After armed forces without insignia took control of the peninsula (Putin finally admitted they were Russian in 2015) and a hastily organized referendum lent an appearance of legality to Crimea joining Russia, Russian passports were issued automatically to Crimea’s 2.4 million people.
Russia has worked hard to integrate Crimea into its legal system, poured money into the region and actively encouraged Russians to settle there — about half a million people have moved from Russia since 2014, according to Korynevych, on top of massive numbers of military personnel.
Laws on extremism and terrorism are used to stifle dissent, particularly among the Muslim Crimean Tatars, the only major group in Crimea to organize a peaceful opposition to annexation. Russia has declared their governing body, the Mejlis, a terrorist organization and imprisoned over 100 Crimean Tatars on terrorism or similar charges.
Following the adoption of the state strategy, Ukraine convened the Crimean Platform, a major diplomatic push to keep Crimea on the international agenda. Its inaugural session in August was attended by 46 country and international organization representatives.
“We do not and will not recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia,” European Council President Charles Michel told the meeting
But Ukrainians expecting fast results were disappointed.
“Those with high hopes of it did not get an answer about when Crimea comes back to Ukraine,” said Refat Chubarov, head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, which is now based in Kyiv. “All it did was to show consolidation. But as long as this consolidation exists, Russia can’t count on legal recognition.”
The platform clearly announced Russia.
“We regard this event as extremely unfriendly towards our country. We absolutely do not accept such assertions relative to the Russian region, to Crimea,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.
A prominent Crimean Tatar leader, Nariman Jelal, was arrested when he returned to Crimea from the platform.
Another irritation for Russia was Ukraine’s 2021 law on indigenous peoples. By defining “indigenous people” as minorities without their own state outside Ukraine, it includes only three groups, Crimean Tatars, Krymchaks and Karaites, all from Crimea, and excludes RussiansUkraine’s largest minority.
The law is explicitly part of Ukraine’s strategy to regain Crimea and challenge Russia’s “Crimea has always been Russian” narrative. Putin has repeatedly criticized it, even comparing it to racial laws in Nazi Germany, in rhetoric echoing the “genocide” claims Russia regularly levels against Ukraine for alleged discrimination against Russian speakers.
Russia also called “genocide” when in 2014 Ukraine cut water supply to Crimea, and again in 2015 after activists blew up electricity pylons in south Ukraine, cutting electricity supply.
Ukraine offered to resupply electricity under a contract with “the occupied Ukrainian territory of Crimea.” Russia refused. The Ukraine state strategy stipulates restoration of water supply once Crimea returns to Ukrainian control. The cut has been catastrophic for the environment of northern Crimea, and one possible goal of a further Russian invasion of Ukraine would be to take control of southern Ukraine and the water source.
Advocates of returning Crimea to Ukraine look to the example of the Baltic countries; many Western nations never formally recognized their annexation by the USSR, which helped smooth their restoration of independence in 1991.
But waiting decades for a shift in political fortunes is too long for the Crimean Tatars.
“There were only 300,000 of us before annexation, and for us 2014 was a deadly blow,” said Chubarov. “With every year that passes they are destroying us.”