Ten years an annex: Is Crimea now forever Russian?

On 27 February 2014, Russia invaded the strategic Black Sea peninsula and later annexed it in March. Since then, it has become the foundation of Putin’s current and future ambitions.

Russian soldiers patrol in Sevastopol on 5 March 2014, just a week after Russian special forces took over the peninsula.
Russian soldiers patrol in Sevastopol on 5 March 2014, just a week after Russian special forces took over the peninsula.

Ten years an annex: Is Crimea now forever Russian?

Given the difficulty that Russia has had in biting off other bits of Ukraine, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea ten years ago this month seems, in hindsight, all the silkier.

Indeed, the seizure and flag-stamping of this strategic Black Sea peninsula was so trouble-free that it surely must be one of history’s least contested land thefts.

Looking back, Kyiv was so preoccupied with its reorganisation following its 2014 revolution that finally ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, that the country was ill-prepared to put up any kind of defence in Crimea.

At the time, there were angry statements, but the impact of its annexation has only really been understood and appreciated by the international community since February 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

It seems like a long time ago that celebratory fireworks lit up the night skies over Moscow, Simferopol, and Sevastopol to mark Crimea’s formal annexation.

The peninsula is no small gift. Its geostrategic significance is due to its location in the Black Sea, allowing the control of the Kerch Strait, a crucial passage to the Sea of Azov, from where Ukraine exported metals from the (now occupied) Donbas.

A young pro-Kremlin activist (R) holds a poster which reads as "Crimea with Russia forever", during a rally in front of the British embassy in Moscow on March 18, 2023.

Loaded with history

Crimea carries symbolic significance, too. It has been the battleground of numerous conflicts over the centuries, including between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

Russia always saw a base in Crimea as a vital warm water port, but even during the Soviet era, the Crimean Republic was granted autonomy.

Its indigenous population, the Crimean Tatars, suffered terribly under Stalin’s regime. Hundreds of thousands of Tatars were deported to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, accused of treason and collaborating with the Nazis.

A big change came in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev administratively transferred Crimea to Ukraine while maintaining its autonomous status. On the ground, not much changed.

When the Soviet Union dissolved a generation later, however, Khrushchev's decision became important because Crimea went with Kyiv, not Moscow.

Crimea staying part of Ukraine seemed geographically logical since there was no land border between Crimea and Russia. That decision was cemented on 1 December 1999.

Crimea is no small gift. Its geostrategic significance is due to its location in the Black Sea, allowing the control of the Kerch Strait, a crucial passage to the Sea of Azov.

Despite Crimea's population being predominantly of Russian origin, the people of the peninsula voted by a slim majority (54%) in a referendum to join the rest of Ukraine in declaring independence.

Crimeans had shown more reluctance to be independent Ukrainians than any other area of Ukraine (92% of Ukraine's total population voted to leave the Soviet Union), but it had nevertheless declared its wishes.

Without much fuss, Moscow recognised Ukraine's independence, including Crimea, despite 57% of the peninsula's residents being Russian.

Russia's rent-a-base

The status of Moscow's Black Sea Fleet and its military bases in Crimea, particularly the vital Sevastopol port, was a far more contentious issue, however. Sevastopol had been the Fleet's main base since the Soviet era.

The dilemma seemed to have been resolved when Russia was granted a significant share of the Black Sea Fleet and secured a lease for the Sevastopol base.

This was until the expansion of the Novorossiysk base (due to be the Fleet's new headquarters) had been completed.

Two girls wave to sailors of a Black Sea Fleet ship in Sevastopol in April 1992.

In December 1994, Russia—along with the United States and Britain—committed to respecting Ukraine's post-Soviet borders in return for Ukraine handing over its considerable cache of Soviet-era nuclear weapons to Russia.

This agreement was solidified in 1997 through the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership, which reaffirmed Crimea as part of Ukrainian territory, with an agreement to station the Russian Fleet in Sevastopol until 2017.

Moscow made the Fleet's presence at Sevastopol a priority in its dealings with Kyiv, thereby bolstering Russian influence in Crimea. For years, it all seemed amicable.

East or West?

The Orange Revolution of 2004-05 saw Ukraine pivot towards the West, however. This heightened fears in Moscow that it was losing its influence over its near-abroad.

These concerns were exacerbated by discussions at the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008, with talk of Ukraine joining the alliance. Russia reacted angrily.

Yanukovych, Ukraine's pro-Russian president, was elected with support from the south and east of Ukraine—Russian-speaking areas where there was traditionally more sympathy towards Moscow.

The Orange Revolution of 2004-05 saw Ukraine pivot towards the West, however. This heightened fears in Moscow that it was losing its influence over its near-abroad.

He repaid their votes by extending the Russian Black Sea Fleet's Sevastopol lease until 2042 in return for getting preferential rates on Russian gas that flowed through Ukrainian pipelines to Europe.

Yanukovych also agreed to let Russia station 25,000 troops at the Sevastopol base and maintain two air bases on the Crimean Peninsula.

For years, Europe was ambiguous on Ukraine's membership of NATO and its eventual membership of the European Union. Brussels later imposed a slew of onerous conditions before serious accession talks could even begin.

In 2008, when the crippling effects of the financial crisis were being felt, and in 2013, with Ukraine suffering from the tightening of US monetary policy, Brussels offered Kyiv no help. Ukraine's borrowing costs soared to 11%.

Taking the bear's bait

Russia took a carrot-and-stick approach. It held out the carrot of Ukraine joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union but imposed sanctions on Ukrainian exports when it felt Kyiv was gravitating towards Europe.

This caused further problems for Ukrainian industries, many of which were reliant on exports to Russia. It seemed to be decision time for Yanukovych. East? Or West?

To a deafening uproar, he postponed the signing of the Partnership Agreement with the European Union and turned instead to Russia.

Moscow quickly offered Ukraine a $15bn loan, a 33% discount on gas in the run-up to winter, and reopened its markets to Ukrainian exports. It seemed that Ukraine was being bought.

For a country already fed up with bribery and corruption, the Ukrainian people were disgusted by what they saw as Yanukovych's betrayal and sell-out. Huge protests erupted in Kyiv, beginning on 21 November 2013.

A woman waves an EU flag during a rally on Mykhayllivska Square in Kiev after police broke up protesters on Independence Square on November 30, 2013.

Through the bitter cold, the demonstrations went on for weeks. Finally, it came to a head in February.

Police snipers from the discredited (and now disbanded) Berkut unit began shooting protesters from the roofs of buildings. In several hours, 108 protesters were killed.

All hell broke loose. Anger boiled over. Allies turned. Yanukovych was now a spent force and fled the country.

This cleared the way for pro-European politicians to assume power. Across most of Ukraine, people cheered. But the mood in Crimea was very different.

Crimea calls for Russia

Thousands of pro-Russian Crimeans demonstrated against Yanukovych's overthrow. Although Crimean Tatars came out in support, they were outnumbered. Meanwhile, Putin ordered an urgent drill of his armed forces in the region.

Some Ukrainian analysts suggest that Russia had been preparing a takeover of the peninsula long before the unrest at Maidan Square in central Kyiv, pointing to the huge resupply of fuel to Russia's Crimean bases months earlier.

In Crimea, local authorities refused to endorse the new regime in Kyiv, as Russian media pushed the narrative that "Ukrainian Nazi movements" with Western backing had orchestrated the protests and ousted Yanukovych.

The same media also warned that these so-called Ukrainian "neo-Nazis" were targeting ethnic Russians. The Crimean Supreme Council called for a comprehensive inquiry amidst concerns about Ukrainian fascists.

It seemed to be a well-prepared strategy by Moscow, using the pretext of an internal uprising to annex the peninsula. On 23 February 2014, pro-Russian citizens of Crimea gathered to chant for secession from Ukraine.

Pro-Russian businessman Alexei Chaly was elected as Sevastopol's mayor. By 25 February, the Crimean Parliament was being lobbied for the peninsula's annexation to Russia, with large crowds calling for a referendum.

On 23 February 2014, pro-Russian citizens of Crimea gathered to chant for secession from Ukraine. It seemed to be a well-prepared strategy by Moscow.

Annexation arrives

On 27 February—the national Day of Russian Special Forces—the Crimean Parliament ousted Anatolii Mohyliov as the peninsula's prime minister and named the head of the Russian Unity party in Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, in his place.

It also approved a referendum, originally scheduled for 25 May, but then brought forward to 16 March, just over two weeks away.

On the same day (27 February), men in unmarked Russian military attire driving vehicles without license plates began appearing throughout the peninsula. They were elite Russian Special Operations and Spetsnaz GRU forces.

Within hours, they had taken control of Simferopol Airport, then the Belbek military airport, and finally, the ferry ports in Kerch. They were soon nicknamed the "little green men," although Russian media dubbed them "the polite people".

The takeover of Crimea was quick, decisive, and stealthy, with Putin not even having had to deploy a military force abroad.

The levers of control were secure, and the stage was set for the referendum, which was now a done deal.

Donbas digs in

After the annexation of Crimea, Russian nationalists turned their attention to Donetsk and Luhansk under the pretext of protecting the Russian minority from attacks by the same "new Nazis" in Ukraine.

With direct support from Moscow, citizens of Russian descent formed the People's Protection Units (PPUs).

On 11 May 2014, they unilaterally declared independence for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the Donbas Basin, where the majority speak Russian. They later held a referendum dismissed as "illegal" by Kyiv.

Unlike in Crimea, the declaration by the separatists led to war with the Ukrainian army, as the heavily armed PPUs seized control of more than half the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk.

At the end of 2014, the fiercest fighting ended with the signing of the Minsk Agreements, mediated by Germany and France, but neither side fully adhered to them, and the war smouldered, claiming 13,000 lives on both sides.

Delegates leave the hall to give an official statement on the signing of the ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels in Minsk on September 5, 2014.

Dreaming of Novorossiya

Russian rhetoric continued to stress the importance of supporting Russians and Russian-speaking communities in eastern and southern Ukraine. It also began denying the existence of a Ukrainian state prior to the Soviet era.

In a July 2021 article published in both Russian and Ukrainian, Putin argued that Ukraine's true sovereignty could only be realised in partnership with Russia.

He argued that contemporary Ukraine was primarily a creation of the Soviet period, built largely on what was historically Russian territory.

Putin had revived the idea of 'Novorossiya' ('new Russia), which was first used in 1764, in reference to parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, including Crimea. Just a few months after the article, Russian troops once again massed.

By December 2021, with hundreds of thousands of Russian military forces stationed along the Ukrainian border (ostensibly for "exercises"), Russia put forward a proposal to the US and NATO.

Moscow felt that NATO had encroached too far eastward and wanted the alliance to retreat to its 1997 borders, pulling weapons and bases out of eastern Europe.

It also wanted NATO to pledge to bar entry to ex-Soviet states. NATO refused.

On 22 February 2022, Moscow recognised Donetsk and Luhansk as independent. Hours later, the Russian army roared over the border into Ukraine.

The tanks roll in

On 22 February 2022, Moscow recognised the independence of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and formalised a security and defence pact with them.

Hours later, the might of the Russian army roared over the border into Ukraine from Crimea, Donbas, Kharkiv, Sumy, and even Belarus. At the same time, an airborne operation sought to take Kyiv's airport.

To the north, Ukraine just about managed to repel the attacks. Russian tanks advanced towards Kyiv via Chernihiv but were forced to withdraw on the outskirts of the city after a few days due to heavy losses. The capital had held out narrowly.

In the less guarded south, however, the Russians advanced. Tanks rolled out of Crimea, heading west towards Kherson and Mykolaiv and east towards Mariupol to secure a land route between Donbas and Crimea.

Soon, Russia had all of Luhansk in the east, but it again struggled in the north, where the Ukrainians recaptured large chunks, including the key city of Kharkiv. By November, the Russians had also been forced to withdraw from Kherson.

Russia beds in

Last year saw far fewer shifts in battlelines. Only what is left of Bakhmut changed hands, the ruined city at last falling to the Russians after months of fighting. In recent weeks, the Russians captured Avdiivka, too.

The much heralded Ukrainian counter-offensive—postponed several times, first in the spring of 2023, then in the summer—never really materialised.

Militarily, the Russians have always excelled at defence, and so it has proved, too, in Ukraine.

Local resident speak as they stand near an armoured personnel carrier in the eastern Crimea'a port city of Feodosiya on March 2, 2014. Witnesses said Russian soldiers had blocked about 400 Ukrainian marines there.

The conflict is now characterised by trench warfare. Russia suffers heavy losses that are quickly replaced due to its superior manpower and ability to replenish.

Ukraine, by contrast, relies almost entirely on Western economic and military support, which costs billions of dollars a month.

With Kyiv's sponsors' own military stocks now running low, Russia's far greater military-industrial capacity—together with arms from countries like Iran—may prove to be decisive. If Donald Trump is elected, US support may dry up entirely.

Knowing this, Putin is playing a waiting game. He is counting on the West getting "Ukraine fatigue" and stepping back. He stands to gain the most, having avoided a strategic defeat by the West so far.

All the while, he moves closer to achieving his goal of reclaiming 'Novorossiya', seeking to align his legacy with that of Catherine the Great and Peter the Great.

It should come as no surprise. In a 2016 speech, Putin criticised the Bolsheviks for transferring Crimea and Sevastopol to Ukraine in 1954, arguing that these historical boundaries could and should be revised.

For Prussian general and military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, "war is politics by other means". One wonders where Putin's "politics" end.

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