A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 8, 2023

Ukrainian Gains Prompt Renewed Crimean Support Amid Russian Crackdown

Ukraine's counteroffensive success is causing unrest and increased acts of sabotage in Crimea as hopes of reunification with Ukraine grow. 

Logistical disruptions make life harder and Russian tourists - a mainstay of the local economy  have reduced their visits due to fear of attack.The result is that even Crimeans who supported or tolerated the invasion are hedging their bets as Russian occupying forces crackdown on any dissent. JL

Yaroslav Trofimov reports in the Wall Street Journal:

A worrying fact for Russian occupation authorities is that many Crimeans openly yearn for a return to Ukrainian rule. Ukraine now routinely strikes the peninsula with missiles as well as naval and aerial drones. In August, a Ukrainian special-forces team disembarked on the western tip of Crimea, raising the Ukrainian flag and attacking a Russian military installation. These attacks have throttled Crimea’s tourism industry, with authorities forecasting only 4.5 million Russians will vacation (there) this year—half 2021. Logistics disruptions have also led to a fuel crisis. "Now that Russia is losing, the legitimacy of Putin has eroded. Many Crimeans think their dreams are not in vain.’ ”

Every few days, Russian occupation authorities on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula parade newly caught “traitors” in front of the cameras.

For some, the crime consisted of playing Ukrainian songs in public, running a pro-Ukrainian social-media account or tying yellow cloth strips, a sign of resistance to Russian rule, to fences and trees. Other detainees include shopkeepers and gas-station attendants who had refused service to Russian soldiers. Still others stand accused of more-serious acts of resistance: blowing up railroad tracks or gathering intelligence for Ukrainian missile and drone strikes.

While this crackdown is meant to cow pro-Ukraine residents of Crimea into submission, it also highlights a worrying fact for Russian occupation authorities: Despite their claims, believed by many outside Russia, that the people of Crimea solidly stand with Moscow, many Crimeans openly yearn for a return to Ukrainian rule.

Given the degree of repression, estimating the level of such support for Kyiv is impossible. Moreover, many Ukrainian citizens have fled Crimea since Russia annexed it in 2014 and hundreds of thousands of settlers from all over Russia moved to the peninsula, attracted by its beaches and subtropical weather.

But one thing is clear: The Kremlin’s decision to launch a full-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has put Crimea’s future back on the table, with Russian rule no longer viewed by virtually all of the peninsula’s residents as likely permanent.

“Ukrainian citizens who live in Crimea and want the restoration of Ukrainian administration have always been numerous, but until 2022 they believed that the territory of Crimea will be occupied for a long time,” said Borys Babin, a Crimean-born Ukrainian politician who serves as an expert at the Association for the Reintegration of Crimea. “The pro-Ukrainian population has become more optimistic. These feelings are bursting to the surface, and we can see them.”

Punishments for showing these feelings are often severe, with prison terms and forced confessions that are broadcast on a Telegram channel called the Crimean Smersh—a reference to the Stalin-era abbreviation for counterintelligence death squads.

August’s catches included a man apologizing for posting “Glory to Ukraine” on social media, another for blasting a Ukrainian song about burning a Russian tank, and three young hostesses at the Alushta aquapark who had danced to another Ukrainian pop tune. The three women were made to sing on camera about the greatness of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia’s FSB intelligence service, meanwhile, paraded a man who had allegedly blown up a gas pipeline in Crimea, one of several such recent detentions on sabotage charges.

Most of those detained for such acts of resistance aren’t members of the traditionally pro-Ukrainian Crimean Tatar community, an estimated 12% of the peninsula’s population. Many are ethnic Russians who are repulsed by Russia’s militaristic autocracy and prefer a return to democracy under Ukrainian rule. 

Seizing Crimea in 2014, as the Ukrainian army didn’t fire a shot to resist, was a major achievement for Putin, boosting his popularity at home and whetting his appetite for other parts of Ukraine.

The peninsula was first annexed by Russia in 1783 as Empress Catherine II dismantled the Crimean Tatar state that was based there for centuries. The Soviet leadership transferred Crimea from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet republic in 1954, after Stalin deported all the Crimean Tatars. The Tatars were only allowed to start returning in the waning years of Soviet rule. In 1991, even though ethnic Russians had long become a majority, some 54% of Crimea’s population voted for the independence of Ukraine, and Russia recognized the peninsula as Ukrainian territory.

After another referendum, carried out under Russian occupation in 2014, purported to show a 97% support for joining Russia, Ukraine tacitly accommodated itself to the annexation even as it refused to recognize the loss of Crimea de jure. Until 2022, Kyiv operated border crossings between Crimea and the Ukrainian mainland, and didn’t carry out any attacks on Russian military installations on the peninsula. With more than 500,000 Russian citizens moving to Crimea since 2014 and well over 100,000 Ukrainian loyalists fleeing the peninsula, it seemed as if the Russian control was forever.

Not anymore. While the Ukrainian offensive toward Crimea in southern Ukraine has been bloody and slow-going so far, Kyiv—defying warnings of apocalyptic retribution from Moscow—now routinely strikes the peninsula with missiles as well as naval and aerial drones. In August, a Ukrainian special-forces team briefly disembarked on the western tip of Crimea, raising the Ukrainian flag and attacking a nearby Russian military installation before withdrawing.

“Crimea is part of our territory and we have to liberate it. More than that, we will liberate it,” Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s national security and defense council, said recently. “Most likely, it will happen by the force of arms…Any other outcome with Crimea means preserving the situation and passing on the war to our heirs, to our children and grandchildren.”

Since last October, Ukrainian strikes twice disabled the only bridge linking Crimea with Russia, a structure that was built at a cost of $4 billion and was personally unveiled by Putin in 2018 as a symbol of the permanence of Russian rule. Another naval-drone attack on the bridge was thwarted on Saturday, according to Moscow. Increasingly frequent Ukrainian strikes have also targeted key military bases, ammunition depots, logistics nodes and command centers across the peninsula.

These attacks have throttled Crimea’s all-important tourism industry, with Russian-installed authorities forecasting that only some 4.5 million to five million Russians will vacation on the peninsula this year—half as many as in 2021. Logistics disruptions have also led to a fuel crisis, with many Crimean gas stations running out of gas, and some cities recently experiencing power blackouts. The destruction of the Kakhovka dam in the nearby Kherson region of Ukraine, meanwhile, has dried out the main canal supplying Crimea with fresh water. 

As a result, many Crimeans who originally backed annexation by Russia are now changing their mind, said Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Putin who has left Russia and opposes the government.

“There used to be that sentiment in Crimea of return to a home harbor, but you have to understand that this return was so popular because the Ukrainian authority seemed weak and the Russian authority seemed strong,” Gallyamov said. “But now that Russia is losing, and doesn’t show any strength, the legitimacy of the Putin regime has been eroded. And when Ukraine is strong, many Crimeans are thinking ‘Maybe we have made a mistake?’ ”

Many senior officials and military commanders in Ukraine hail from Crimea, and seek to return to their homeland. Ukraine’s new defense minister, Rustem Umerov, appointed by President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday, is a Crimean Tatar former lawmaker. Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the HUR military intelligence service that carries out many of the strikes in Crimea, spent most of his youth in Sevastopol and considers himself a Crimean. Asked about the attitude of Crimeans to a return of Ukrainian authority, Budanov told a Ukrainian TV channel in August: “There are unfortunately some that are very afraid, but very many are also awaiting us, and we have to give them certainty that their dreams are not in vain.”

Some Crimeans have a good reason to be afraid: Draconian anti-collaboration laws were passed by Kyiv last year. These laws, which aimed to deter collaboration with Russian occupation authorities across Ukraine as Putin invaded the country, impose criminal penalties for service in Russian institutions, including schools and local administrations. The legislation has been used to prosecute collaborators in parts of the Kherson and Kharkiv regions that Kyiv regained last fall.

While most of Crimea’s pre-2014 residents have retained Ukrainian passports, valuable because they provide visa-free access to the European Union, virtually all of them have also had to obtain Russian citizenship to stay in their homes.

Tamila Tasheva, a former human-rights activist in Crimea who now serves as Zelensky’s representative for Crimean affairs, said that new legislation is needed to differentiate collaboration in Crimea, now in its 10th year of Russian rule, from Ukrainian areas that were governed by Russia for just a few weeks or months.

“A person is not a criminal just because he or she lives under occupation. Occupation is a temporary state under which life must go on,” she said. “We cannot use in Crimea the norms that don’t take into account the length of the occupation.” Only the most active collaborators who have worked with the Russian military and security services, and who helped establish Russian rule in Crimea, should be prosecuted, she said.

The approach would be different to the Russian settlers who moved to Crimea after 2014, Tasheva said: They would be required to leave, unless they obtain a Ukrainian residence permit. “They are all co-conspirators in the crime of the colonization of territory, and the change of its demographic makeup.”

One of the Crimeans fighting for a return to Ukrainian rule is Oleh Sentsov, a filmmaker who was imprisoned by Putin on “terrorism” charges in 2014 and released in a 2019 prisoner swap with Kyiv. Now a soldier in the Ukrainian military, Sentsov was recently injured as his unit pushed through Russian minefields in the Zaporizhzhia region north of Crimea.

“From us to Crimea, it’s as far as to the moon, but we will surely overcome that distance,” he wrote in a recent Facebook post. “The only question is how long it will take. And how many more friends will turn into black-and-white photographs in the meantime.”


Post a Comment