Competing claims to Crimea show why Russia and Ukraine cannot make peace


After nine months of death and destruction, the key to Russia’s war on Ukraine lies in the rocky, sea-sunk peninsula of Crimea – with its limestone plateaus and rows of poplar trees – which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.

It was in Crimea in February 2014, not February 2022, that Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine began. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky insists that the war will only end with the capture of Crimea and Ukraine will defeat its Russian invaders.

“His return will mean the restoration of true peace,” Zelensky said in October. “The Russian potential for aggression will be completely destroyed when the Ukrainian flag returns to its rightful place – in the cities and villages of Crimea.

But for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the annexation of Crimea has become a pillar of his legacy that will crumble if he loses the peninsula. Putin indicated that any effort by Ukraine to reclaim Crimea would cross a red line that he would not tolerate.

Ukraine’s hope of reclaiming Crimea had long seemed a far-fetched fantasy, but Kiev’s recent battlefield victories and Moscow’s missteps suddenly made it seem plausible — perhaps dangerous.

While the West supports Ukraine, there are fears that any Ukrainian military incursion into Crimea could prompt Putin to take drastic action, potentially even using a nuclear bomb. Some Western officials hope a deal to cede Crimea to Russia could be the basis for a diplomatic end to the war. Ukrainians reject the idea as dangerously naive, while Russians say they won’t settle for what is already theirs.

The steadfast claims to Crimea illustrate the intractability of the conflict, and it is hard to imagine that the battle for the peninsula will be resolved without further bloodshed.

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It was a shocking attack in early October on the Crimean bridge — a $4 billion symbol of Putin’s imperial ambitions in Ukraine — that the Kremlin says triggered Moscow’s relentless bombing campaign against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure that now threatens to plunge the country into a humanitarian crisis.

And after Kyiv the liberation of Kherson — which Moscow promised would be “Russia forever” — Russian officials stepped up their rhetoric. Former president Dmitry Medvedev promised a “day of judgment” in the event of an attack on Crimea, while a member of the Russian parliament warned of a “final crushing blow”.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is developing detailed plans to reintegrate Crimea, including the expulsion of thousands of Russian citizens who moved there after 2014.

“Absolutely all Russian citizens who came to Crimea, with some rare exceptions, arrived on the territory of Crimea illegally,” said Zelensky’s permanent representative in Crimea Tamila Tasheva. “Therefore, we have one approach: all these Russian citizens must leave.

Russia has its own maximalist view, demanding the surrender of four other Ukrainian regions – Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson – which Putin has also declared illegally annexed.

The refusal of either side to back down threatens to turn the war into a decades-long conflict, similar to the territorial stand-offs over the West Bank and Gaza, Nagorno-Karabakh or Kurdistan.

Crimea has been the subject of bitter disputes for centuries. The Greeks, Mongols and Ottoman Turks all claimed this jewel of the Black Sea. Russia and the Ottoman Empire fought wars over it before Catherine the Great annexed Crimea in 1783, absorbing it into the Russian Empire.

During the Soviet Union, as well as during the tsarist era, Crimea became a favorite holiday resort of the Russian elite. Stalin brutally repressed the Crimean Tatars, the peninsula’s predominantly Muslim indigenous group, deported about 200,000 to Central Asia and Siberia after accusing them of collaborating with Nazi Germany. This pursuit would shape the politics of the peninsula for decades.

In 1954—ostensibly to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s annexation treaty with Russia, but also for key economic reasons—Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimea became an autonomous region of Ukraine, beholden to Kiev, but with its own constitution and Ukrainian, Russian and Crimean Tatar as official languages.

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The 1990s were marked by squabbling between Kiev and Moscow, fueled in part by the Kremlin’s demand to keep its Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, which it did on a long-term lease. But the feeling of resentment towards Kiev rose among the Crimeans. The peninsula was experiencing economic difficulties. Many residents, predominantly ethnic Russians, felt neglected and nostalgic for Soviet times.

In 2014, days after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled in response to the Maidan revolution, Russian forces invaded Crimea. The Russian-backed authorities quickly organized an illegal annexation referendum, which was carried out in a fast-track process that Putin hoped to repeat this year by seizing Kiev.

The annexation was extremely popular in Russia, and Putin’s approval rating skyrocketed. “Much of Russia’s imperial projection, its entire founding myth, centers on Crimea,” said Gwendolyn Sasse, an analyst at Carnegie Europe.

“In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been an indivisible part of Russia,” Putin said in a speech at the time. However, the annexation was a violation of international law, and Western nations quickly imposed punitive sanctions.

For eight years, Crimea’s fate has been clouded by the war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas, fueled by pro-Russian separatists. But Zelensky began formulating a plan for the deoccupation and reintegration of Crimea long before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February.

In 2021, his government established an annual summit called the Crimean Platform aimed at keeping Crimea in the international spotlight. Tasheva, a Crimean Tatar, became Zelensky’s representative in Crimea in April, and now leads a team of 40 people working on a plan to reverse the annexation.

“It is imperative that Ukraine has a phased plan … ready to act,” Tasheva said in an interview, noting a long list of complex issues related to transitional justice and citizenship.

An estimated 100,000 residents fled Crimea after Russia annexed it, but the vast majority remained, joined by hundreds of thousands of Russians encouraged to settle there. Since 2014, Russian authorities have issued passports to many of the peninsula’s 2.4 million citizens.

Tasheva said Crimeans who remained “have a right to it” and that after the deoccupation, efforts will be made to distinguish between those who actively cooperated with Russian authorities and those who may have voted for annexation but were became what Tasheva calls “victims of propaganda”.

“These people have committed no crimes,” she said. “They just had their opinion.”

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However, she said all Russian citizens who arrived illegally after 2014 must leave. “This is a matter of our security,” Tasheva said. “If all these Russian citizens remain on the territory of Crimea, they will always threaten the territorial integrity of our country.

Rory Finnin, Associate Professor of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Cambridge, said a compromise was unlikely.

“The idea that somehow Ukraine should just go back to the status quo after 2014 is silly because all that’s going to happen is another escalation,” Finnin said. “It is hard to imagine that Ukrainians are calm about giving up this territory, knowing that it means abandoning millions of people. The moral and geopolitical stakes of such abandonment are serious.

Russia also intends to maintain its grip on Crimea, raising concerns among Western officials about the extreme measures Putin might take to hold onto it.

Nikolay Petrov, a senior fellow at Chatham House, the London-based policy institute, said that Putin giving up Crimea was “absolutely out of the question” and that Zelensky’s loudly articulated reintegration policies were among the “triggers” for Putin’s invasion.

“The creation of the Crimean platform and the permission given by the West to play this card started a very dangerous game,” Petrov said. “It finally led to this war.”

In a recent interview, Lord David Richards, a former British army chief of staff, said Ukraine would risk nuclear war to defend Crimea. “If you rub Putin’s nose, he might do something very stupid,” Richards told Times Radio. “He can use tactical nukes.”

Still, some Western officials hope the Crimea deal could be the key to ending the war, and have said they believe Zelensky and his advisers are more open to potential concessions than their rhetoric suggests.

During initial peace talks in March, Kiev signaled it would be open to separate talks on Crimea’s status, raising the possibility that Zelensky was willing to treat Crimea differently from other Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, which he insists be returned.

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“It is possible that there could be some sort of deal on Crimea, a properly monitored and conducted referendum, perhaps something like a deal with Hong Kong where it is allowed to remain in Russian hands for a few years,” Lord Richards said.

Eight years later, Crimea is isolated by international sanctions. Its airport, once a hub for air travelers from all over Europe and beyond, now offers flights only to mainland Russia.

Initially, the Kremlin poured money into local infrastructure projects, including the Crimean Bridge, as well as pension schemes. It also imposed Russian state propaganda as the main source of information. Although Russian tourists have returned, the peninsula has struggled economically and is now run by a repressive government installed by Moscow. Crimean Tatars in particular faced persecution.

Given the limited access to Crimea and the dominance of Russian state media, it is difficult to gauge public opinion there and whether it has changed in response to the war.

Still, many believe that the war that began in Crimea should end with Crimea.

“The issue of Crimea, which before the war I thought would take decades to resolve, is now unequivocal,” said Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oil tycoon and longtime critic of Putin. “It is difficult to imagine a real end to the war without the return of Crimea to Ukraine.

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