Crimea, Crimean Tatars and the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Filiz Tutku Aydın
Assistant Professor
Social Sciences University of Ankara

Putin’s “annexation” of Crimea was both a precursor and a model of the current wholesale invasion of Ukraine. The Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of Crimea, fervently opposed the “annexation” of Crimea because they were aware that the “annexation” would be tantamount to the destruction of their nation. The Russians undertook policies of Russification in Crimea and later Donbas, and there is no doubt that Putin will implement the same policy if Russia occupied Ukraine for a longer time.

We should also notice the pattern of Russian history from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin and Putin: messianic imperialism, which aims to destroy all smaller nations and impose its own cultural vision and identity over others. Unlike other nations such as Germany and Japan, Russia never accepted its crimes and repented, therefore it is bound to repeat its mistakes.

The invasion, “annexation”, and consequent occupation of Crimea was a precursor and small-scale model of a contemporary full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia uses the same tactics over and over again and the West manages to be surprised each time. First of all, Putin laid the groundwork for invasion. He supported pro-Russian politicians in the regional government of Crimea, the local Russian mafia, the local Russian radical and fascist organizations and paramilitary forces, a pro-Russian chauvinistic media which published and showed anti-Crimean Tatar and anti-Ukrainian content daily, all of which proved extremely useful during the invasion. The Black Sea Fleet was maintained as a Trojan Horse. During the EuroMaidan Revolution Ukraine fell into chaos and had neither a government nor much military force. Putin pressed the button for the second stage of the ‘hybrid’ invasion of Crimea. FSB staged a coup in the Crimean government while the 40,000 soldiers without insignia occupied all strategic points of Crimea. Thirdly, Russia organized a hasty and illegal referendum, which was undertaken completely unlawfully with practices such as armed soldiers carrying boxes from home to home and no option for staying with Ukraine being given in the questions of the referendum. Despite coercion, the turnout was very low, and the approval rate was even lower. The fourth aspect of occupation was terrorizing the society for obedience. The dissidents, particularly Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians, were silenced by imprisonment, disappearances, killings, house searches, and all democratic and ethnic institutions were abolished or banned. The lack of appropriate reaction to the Crimean occupation is one of the causes of Ukraine’s full-scale invasion. For, Putin was encouraged due to the lack of consequences for the occupation of Crimea. The Western economic sanctions were quite limited, European countries continued to buy oil and natural gas from Russia, Russian corrupt money easily found ways to Western and off-shore financial institutions, economy, and politics, and manipulative Russian media continued to broadcast to western societies.

Russia also intervened in Donbas two months later, organizing a separatist movement. The western powers, mainly France and Germany made another mistake of excluding the Crimean question from the Minsk process that aimed to solve the Donbas conflict. However, appeasement did not work once again, and today Russia launched a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, using the same ‘hybrid’ tactics. It is imperative to stop Putin and take him and all of his accomplices to justice.

The Crimean Tatars established an Islamic civilization and a strong state for 300 years in Crimea before there were any Russians in the peninsula. The Russian colonization of the peninsula began after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 1783, victimizing its native population, thereby forcing them to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire in large numbers. Despite the exodus of a large part of their population, the Crimean Tatars were able to declare their independent state, only to be crashed by Bolsheviks and leaders of their nation to be killed or exiled. However, the most significant crime against the Crimean Tatars was the deportation of the whole nation from their homeland. On 18 May 1944, Stalin ordered the deportation of the Crimean Tatars to Central Asia and Siberia en masse on the pretext of collaboration with Nazis. This was the most unjust accusation as all the young males were serving in the Soviet army, and many Crimean Tatars joined or helped Soviet partisans. The women, elderly, and children were given fifteen minutes to prepare belongings, loaded in cattle cars, and after three weeks of travel, were unloaded to Central Asian desserts, Ural Mountains, or Siberian taiga to try to survive in poverty and misery. On the way to places of deportation and shortly afterward, the Crimean Tatars lost at least 40% of their population.

The Crimean Tatars were sufficiently resilient and returned collectively after 50 years, yet they were once again devastated by the occupation of Crimea in 2014. Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia unleashed its policy of re-colonization and Russification of Crimea. While forcing Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians to leave, at least 850 000 Russians were settled in the peninsula. What the Russian government has done in Crimea and Donbas is beyond human rights violations. Russia committed crimes against humanity and war crimes, for it is responsible to implement Geneva Convention in its occupied territories. The case of Crimea also demonstrates clearly what will happen if Ukraine is occupied by Russia for a longer period.

Crimea does not belong to Russia in the first place despite Putin’s historical narrative. Russia’s only historical relation to Crimea is one of the colonizers’ to colonized. Russia lost any right to Crimea through acts of terror perpetrated against its indigenous population several times in its history. Crimea belongs to Ukraine, a democratic and pluralist country that recognizes and respects the indigenous rights of the Crimean Tatars. Most of all, Crimea belongs to its indigenous people, Crimean Tatars. The international community must not regard Crimea as a bargaining chip in the post-war settlement with Russia but instead insist on the restoration of the whole territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Putin, while claiming the legacy of Russian polities, culture, and achievements in the past, rejects the historical crimes Russian Empire or the Soviet Union perpetrated, among which are Crimean Tatar deportation and Holodomor. After the war, a transitional justice process must be initiated for Russia to redress its historical injustices instead of adding new ones, as the war in Ukraine shows forgetting almost guarantees the repetition of crimes.

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