From annexation to war

Eleanor Knott
Assistant Professor
London School of Economics

Author of Kin Majorities: Identity and Citizenship in Crimea and Moldova (forthcoming, MQUP).

With Russia seeking to invade, “neutralise”, and wage war against Ukraine in 2022, it is also eight years since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. It is eight years since Russia occupied Crimea’s streets with “little green men” as part of the “Operation Polite People”. It is eight years since Russia claimed it was saving Crimea from the alleged horrors of Ukrainization of language and culture, and a supposed Kosovo-like massacre.

Before annexation, ethnic Russians and Russian speakers faced no such threat. In Crimea, they could speak Russian freely, work in Russian freely, and receive education in Russian freely. One Crimean resident told me in 2012 that there was neither a “gagging” of Russian language nor “strangulation” of Russian culture. Indeed, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar languages were less protected by local legislation.

Pro-Russian or corrupt?
Arguments that Crimeans were threatened and discriminated against by Ukrainization were made only by those on the pro-Russian fringe of Crimean politics, by politicians like Sergei Aksenov. Prior to annexation, Aksenov headed Russkoe Edinstvo (Russian Unity) – a party that only received 4% of votes in Crimea’s 2010 parliamentary elections. In 2014, Aksenov would be catapulted into power by his support for annexation and remains Crimea’s republican leader since annexation.

But one cannot talk about Aksenov’s pro-Russian credentials without mentioning his criminal past (and present). Known also as “Goblin”, Aksenov has been highly implicated in organised crime and corruption schemes as a member of Crimea’s renowned “Salem” gang.

While the 1990s was a period of conflict between Crimea’s rival gangs, the 2000s was about their transition to semi-legitimacy as suit-wearing businessmen-come-politicians. As Mark Galeotti argued in 2014, “gangsters-turned-businessmen” like Aksenov came to dominate Crimea because such a transformation offered “protection and privileged access to upperworld and underworld resources”.

Crimean residents across the political spectrum explained to me how pro-Russian politicians and organisations in Crimea were little more than “professional Russians”. They saw such pro-Russian organisations, like Russkoe Edinstvo and its cultural sister Russkaia Obshchina Kryma (Russian Community of Crimea), as corrupt and nepotistic laundering schemes for money from Russia.

The grim realities of annexation
On the one hand, annexation caused little fighting and few deaths, partly because Ukrainian forces – following orders from Kyiv – did not resist in order to avoid escalation and protect mainland Ukraine. On the other hand, annexation brought a new violent reality: armed occupation, arrests, repression and human rights abuses, especially for dissident and Crimean Tatars.

For example, it is also eight years since the Putin regime claimed Crimean Tatars – a community of pacificist and largely secular Muslims native to Crimea – were extremist and needed to be policed as such, including banning the Mejlis.

It is eight years since 50,000-60,000 left their homes in Crimea as formally and informally internally displaced people (IDPs) for mainland Ukraine ­– both Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainian citizens – afraid and disgusted by the new and violent realities of annexation. As the journalist Ayder Muzdabaev wrote in 2016, for Crimean Tatars residing in Crimea: “There are no barbed-wire fences in this new hybrid ghetto of Vladimir Putin’s – yet. Instead of wire there is hate-filled TV propaganda, total surveillance and constant harassment.”

Annexation forced Crimea’s residents to choose under duress: remain and become a Russian citizen, or register as a foreigner. Those who refused Russian citizenship lacked equality before the law. Meanwhile, Russia breached the Geneva Convention by making several thousand state employees in Crimea forcibly renounce Ukrainian citizenship.

Annexation, conflict, war
It was not long after annexation that Russian-sponsored conflict spread to the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Such conflict included the downing of the MH17 plane, an act for which the Putin regime is culpable.

It is important to remember these acts of pertained conflict since 2014 because Russian-sponsored violence never went away in Ukraine.

Moreover, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent militarisation of the peninsula no doubt facilitated their engagement in conflict in Syria. Would the scale and scope of Russia’s engagement in Syria have been possible without annexation of Crimea?

While many forgot about Russia’s conflict in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk in the last eight years, would Russia’s war against Ukraine be possible without these acts? If the EU, Canada, US, and UK had reacted more strongly than targeted sanctions to Russia’s illegal actions since 2014, would Ukraine be facing an invasion?

Lastly, we must remember the violence wrought against Crimean Tatars, a community that was deported en masse and decimated in 1944 for propagandic and false claims they were “Nazi collaborators”. Crimean Tatars were only able to return to Crimea in the late 1980s. Many now live in exile again. Chillingly, Russia is coming once again with renewed force against Crimean Tatars, claiming they are the very “Nazis” that Russia is seeking to “de-Nazify” Ukraine of.

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