Crimea: why do the Russians think it’s theirs?

Crimean bridge

On 27th February 2014 Russian military personnel entered Crimea and began the process of taking over key government buildings in Simferopol, the region’s capital, as well as major communication hubs such as airports. This bloodless coup was completed in a few weeks and Crimea was formally incorporated into the Russian Federation in March. The events surrounding the annexation of Crimea were comprehensively covered in Western media, as was the illegality of Russia’s actions, but a topic on which there is far less literature are the cultural and historical reasons behind why, 4 years on, many Russians believe Crimea to be rightfully theirs.

What happened?

The annexation of Crimea in 2014 was the escalation of a situation that began late the previous year. In December 2013, more than 100,000 people gathered in the Ukrainian capital to protest against the government’s refusal to sign a trade accord with the European Union, particularly aimed against the country’s leader President Viktor Yanukovych. Pro-Western Ukrainians saw this trade deal with the EU as a historic opportunity to escape from the influence of Moscow and develop closer ties with Europe; many thought this to be the deal that would pave the way for Ukraine to eventually become a member of the EU. The pro-Russian Mr Yanukovych did have support for retaining stronger ties with the Kremlin, but this was mostly in eastern Ukraine where many ethnic Russians still live.

Getting out from under the influence of Moscow has been a central theme in Ukrainian politics since it declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Indeed, the December protest was the largest anti-government protest in Ukraine since the 2004 Orange Revolution which overthrew the authoritarian, pro-Moscow government of the time.

At the beginning of 2014, the situation in Kiev became increasingly violent, with more than 100 protesters killed on the 20th February alone. The break down in law and order led to President Yanukovych fleeing the capital on 22nd February, claiming a coup had been planned against him. This led to a pro-European administration taking his place, and eventually the accord with the EU was signed later that year on 27th June 2014.  Ukraine turning its back on Russia in favour of closer ties with Europe is the context under which we must view the invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Moscow on 27th February 2014.

How does Russia justify its actions despite being in clear breach of international law?

The introduction of thousands of troops into the Crimean Peninsula is in clear breach of Article 2(4) of the U.N. charter, which clearly outlines that a state may not use any ‘threats or use of force’ against other states. This is the reason only a handful of U.N. member states, such as Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Nicaragua, have formally recognised Crimea has part of Russia, and why many others chose, and continue to, impose heavy economic sanctions on Russia in response.

The first step   to understanding the strong national sentiment that Crimea should be part of Russia is engaging with the official justifications from the Russian government and President Putin. In a phone call to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, shortly after the event, Putin defended the actions of his government by declaring that they were actually in accordance with international law, rather than in breach of them. His basis for this rationale is Article 1 of the U.N. charter which deals with a peoples’ right to national self-determination, and centres around the referendum which took place on 16th March 2014, after the annexation, where the inhabitants voted on the decision to join the Russian Federation. The Kremlin argues that actions of the government were both necessary and lawful given that an overwhelming majority over 90%, voted to join Russia.

Furthermore, the Kremlin argues that it’s actions were crucial in order to protect Russian nationals, as well as Russian-speaking Ukrainians, from ethnic persecution at the hands of the Ukrainian government and other pro-Western Ukrainians.The primary reasoning for this comes from the outbreak of anti-Russian motivated violence which arose  as a result of President’s Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the trade deal with the EU in favour of potential closer relations with Moscow.

However, these justifications can be effectively countered. Few  Western politicians believe in the legitimacy of the 2014 referendum. The Ukrainian government claimed that it was unconstitutional and mired in corruption; a thinly disguised, fraudulent and bribery-filled exercise carried out simply to justify their actions. Secondly, in terms of Russian nationals coming under threat, one must bear in mind that no less than 143,000 Ukrainian citizens also hold Russian passports, which makes it considerably easier to draw attention to the number of “Russians” who could potentially be in danger following (what the Kremlin say to be) an anti-Russian coup against the former President. Even so, very little, if any, evidence has been found to substantiate claims that persecution is taking place. Therefore, the Russian justification that their actions are in accordance with international law is quite easily deconstructed.

For many western critics this was a repeat of the Russian military intervention in Georgia in 2008. However, the Kremlin has cried hypocrisy and claims Western powers have behaved in a similar fashion, pointing at events such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the 2011 NATO-led military intervention into Libya and their involvement in Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, something which the Kremlin was particular angered at. In the eyes of the Russians, these military interventions make the West no better than they are.

Culturally, why do many Russians believe Crimea is rightfully theirs?

As we have seen, the legitimacy of the official justification from the Kremlin over the annexation of Crimea can be argued against effectively . Why then do many ordinary Russians believe that Crimea should be Russian, despite the clear breach in international law? Why did President Putin’s approval ratings surge from around 63% before the event to above 80% after it? The reasons behind the sentiment that Crimea is rightfully part of Russia are multilayered. One of them is political; many believe in the legitimacy of the 2014 referendum, and as a result believe that military intervention was fully justified.

However, it is the historical and cultural ties that exist between the two regions which are at the heart of this conflict. Ukrainians and Russians have traditionally maintained very close bonds, regarding each other as Slavic brothers. Their history, culture and language have always been intertwined. Therefore the 2014 coup which removed a pro-Russian leadership and instilled a pro-European one in its place feels very much like a betrayal to many Russians, and as a result the annexation of Crimea feels like a fair and just way to exact some sort of revenge on Ukraine for turning its back on Russia.

Furthermore, Ukraine is a relatively young country, having only declared its independence in 1991 after the fall of the USSR. The Crimean Peninsula has historically been part of Russia, and was only transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – the part of the USSR that eventually became Ukraine – in 1953 after the death of Joseph Stalin. This is seen by many as a simple political concession by successor Nikita Khrushchev who wanted to appease the Ukrainian leadership in his attempt to solidify his position amongst the power struggle caused by Stalin’s death. The result of this is a historical feeling that Crimea was transferred as a mere political power play and should never have stopped being part of Russia in the first place.

Despite this, there are many Russians who are angry at the actions of their government over Crimea, but, not for the same reasons as Western governments and media . Few are angered by what former U.S. President Barack Obama called the “clear violation of Russia’s commitment to…international laws”; as previously discussed the feeling in Russia is that the West has also breached these same laws in recent years. What many are more angry about is the extra cost to the Russian taxpayer that Crimea has brought.

First of all are the significant economic sanctions that the country has incurred from the international community, driving the prices up of everyday items and making certain products harder to come by. In addition to this are the numerous investments the Kremlin has made in the peninsula’s infrastructure; not only roads, hospitals and the airport but also on the landmark construction project, the Crimean Bridge, which opened for the first time earlier this year. This is of course an effort from the Kremlin to boost the prosperity of the region and justify the annexation. The 11-mile bridge is now the longest bridge in Europe, and is a pivotal project forming the only road-link between mainland Russia and the peninsula. The criticism from many Russians is that a lot of their taxes are spent on projects like this £2.7 billion bridge, or other major international events such as the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and that they themselves are seeing little benefit from it.

The situation in Crimea has certainly deepened the divide between Russia and the West, but the situation is not so clear cut as many media sources portray it. Whilst we cannot, and should not, look past the fact that Russia has violated one of the founding principles of international law and cooperation, it is nevertheless interesting to consider not only the official Russian point of view but also the reason why the annexation of Crimea was such a popular move amongst Russian citizens. This does not excuse or in any way make the Russian government’s actions more lawful or their justifications more credible, however it does provide an insight into the reason behind them and why many Russians will tell you today that Crimea is rightfully theirs.