“His return will mean the restoration of real peace,” Zelensky said in October. “The potential for Russian aggression will be completely destroyed when the Ukrainian flag returns to its rightful place – in the towns and villages of Crimea.”
But for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the annexation of Crimea has become a pillar of his legacy, which would crumble if he lost the peninsula. Cheese fries indicated that any effort by Ukraine to retake Crimea would cross a red line that he would not tolerate.
Ukraine’s hope of retaking Crimea has long seemed like a far-fetched fantasy, but Kiev’s recent battlefield victories and Moscow’s missteps have suddenly made it plausible — perhaps dangerously so.
The West, while supporting Ukraine, fears that any Ukrainian military incursion into Crimea will prompt Putin to take drastic measures, even the use of a nuclear bomb. Some Western officials hope a deal ceding Crimea to Russia could provide the basis for a diplomatic end to the war. Ukrainians dismiss this idea as dangerously naive, while Russians say they won’t settle for what’s already theirs.
The unshakeable claims over Crimea illustrate the intractability of the conflict, and it is hard to imagine that the struggle 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 sparked Moscow’s relentless bombing campaign against critical infrastructure in the country. Ukraine which now threatens to tip the country into a humanitarian crisis.
And after kyiv liberated Kherson – which Moscow vowed would be “Russia forever” – Russian officials stepped up their rhetoric. Former President Dmitry Medvedev has promised a ‘judgment day’ in the event of an attack on Crimea, while a member of the Russian parliament has warned of a ‘crushing final blow’.
Ukraine, meanwhile, is drawing up detailed plans for the reintegration of Crimea, including the expulsion of thousands of Russian citizens who moved there after 2014.
“Absolutely all Russian citizens who came to Crimea, with rare exceptions, arrived on the territory of Crimea illegally,” Zelensky’s permanent representative in Crimea Tamila Tasheva said. “Therefore, we have an approach: that all these Russian citizens must leave.”
Russia has its own maximalist vision, demanding the surrender of four other Ukrainian regions – Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – which Putin has also illegally declared annexed.
Either side’s refusal to back down threatens to turn the war into a decades-long conflict, much like territorial clashes over the West Bank and Gaza, Nagorno-Karabakh or Kurdistan.
Crimea has been fiercely disputed for centuries. The Greeks, Mongols and Ottoman Turks have all claimed this jewel of the Black Sea. Russia and the Ottoman Empire fought wars there before Catherine the Great annexed Crimea in 1783, absorbing it into the Russian Empire.
During the Soviet Union, as in the Tsarist era, Crimea became the favorite vacation spot of the Russian elite. Stalin brutally suppressed the Crimean Tatars, the peninsula’s predominantly Muslim indigenous group, deporting some 200,000 people to Central Asia and Siberia after accusing them of collaborating with Nazi Germany. This persecution would shape the politics of the peninsula for decades.
In 1954 – ostensibly to mark the 300th anniversary of a treaty joining Ukraine with Russia, but also for key economic reasons – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Crimea became an autonomous region of Ukraine, linked 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 feuds between Kyiv and Moscow, spurred in part by the Kremlin’s demand to maintain its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, which it did under a long-term lease. But a feeling of resentment towards kyiv has spread among Crimeans. The peninsula has experienced economic difficulties. Many locals, mostly 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. Russian-backed authorities quickly staged an illegal referendum on annexation, which was accomplished in a swift process that Putin hoped to repeat this year by conquering Kyiv.
Annexation was hugely popular in Russia, and Putin’s approval ratings soared. “Much of Russia’s imperial projection, its entire founding myth, is centered on Crimea,” said Gwendolyn Sasse, an analyst at Carnegie Europe.
“In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia,” Putin said in a speech at the time. Annexation, however, was a violation of international law, and Western nations quickly imposed punitive sanctions.
For eight years, Crimea’s fate has been overshadowed by war in Ukraine’s Donbass region, stoked by pro-Russian separatists. But Zelensky began formulating a disoccupation and reintegration plan for Crimea long before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February.
In 2021, his government established an annual summit called the Crimean Platform, intended to keep Crimea in the international spotlight. Tasheva, a Crimean Tatar, became Zelensky’s representative in Crimea in April, and now leads a team of 40 working on a plan to reverse annexation.
“It is imperative that Ukraine has a step-by-step plan… ready to go,” Tasheva said in an interview, noting a long list of complex issues related to transitional justice and citizenship.
An estimated 100,000 people fled Crimea after Russia’s annexation, but the vast majority stayed and were 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 “had the right to do so” and that after the deoccupation efforts would be made to distinguish between those who actively collaborated with the Russian authorities, and those who may have voted for it. annexation but have become what Tasheva calls “victims of propaganda.
“These people did not commit crimes,” she said. “They just had their opinions.”
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However, she said all Russian citizens who arrived illegally after 2014 must leave. “It’s a matter of 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 Ukraine should somehow return to the status quo after 2014 is nonsense, because all that will happen is another escalation,” Finnin said. “It is hard to imagine that Ukrainians would be comfortable giving up this territory, knowing that it means giving up millions of people. The moral and geopolitical stakes of such abandonment are serious.
Russia, too, is determined to maintain its grip on Crimea, raising concerns among Western officials about the extreme measures Putin might take to hold it.
Nikolay Petrov, senior fellow at Chatham House, the London-based political institute, said Putin’s abandonment of Crimea was “absolutely out of the question” and that Zelensky’s loudly articulated reintegration policies were among the “triggers of Putin’s invasion.
“The creation of the Crimean platform and the permission given by the West to play this map started a very dangerous game,” Petrov said. “Finally, it led to this war.”
In a recent interview, Lord David Richards, former Chief of Staff of the British Army, said that Ukraine would risk nuclear war to defend Crimea. “If you rub Putin’s nose in it, he can do something very stupid,” Richards told Times Radio. “He can use tactical nukes.”
Still, some Western officials hope a Crimea deal could be the key to ending the war, and said they believe Zelensky and his advisers are more open to possible concessions than their rhetoric suggests. .
During the first peace talks in March, Kiev indicated that it would be open to separate negotiations on the status of Crimea, which raises the possibility that Zelensky is willing to treat Crimea differently from other regions of Ukraine occupied by Russia which he says should be returned.
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“There could be an arrangement on Crimea, a properly monitored and executed referendum, maybe some sort of Hong Kong deal where it’s allowed to stay in Russian hands for a number of years” , said Lord Richards.
Eight years later, Crimea is isolated by international sanctions. Its airport, once a hub for summer travelers from across Europe and beyond, now offers flights only to mainland Russia.
The Kremlin initially poured money into local infrastructure projects, including the Crimean Bridge, as well as pension schemes. He also imposed Russian state propaganda as the main source of information. Although Russian tourists have returned, the peninsula has struggled economically and is now ruled by a repressive government based in Moscow. The Crimean Tatars, in particular, were persecuted.
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.
Yet many believe that the war that began in Crimea must end with Crimea.
“The Crimea issue, which I thought before the war would take decades to resolve, is unambiguous today,” 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.”