How do you solve a problem like Crimea?

18 September, 04:33 PM

In mid-2014, a few months after Russia had invaded Crimea and begun its military occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula, I was surprised to hear some Ukrainians voice the opinion that Kyiv should never seek to regain control of the stolen territory.

Crimea had always been a problem – a restive province with a reluctantly Ukrainian population (voting 54.19% “yes” for Ukrainian independence in 1991, the lowest “yes” vote in the whole of Ukraine.) The largely Russian-speaking province of Ukraine was in conflict politically with Kyiv until 1995, when it was finally fully incorporated into Ukraine under the constitution as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, with its own parliament and politics.

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Then there was the problem of the Russian Black Sea Fleet – still based in Sevastopol, in the west of the peninsula. Moreover, Russian nationalist politicians, like the late Vladimir Zhirinovsky, used Crimea as a stomping ground to whip up imperialist and anti-NATO sentiment – Zhirinovsky was banned from entering Ukraine for this reason in 2006.

So some argued that in the wake of the Russian invasion in 2014, getting rid of this big problem actually could turn out to be a boon for Ukraine, in the long-run.

That was completely wrong, of course, as later events have shown. In gaining control of Crimea, Russia obtained a huge “aircraft carrier” in the Black Sea, from which it could enforce a naval blockade along almost the entire length of Ukraine’s largely undefended coast. It was also a launching pad from which Russian invasion forces were able to force their way into Ukraine’s economically vital southern lands. It is not an accident that Kherson, the closest major Ukrainian city to Crimea, is the only one that Russia has been able capture in seven months of all-out war on Ukraine.

Clearly, then, control of Crimea is vital for the whole of Ukraine’s security, for the foreseeable future. And following the mauling Ukraine has given Russia’s military since late February, there is now – for the first time in years – a real prospect that Kyiv might regain control of the territory.

Assuming the formidable problem of regaining control of the peninsula by military means can be solved (and here we must assume that Ukraine’s General Staff has a plan for this), or by diplomatic means, as Ukrainian President Voloymyr Zelenskyy has recently suggested may be possible, there remains the question of regaining the loyalties of the Crimean population.

According to the 2014 Ukrainian census, at the time of the Russian invasion Crimea was 67.9% ethnic Russian, 15.7% ethnic Ukrainian and 12.5% ethnic Crimean Tatar. It must be remembered that in Ukraine, and especially in Crimea, there is only a weak correlation between reported ethnicity and political position, however. Plenty of people in Ukraine speak Russian and support Ukrainian independence. Gauging the sentiments of the Crimea population, particularly after more than eight years of military occupation by Russia, is thus hard.

What we do know is that the Kremlin held a sham referendum in an attempt to legitimize its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, with response wording equivalent to “Yes, I don’t mind Crimea joining Russia” and “No, I don’t mind Crimea joining Russia” (the choice was between joining Russia or restoring Crimea’s pre-1995 constitution, effectively giving it broad autonomy from Ukraine; the choice a retaining the status quo was not given).

Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin’s rigged vote produced resounding approval for joining Russia – 96.77% in favor with a turnout of 83%. But what was the actual level of support for joining Russia at that time?

Dictatorships like Russia don’t just hold sham polls for fun – there are two main reasons for having elections. First, they confer a sheen of legitimacy on an autocracy, whose leaders are touchy about the inherent illegitimacy of their rule. Second, in the context of having media that are part-muzzled and part-fawning, and with public expressions of discontent with the regime being forbidden, they give a dictatorship a chance to assess the real level of the public’s support.

Interestingly, a report on the Russian President’s Human Rights Council (yes, there is such a thing) released in May 2014 gave rather different figures from the Kremlin’s – ones that may be more believable. According to the council, Crimeans’ support from unification with Russia was actually between 50-60%, on a turnout of 30-50%. These figures imply the actual level of support for Russia’s invasion may have been as little as 15-30% of the population. The report was quickly removed from the council’s website

That was then, of course, and Russia has had eight years to meddle with Crimeans’ minds and Crimea’s demographics. Estimates vary, but Crimea’s population has over the years increased by perhaps between 800,000 and 1 million people – the vast majority of the newcomers coming from the Russian Federation. The number of people who have left Crimea for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion (mainly ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars) is difficult to estimate but is certainly less – maybe around 140,000 people. The politics of the incomers and those of the outgoers are easy to assess.

Crimeans have had eight years of Kremlin propaganda pumped into their brains, of course, which, along with the influx of Russian citizens, will have shifted public opinion in favor of Russia. But as in Russia, the real public mood in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Crimea – which is under the control of a fascist police state and dictatorship – is extremely difficult to measure. Anecdotal evidence, such as the singing of Ukrainian songs in public, the defacing of a mural of Putin, and isolated instance of the raising of Ukrainian flags may indicate that the Kremlin has not won the hearts and minds of Crimeans as completely as it will have hoped.

Nevertheless, we must assume that most people in Crimea today support the Putin regime and would not like to see the return of Kyiv’s rule.

But that might not be as big a problem for Ukraine as it appears.

First: In the wake of a successful liberation of the peninsula by the Ukrainian armed forces, or by diplomatic means, a large number of Russian citizens would no doubt seek to return to Russia. They are there illegally – by moving them there Russia has attempted to alter demographics in its favor, in breach of the Geneva Conventions. Ukraine would be under no obligation to ensure their continued presence in the country. After the Aug. 9 strikes on the Russian-occupied air base near Saky in western Crimea, huge numbers of Russian tourists left the peninsula, indicating Russians, whether tourists or colonizers, are now unsure of their future there.

Second: Real estate prices there have collapsed, with vastly more sellers than buyers now on the market. When Ukraine regains control of the territory, purchase and sale agreements made under Russian occupation will be invalid. Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars will return to the peninsula, seeking to regain their property. Russians finding themselves without homes might find themselves with no choice but to return to Russia. Given this, the demographic situation in Crimea could change rapidly – and certainly in Ukraine’s favor.

Third: The removal of the drip feed of Russian propaganda into the Crimean population’s heads, and its replacement with Ukrainian “propaganda” (the truth), will have a quick effect on the public mood. Crimeans have faced years of isolation and patchy economic successes since Russia invaded, while returning to Ukraine offers them an end to their seclusion from Europe – and even the eventual prospect of free movement as part of the European Union. As never before, Ukraine offers them the prospect of a future far brighter than anything the Kremlin can provide. That has to be communicated to the liberated population effectively and clearly from day one. A new war – one for the minds of Crimeans – begins on the day the last Russian soldier leaves the peninsula.

At any rate, the problem of returning Crimea to Ukraine, whether it is done militarily or diplomatically, may not be as intractable as some have supposed. Kyiv should not shirk from the task of regaining control of the peninsula, for the sake of its own future security, and the sake of the people of Crimea themselves.

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