Skip to main content

Anastasiya Ringis is a Ukrainian journalist temporarily based in Ottawa.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drags on, the voices calling for a peace deal have grown louder. Their argument seems simple enough: by threatening to launch nuclear weapons if Ukrainian forces reach Crimea – the peninsula that the Russians have occupied since 2014, and to which Ukrainians are now marching, with military assistance from the West – Russian President Vladimir Putin has effectively declared that losing that territory would be unacceptable. Ukraine, it is suggested, should retreat in exchange for a restoration of the status quo, as things were before February, 2022.

But this position does not stand up to scrutiny. Despite Russia’s propaganda to the contrary, Crimea is not different from any other part of Ukraine.

In a referendum in January, 1991, 94 per cent of people in Crimea – at the time, part of the Ukrainian SSR, which was one of the republics within the Soviet Union – voted for the creation of an autonomous republic. In December of that year, they went to the ballot boxes again, this time to vote on whether Ukraine should be independent; while Crimeans produced a narrower majority in that referendum, it was a majority all the same, and a decisive 92 per cent of Ukrainian voters supported independence overall.

With that, Ukraine’s independence was recognized by the international community, with Canada being the first country to do so. In 1992, Crimea’s parliament enshrined in its constitution that the peninsula would receive special self-governance privileges while being an autonomous and integral part of Ukraine.

Since then, political life in Crimea has been defined by a balance between the voices of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, the Muslim ethnic-minority who are indigenous to the peninsula. Ardent Russian nationalism has also been a part of the political culture, but it has largely been marginalized outside of the more moderate Party of Regions; in 2010, the Russian Unity Party managed to get just three of 100 seats in Crimea’s parliament.

Four years later, the Crimean legislature was taken over by Russian-tied militias. Sergiy Aksyonov – Russian Unity’s leader and a loose cannon with alleged ties to organized crime – was then chosen by legislators as Crimea’s puppet head. Russian Unity dissolved and merged with Mr. Putin’s United Russia Party.

When Russians claim that Crimeans would never accept the idea of reintegration to Ukraine, they are wilfully manipulating the truth. Russia’s 2014 annexation sparked the flight of as many as 100,000 Crimeans; as many as 30,000 of them were Crimean Tatars. According to the presidential representative of Ukraine in Crimea, Russia has brought in as many as 500,000 Russian settlers to the peninsula, many of whom were military and civil servicepersons. Russians have also been appointed to key political positions in Crimea.

According to Human Rights Watch, Crimean Tatars have reportedly faced oppression from the occupying administration, including arbitrary detentions, harassment, unlawful home searches and, more recently, conscription into the Russian Army. Surely, no one could describe the current political environment as free and democratic.

Russians have been justifying their annexation of Crimea and other Ukrainian territories by claiming natural law – that the regions have always been Russian, and so should remain Russian. This argument is ridiculous, particularly given that many lands in Europe have passed from one dominant power to another over the centuries. It also creates dangerous pretexts allowing for the continuing revision of existing borders. Leaving Crimea under Russian control would only make Mr. Putin’s land grab permanent, and would empower Moscow to launch more conflicts.

Indeed, a recent poll found that 85 per cent of Ukrainians view victory as being defined as the liberation of all territories, including Crimea and the Donbas. Ukrainians themselves know that Russia will continue to threaten their country so long as it occupies any part of its land.

The sanctity of established borders is one of the cornerstones of contemporary global security – a foundational value for which humanity paid a price in blood over two world wars. The lasting peace that emerged in Europe created unprecedented economic growth, and the European Union’s policy of effectively open borders have nearly eliminated land conflicts.

But starting in 2014, Mr. Putin chose to put himself in zugzwang – the German name for a lose-lose situation in chess where a player’s need to move puts them in a worse situation. Last year, the Ukrainian cities of Kherson and Izyum had fallen to Russian troops; a few months later, the Russians were pushed out by Ukraine’s advancing army. And despite his threats of nuclear response, nothing happened; the liberated cities were soon greeting Ukrainian troops with tears of happiness.

When Crimea is liberated, they will be greeted with the same.