Russia’s war on Ukraine began in late February 2014, when pro-Moscow demonstrations—encouraged by Russian secret services—broke out across the Crimean peninsula against the unseating of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych by a broad coalition pro-Western protest groups.
Some nine years later, Russian troops are hurriedly building new fortifications along the key roads leading from Crimea into southern Ukraine, parts of which have also been occupied by their comrades following the full-scale Russian invasion of the country that began on February 24, 2022.
Crimea is a cornerstone of President Vladimir Putin’s reimagined Russia, a monument to what Moscow can achieve when unencumbered by regard for Western opinion or the ambitions of former Soviet nations the Kremlin considers in its sphere of influence.
The remarkably smooth and near-bloodless seizure of Crimea by “little green men” and local collaborators in 2014 was, in the Kremlin narrative, proof of the return of the self-assured Russia that went missing amid the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union. But now, Putin’s disastrous gambit in Ukraine threatens to undo it all.
“They’re concerned,” Oleg Ignatov—the Crisis Group think tank’s senior analyst for Russia—told Newsweek of Russia’s power players. “Everything is possible right now.”
A Historic Problem
Russia’s swift occupation and annexation of the peninsula saw Putin’s approval ratings soar to record levels, reversing several years of apathetic and even disapproving survey responses from his public.
Putin magnified and exploited historic Russian sentiment about Crimea, which was first annexed by the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great in 1783.
Even so, Mark Voyger—a former special adviser for Russian and Eurasian affairs to Lieutenant General Ben Hodges when he was commander of the U.S. Army Europe—told Newsweek Catherine used “penetration of hostile… and subversive units,” much like Putin more than 200 years later.
Catherine’s justification for the annexation, Voyger said, was that Moscow needed to protect Russians there. This “lawfare,” as he described it, would go on to be enthusiastically adopted by Catherine’s successors—including Putin—to “try to justify expansion.”
The peninsula remained under Moscow’s direct control until 1954, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred control to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a constituent part of the USSR. In 1991, Crimea went with the rest of Ukraine into a new era of independence.
“Legally, everything was done absolutely correctly,” Ignatov said of the Khrushchev-era transfer of control. But, he added, among Russians “it was always considered as land which was not stolen but given to Ukraine without the support or approval of society.”
“Crimea was never considered Ukrainian land,” Ignatov added. “It was a part of ‘Greater Russia,’ of imperial Russia.”
In the Russian mindset, Ignatov continued, Crimea is different even from the parts of eastern Ukraine also seized by Moscow and its local backers in 2014, or indeed the partially occupied Ukrainian regions claimed annexed by the Kremlin last September.
“When Putin made the decision to take Crimea, after that he built a narrative that it was always a different story from the Donbas, and it’s a different story from Ukraine,” Ignatov said. The latter two are about Moscow’s interactions with the so-called “Russkiy mir”—literally translated as “Russian world” or “Russian peace.”
“Crimea was about Russia’s identity,” Ignatov said.
Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea was facilitated by its existing footprint on the peninsula. Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet has been headquartered in the Crimean city of Sevastopol since around 1783. Military retirees and their families have long taken up residence in and around the city, not least due to the peninsula’s warm climate.
Russian influence in Crimea was, even then, arguably the strongest in all of Ukraine. “It’s not a myth that it has a pro-Russian population,” Ignatov said. “There are a lot of people there who are from Russia, who moved there from Russia, who are military, or their family members. It’s a very big community.”
Pro-Moscow sentiment can at least partially explain the divergence of Crimean voters from broad trends among their compatriots. Only 54 percent of Crimean voters were in favor of Ukrainian independence in 1991, for example, compared with 92 percent of all those who voted nationwide.
Crimea also voted heavily in favor of Moscow-aligned Yanukovych in two successive presidential elections—first in 2004, which was followed by the pro-Western Orange Revolution, and second in 2010, which was followed by the pro-Western Maidan Revolution—in which Russia was accused of extensive meddling on Yanukovych’s behalf.
A decade under Russian rule may have entrenched any pro-Moscow mentality. “For almost 10 years, they’ve been subjected to this social and mental engineering,” Voyger said.
Kremlin propaganda, he added, has been designed “to convince and inculcate into the younger generations growing up there that the Ukrainians were Nazis, fascist, whatever, that the West is evil, that Russia is protecting them, and that this is the way things should be.”
This might be exacerbated if and when fighting there starts. “They will have to strike targets in Crimea,” Voyger said of any Ukrainian ground operations on the peninsula. “Unfortunately, I would imagine, there may be also collateral damage.”
Weeding out Moscow loyalists and stay-behind Russian units—perhaps disguised as civilians—is “probably going to be a long and nasty process,” Voyger added.
Oleksandr Merezhko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament and the chair of the body’s foreign affairs committee, acknowledged that liberation “will not be easy.”
Still, he told Newsweek he believes that the “majority of people living in Crimea after years of occupation [have] had enough of the Putin regime. I believe that majority want to live in a Ukraine which is part of the European Union and to have opportunities [like] each European state.”
“Russia is getting more and more totalitarian, aggressive and repressive, and people in the occupied Crimea understand this,” he added.
“Those Russian citizens who illegally came to Crimea, that is without permission of Ukraine, will have to leave Crimea after de-occupation because they participated in the occupation of Crimea. I think that at least most of the Russian citizens who had illegally came to Crimea will leave it by their own will.”
“They allowed themselves to turn into Russian instruments of occupation and artificial change of demographic situation in Crimea. That is why they cannot have the same legal status as Ukrainian citizens or residents who legally stay in the territory of Ukraine.”
“I don’t think that any country can be against this solution because it doesn’t violate international law and doesn’t violate the constitution of Ukraine,” Merezhko said. “Many countries might have a problem with people who had illegally entered their territory, and such persons under national law can be subjected to expulsion.”
“Those Russian citizens who, during occupation of Crimea, committed crimes against Ukraine and Ukrainian citizens will have to be brought to justice. Those who haven’t committed crimes may just leave territory of Ukraine.”
‘Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier’
Before Ukrainian troops can even think about taking the peninsula, they will have to advance into and cut Russia’s land corridor stretching from the Dnieper River eastwards to Russia’s border proper.
With little naval presence, the bulk of a Ukrainian assault would likely have to come across the narrow isthmus separating Crimea from the mainland. Access consists of two main roads crossing shallows and swamps, and both routes have reportedly been lined with new fortifications by the Russian defenders.
“If you have to attack it, if you have to take it by force through that isthmus, the narrow bottleneck, it will probably be complicated if the defenses have been properly established,” Voyger said.
Ignatov said such a campaign could “be a bloodbath” for the Ukrainians. “They will lose a lot of soldiers there,” he said. “It will be a very long fight. And I believe they understand this.”
But Ukraine has little choice if it wants to safeguard its ports and commercial shipping in the Black Sea—which constitute a vital portion of its export economy—and ensure security for its cities nationwide.
“Crimea is in fact an unsinkable aircraft carrier, from which Russia is able to launch airstrikes against most of Ukraine or missile strikes—either ground launched or launched from Russian navy ships—at targets all over southern Ukraine,” retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges told Newsweek.
“There is a reason that Catherine the Great seized Crimea to begin with,” Hodges added. “From a geostrategic standpoint, of course it’s important. It gives you the ability to dominate the Black Sea. And the Russians always wanted a warm water port. That’s geostrategic thinking but that’s not a legal justification for what they’re doing now.”
Ukrainian leaders have been clear in their intention to seize back the peninsula, framing it as vital for the country’s future security. Few in Ukraine believe any concessions—territorial or otherwise—would actually mark the end of the fighting.
“That’s why I’m dumbfounded as to why diplomats are pressing Ukraine to go ahead and give up Crimea for the sake of peace,” Hodges said. “It’s not going to do anything to help them.”
“Nobody, and not just in Ukraine, but pretty much nobody in Europe, actually trusts Russia to live up to any agreement,” he added.
Moscow wants the world to think that Crimea occupies a special place in the Russian mindset, and that any incursion risks provoking the Kremlin’s nuclear fury. Few believe Putin’s finger is hovering over the atomic button, but multiple Western leaders—including President Joe Biden—have repeatedly stressed their priority of avoiding nuclear escalation.
“As far as I see, some politicians in the West are afraid of the liberation of Crimea by Ukrainian army, because, in their opinion, it might lead to nuclear escalation,” Merezhko said. “I think they are wrong and, on the contrary, as soon as Ukraine starts liberating Crimea it might lead to the collapse of Putin’s regime within Russia.”
“Crimea is the last ideological and propagandistic bastion for Putin’s regime. Putin started the war of aggression against Ukraine from Crimea and the war should be finished by the total liberation of Ukrainian territories, including, of course, Crimea.”
Hodges said Western leaders are playing into Putin’s hands by not throwing their weight behind Crimea’s liberation.
“We need to put a needle in that balloon of mythology that this was always Russia,” he said. “This is important because too many people in the West, because they don’t have the guts to stand up to Russia, are willing to subscribe to the myth that this is really special, and that they’ll probably use a nuclear weapon because it’s so special to them. That’s absolute nonsense.”
The stakes are high for the Kremlin given Crimea’s place in Russian propaganda and history. “It’s extremely important for them to keep Crimea,” Voyger said. “The Russian leadership is extremely sensitive to losing Crimea, because they viewed its loss back in 1856—when British, French and Ottoman troops defeated the Russian Empire—as a humiliating defeat for the Russians on their own turf.”
Putin might be able to spin the loss of southern Ukraine, or even Crimea, to a subdued and neutered Russian population. But, Ignatov said, there is no guarantee the system could survive.
“If they lose this land corridor it would be a huge defeat for them,” he said. Losing Crimea too, he added, “would endanger Putin, absolutely.”
“It would be impossible to hide,” he said. “People will see it and understand it, and consequences will follow for Putin […] I don’t know what the consequences would be, from the use of nuclear weapons to mass mobilization in Russia. But it will also pose a threat to his power, to the stability of the regime. That’s for sure.”
“The loss of Crimea would look like a total collapse, it would be chaos,” Ignatov said.
“Taking over Luhansk or Donetsk or both would mean the end of the ‘Russian world.’ But taking over Crimea would mean the end of the legitimacy of this regime.”