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Crimean War and Peace (with Elina Beketova)
The Black Sea peninsula, part of Ukraine, was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. What does the future hold for Crimea?
When Batu Khan, founder of the Golden Horde, drove the Kyivan Rus’ off the Tauric peninsula in 1238, he established a provincial capital there called Qirim. The Genoese, who in the 13th century maintained Black Sea settlements in modern-day Kerch and Feodosia, pronounced that Turkic word with an Italian accent: Crimea.
At the siege of Kaffa a century later, those two powers fought for control of the peninsula. When plague decimated their ranks, the Mongols got creative, catapulting pathogenic corpses over the city walls. It was like a scene from a High Middle Ages horror movie. Terrified Genoese sailors high-tailed it out of there. And that’s how the Black Death spread from the Siberian steppes to Western Europe.
By 1347, Crimea had already been controlled by the Persians, the Scythians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Trebizond Empire, the Venetians, and the aforementioned Kievan Rus’—ancestors of today’s Ukrainians—and would in turn fall to the Ottomans, the Russians, the Soviets, the Nazis, and the Soviets again, before reverting to Ukraine in 1954. There was also a Crimean Khanate that endured for over three centuries. All of those peoples left an imprint on Crimea, adding to its rich and diverse cultural history.
The peninsula has strategic importance, given its location in the Black Sea. But plenty of strategically important places have not changed hands as often as Crimea. Wherefore the special allure of the place? The reason is obvious to anyone who has spent time there.
“Crimea is just simply very beautiful,” says the Crimean native Elina Beketova, an in-residence fellow with the Democracy Fellowship program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast. “It has different cultures and different vibes and atmospheres from different nations, and that is why it’s so attractive to many civilizations.”
Over the centuries, Crimea has captured the attention of powerful individuals from Darius I to Catherine the Great, from retired KGB officials to Elon Musk. It has always been a coveted piece of real estate. And it has often known war.
“The unfortunate thing of Crimea is that we used to have so many wars,” Beketova says, “and probably the most sad story of our lives is that, right now, we have this war. It is something that is very close to us. But if we look back, then we would definitely see that there were always these wars.”
Sometimes, these wars involved Russia. But for most of its history, they did not. As Beketova points out, citing a particularly audacious piece of Kremlin disinformation, “Crimea was always allegedly Russian, you know? But before 2014, Crimea was under Russian control for 168 years, if I’m not mistaken.” In the grand scheme of things, that’s a historical drop in the bucket. But the flimsy claim of ownership did not stop Vladimir Putin from annexing Crimea in 2014—what would not be a one-and-done, but rather the first Ukrainian territory occupied by the Russian orcs.
To achieve this result, Putin did in Crimea what Hitler did in the Sudetenland, claiming that the Russians living there were being mistreated by Ukraine. He set up a sham referendum, in which an absurd majority of Crimeans “chose,” at gunpoint in some cases, and always under duress, to defect to Russia. (The option of remaining with Ukraine was not even on the ballot!) He then used that joke of a result as a justification to invade. Kyiv offered no defense. Neither did the West. Putin, unappeasable, wanted more.
Today, Moscow is using the same propaganda tactics—bullshit referenda it claims reflect the will of the people—in the occupied territories. The locals are not exactly lining up to participate. As Beketova writes:
After the embarrassment of low turnout in previous fake votes, Moscow is desperate to increase participation and is taking ballot boxes to the population, even parking mobile polling stations near bus stops and other public places. Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s mayor of Mariupol, posted a picture of a Soviet-era Zhiguli car being used for voting near a hospital. “They grabbed everyone around, documents were not checked,” he wrote.
If people choose to stay home, a special brigade will travel to them, offering a parody of democratic participation. “Two soldiers with machine guns and three collaborators from the village” accompany field brigades going door-to-door, Yurii Sobolevskii, First Deputy Head of Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast Council, wrote on Telegram, citing local residents.
There is a similar pattern in other occupied territories. In Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, the occupiers arranged an event for workers in public enterprises to vote so they could create a picture for Russian propaganda, according to Ivan Fedorov, the city’s exiled mayor. In Berdiansk, also in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, hospital bosses were ordered to send all medical staff to polling stations.
That the Crimean annexation violated both international law and his own country’s treaties with Ukraine did not factor into Putin’s calculus. Whatever Western powers would like to pretend, Russia does not adhere to the rule of law. Save for keeping his promise not to prosecute members of Boris Yeltsin’s corrupt family, Putin is not, and never has been, a man of his word. Ask Prigozhin.
In 2014, the quick and easy annexation of Crimea was seen by the Russian people as a feather in Putin’s cap, boosting the strongman’s popularity. That was a few years after the infamous photo of the shirtless Putin on horseback, remember, when the Kremlin would still circulate images of him looking mighty instead of cowering behind a long table in a tacky room. The success in Crimea certainly informed his disastrous decision to invade in 2022, when he seriously thought that his slipshod army would take Kyiv in three days.
With its gorgeous beaches and fine weather, Crimea has a seasonal tourist economy. What the Crimean people want above all, Beketova tells me, is stability and peace. Putin can no longer provide that. No one wants to go on holiday to a war zone.
At this point in the war, even the ethnic Russians in Crimea have turned on Putin. As Yaroslav Trofimov reports in the Wall Street Journal, acts of Ukrainian resistance in Crimea are on the rise, despite Russia’s crackdown on dissent:
Most of those detained for such acts of resistance aren’t members of the traditionally pro-Ukrainian Crimean Tatar community, an estimated 12% of the peninsula’s population. Many are ethnic Russians who are repulsed by Russia’s militaristic autocracy and prefer a return to democracy under Ukrainian rule.
With more than 500,000 Russian citizens moving to Crimea since 2014 and well over 100,000 Ukrainian loyalists fleeing the peninsula, it seemed as if the Russian control was forever.
Not anymore. While the Ukrainian offensive toward Crimea in southern Ukraine has been bloody and slow-going so far, Kyiv—defying warnings of apocalyptic retribution from Moscow—now routinely strikes the peninsula with missiles as well as naval and aerial drones. In August, a Ukrainian special-forces team briefly disembarked on the western tip of Crimea, raising the Ukrainian flag and attacking a nearby Russian military installation before withdrawing.
This, despite the odious Elon Musk fucking with Starlink—which powers Ukrainian comms—to help the Russians in Crimea.
Despite all his losses, Putin shows no signs of reversing course. This disastrous war will prove his enduring legacy, and he knows it. Napoleon lost because he invaded Moscow. Hitler lost because he invaded Moscow. Putin is going to lose because he invaded Ukraine. That’s how the history books will remember him (the ones not written by the Kremlin, that is). But it might take a long time to get there. We who support Ukraine, who believe in democracy, who abhor the atrocities Russia is committing in the occupied territories, must avoid both gaslighting and wishful thinking. The Western powers should assume that Putin will never stop, and plan accordingly.
“What is the end? I simply don’t know,” Beketova says. “I wish I could say. People that say something like ‘There will be the collapse of Russia soon’ or something like this—this is our wishful thinking. This is what our psyche wants to happen. But in reality we see that their economy is adjusting, their military is adjusting. So what are we talking about? Maybe we should talk more about our future steps if they don’t stop. How is the Eastern plan? Is it ready or not? Because this is unfortunately the reality. We talk about things that we want to happen, but unfortunately the reality may be absolutely different. So I think we have to be prepared for the worst, and if something good happens, this is just our successful bonus.”
In 2014, Putin’s Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that is part of Ukraine. This was the opening move in the full-scale invasion Putin ordered in 2022. Greg Olear talks to Elina Beketova, an in-residence fellow with the Democracy Fellowship program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and a native of Crimea, about the war-torn history of Crimea, the 2014 annexation, the collaborator problem, and the current situation in the occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine. Plus: a new asset recovery service.
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Photo credit: 19th century map of Crimea.