This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Russian occupation of Crimea. In February 2014 and for the first time in post-war Europe – Moscow pursued a foreign policy objective to annexe part of a sovereign state. This reckless act would result in significant regional destabilisation and it would be perceived by all law-abiding countries as a dangerous and significant threat to the international rules-based system that underpins our global security.
As the annexation unfolded the world was almost entirely unanimous in its condemnation of Russia and this position has not changed, in fact, international resolve has deepened. The Kremlin had gambled on the possibility that the world might turn a blind eye to Crimea, as for the most part it had done during Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008.
All sane politicians, experts and lawyers agree that Moscow has blatantly violated international law. No one doubts that from a legal point of view – Crimea belongs to Ukraine. And this is reassuring.
Nevertheless, a small number of influential figures continue to believe that Putin’s actions can be understood on historical and cultural grounds, , as they’ve heard, somewhere on the grapevine, that “Crimea has always been Russian”.
It is hard to find a more baseless myth, yet strange as it is, this myth has propagated and has managed to permeate the international collective consciousness.
The main reason for this is quite simple: the Russian propaganda machine started spreading this myth right after the peaceful dissolution of the USSR and long before the prospect of war would loom heavily on the horizon. This tactic has meant that when the war did come, a number of influential, albeit unofficial, opinions had already been swayed.
I want to lay out in this article the historical facts which will debunk this myth once and for all. These are facts which can be validated by any good historical reference document as well as other objective sources.
What, then, are the facts?
The aboriginal population of Crimea is the Crimean Tatars and their state was known as the Crimean Khanate. And a powerful and highly cultured Muslim state it was. As for the Russians, there were none on the peninsula except for prisoners of war.
At the beginning of the 18th century after the reforms of Peter I, the Grand Duchy or Grand Principality of Moscovia as it was known, would turn into the Russian Empire and it would use its growing power to conquer neighbouring European countries.
Estonia and Latvia were invaded in 1721, Lithuania fell in 1795 as well as parts of Poland; later in 1809, Finland. Today all these countries are sovereign states, members of the UN, EU and NATO (except Finland). No one in their right mind is going to describe these countries as “always having been Russian”.
The Crimean Khanate joined the list of the realms conquered by Moscow in 1783, relatively recently in historical terms. It is thus absolutely absurd to talk about a kind of age-old Russian suzerainty over Crimea. It was just another country and another people enslaved by the Russian Empire through the use of military force.
The only difference between Crimea and the rest of the aforementioned states is that, after the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, the Tatars did not manage to retain their independence. Crimea, together with Ukraine, was occupied by the Bolsheviks and remained part of the same Russian Empire, rebranded as the USSR.
Yet Crimea was even less fortunate than Ukraine within the USSR. While the latter got the status of a “Federal Republic” with token concessions to sovereignty, Crimea only managed to get autonomous status granted in 1921, and even that was to be within the Russian – and not Ukrainian – Federal Republic.
This decision by the Kremlin contradicted objective reality because geographically, the Crimean peninsula is part of Ukraine with no territorial connection whatsoever with Russia. Administrative subordination to Russia, despite a territorial connection with Ukraine, considerably complicated the economic development of the peninsula which received most of its supplies from Ukraine.
It was actually the powers in Moscow who eventually rectified this awkward situation, finally accepting geographic and geo-economic reality. In 1954 the Kremlin initiated the transfer of Crimea from the Russian to the Ukrainian Federal Republic. As the Kremlin could not ever conceive of Ukraine becoming independent, the USSR’s communist leadership still considered Crimea, as well as the whole of Ukraine, to remain Russian.
I want to stress that Crimea was handed over in full compliance with the laws and procedures of the USSR. The Russian mini-myth that Crimea was arbitrarily given away by a foolish and misguided Khrushchev is nothing but vulgar fiction and an aberration of historical fact. Back in 1954, Khrushchev was not yet fully empowered to carry out anything he was minded to do on a whim.
Thus, it becomes clearer why the “Crimea has always been Russian” myth is just that. Yet another piece of political propaganda, spun by the former USSR as part of its strategy to maintain control and power over disparate parts of its vast empire. It also transpires that the basis for such a claim is not even the fact that Crimea has endured 150 years of captivity within the Russian Empire (1783-1917), since similar claims would apply to the rest of the former colonies which have now became independent. The definitive case here is just those 33 years of recent history during which Crimea was part of the Russian Soviet Republic from 1921 through until 1954!
It seems that after the collapse of the USSR, the Russian leadership was driven mad by the thought that, except for that decision of 1954, Crimea would have remained part of Russia. And it didn’t bother them whatsoever that except for 1921 Crimea would be part of Ukraine, and except for 1783 – it would be an independent state with 0% of the Russian population.
Then came 2014 and imperial arrogance got the better of them. The Kremlin waged an outright bandit-style occupation of Crimea, riding roughshod over international law, historical logic and justice. The world looked on in horror.
Let me mention here, as an anecdote, another Russian mini-myth relating to Crimea, which was put into circulation in 2014 personally by the Russian president. He claimed that “Crimea has sacred importance to Russia as a spiritual source that gave birth to the Russian nation and statehood”. Putin alleges that this ‘bond’ stems from the fact that it was in Crimea that Prince Volodymyr was baptised, introducing a new religion in the geographical area known then as Rus.
It is true that Prince Volodymyr was baptised in 988 in Crimea (at least that’s what the annals say), converting his country into Christianity in the same year. But he was a prince of Kyiv, not Moscow, and it was Kyivan Rus that he baptised – not Russia. As for Moscow, Russia and the Russian nation, they simply did not exist at that time. The Finno-Ugric tribes then dominated forests covering what is present-day Moscow and it was not until several centuries later that these were assimilated by the Slavs and became the nucleus of what today would be recongised as the modern Russian state.
So, yet another absurdity! And again, the tragedy is that such a poorly fabricated historical piece of fake news is being circulated in the international information space and its veracity is not being questioned. As ever, the calculation being made is that nobody will bother to actually check the history books.
Nevertheless, the myth of “Russian Crimea” is not based solely on propaganda fakes and an absurd aberration of history. In May 1944 Moscow, conducted a massive criminal operation aimed at completely cleansing Crimea of its aboriginal population and substituting it with ethnic Russians.
The Stalinist regime accused the Crimean Tatar people of collaborating with Hitler’s Germany that had occupied Crimea from 1941 until 1944. 191,000 Crimean Tatars, including men women and children, were in a matter of just two days deported to the remotest regions of the USSR. Proving that it was an ethnic cleansing the Kremlin was after and that treason accusations were just a pretext – the families of 9,000 Crimean Tatar soldiers of the Red Army that were continuing to fight the fascists, were also subsequently deported, joining their families in exile in the far flung corners of the empire. Moreover, after the Tatars, other ethnic groups would be similarly persecuted – Greeks, Bulgarians, Armenians who inhabited the peninsula for centuries and who were not even accused of treason. The only remaining inhabitants of the peninsula were the Slavs, i.e. local Russians and Ukrainians.
Following this, a massive migration to Crimea from the Russian heartland was instigated. This wave of government-controlled migration from Russia moved into 80,000 empty houses, vacated by the deportation of the original population. It is the descendants of those Russian colonists that today comprise the bulk of the Crimean population that is supporting the annexation of Crimea and to whose emotions and actions the Kremlin is looking to control.
Moscow prevented Crimean Tatars from returning to their Fatherland until the very end. Their mass repatriation started only after Ukraine’s independence. It was Ukraine that undertook all the expenses and arrangements of resettling a whole nation. As of 2013, 266,000 Tatars returned home, comprising 13.7% of the peninsula’s population.
The Russian occupation of 2014 became a real national catastrophe for the Crimean Tatars. They had escaped the gulag, but now the gulag had appeared in their actual homeland. It is for this reason that almost the entirety of the Crimean Tatar people opposes Russian occupiers, instead remaining faithful to Ukraine.
That is why today, Crimean Tatars are the primary targets of repression and persecution by the occupying forces. Up to 25,000 Tatars were again forced to emigrate to mainland Ukraine. The Kremlin banned the Mejlis, the national Parliament of the Crimean Tatars. Tatar media, education, culture and religion are also being repressed, with dozens of proud Crimean Tatars thrown into jail. In December 2018, at the border crossing, the occupying forces detained and then arrested Tatar activist Edem Bekirov who had been on his way to visit his 78-year old mother. Bekirov is suffering from a severe type of diabetes, with one leg amputated as well as having four stents as a result of a heart attack last year.
His incarceration without necessary drugs and medical care is tantamount to a death sentence. And yet the Russian “justice” system keeps him under arrest, as he is alleged to have been trafficking arms, specifically, in the form of 15kg of explosives. But his health doesn’t allow him to lift more than 2kg. The apparent absurdity of the charge and the brazen bragging of judicial arbitrariness proves, as if any more proof is needed, of the profoundly repressive Russian machine that is trying to intimidate and demoralise the Crimean Tatars.
It must be remembered that it is not only the Crimean Tatars who are being persecuted. The whole world already knows the name of the illegally jailed film director, ethnic Russian and true Ukrainian patriot Oleh Sentsov, who openly protested against the annexation of Crimea. A real symbol of courage for Ukraine too is Volodymyr Baluh, incarcerated for putting up the Ukrainian flag at his house in occupied Crimea. As we are witnessing time and time again, the honest and courageous people of Crimea, regardless of their nationality, stand up against the brutal occupation of their land by the Russians. The UN and other international organisations have on numerous occasions condemned the Kremlin’s violation of human and ethnic rights on the peninsula. Still, I believe the international community must redouble its efforts aimed at the immediate release of all political prisoners.
As we can see, the current crime against the Crimean Tatar people is a direct continuation of the atrocity of 1944, which entered the annals of history as “deportation”, the term used nowadays by all scientists, politicians and reporters. Nevertheless, even this horrible term is in fact nothing but a political euphemism that conveys a distorted and mitigated picture of reality.
The facts testify that due to the harsh living conditions, just the first four years of exile claimed the lives of 46.2% of the Crimean Tatars. And that is not merely deportation, but rather a real genocide. Due to this terms substitution, the genocide of the Crimean Tatars, as well as the Ukrainian Holodomor (Stalin’s terror-famine) before, was omitted from the historic memory of mankind and we must regrettably acknowledge that this too is another dark victory for the Soviet-Russian propaganda machine.
Thus, Moscow needs the “Crimea has always been Russian” myth, among other things, to assert a threadbare legitimacy as it once again perpetuates an act of genocide against the Crimean Tatars. Again Russia seeks their eradication and replacement with Russian colonists. This is one of the main goals of the current occupation of Crimea.
To sum it up, Crimea’s de-occupation and its return to Ukrainian sovereignty has a compelling moral imperative, in addition to the political and legal aspects. The international community must not allow an act of genocide to “pay off” or allow the perpetrators to achieve their goal – to let them do so would mean that the lessons of the last century, especially when it comes to appeasement, were for nothing.
Pavlo Klimkin is the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ukraine
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