Crimea: What you need to know

Few events have sparked as much controversy as Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014. A decade has passed since the military takeover, yet the history and future of Crimea and its people remain shrouded in uncertainty. Against a backdrop of war and persistent Russian disinformation, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee seeks to dispel common misconceptions about Crimea.

Question 1: 

Has Crimea always been Russian? 



Crimea has a long, interesting, and complicated history, with human activity stretching back to at least 80,000 BCE. Over the ages, the peninsula has been populated by Cimmerians, Scythians, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Greeks, Cumans, and Slavs. In the 13th Century, the Mongols took over large parts of Crimea, creating the Crimean Khanate in 1443.  

Crimea was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1783. However, the peninsula changed hands several times during the turbulent years in the aftermath of World War I, before it became a part of the Soviet Union in 1921. A year later, it was included in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), albeit with large political autonomy. It was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (URSR) in 1954. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Crimea became a recognised part of independent Ukraine. 

If we consider the Russian Empire and the RSFSR as “Russian”,  Crimea was under Russian control only for 168 years. That equates to about 5.6% of Crimea’s recorded history. 


Question 2: 

Who are the Crimean Tatars? 


The origins of the Crimean Tatars trace back to the Turkic tribes that migrated to the region in the early medieval period. 

During the reigns of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, many Crimean Tatars faced persecution, forced resettlement, and exile. During the Soviet era, particularly under Stalin’s regime, the Crimean Tatars endured further repression, including mass deportation in 1944, during which up to 46% of the population died. 

The Crimean Tatars have a distinct language and culture, and they predominantly adhere to the Muslim faith. 

However, since Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, the Crimean Tatars have faced new waves of repression against their political, linguistic, religious, and minority rights. 


Question 3: 

Why was Crimea transferred to Ukraine in 1954? 


Primarily for practical, logistical, and economic reasons. 

Following World War II, the Soviet leadership decided that developing the peninsula required consolidated administration, leading to Crimea being placed under Ukrainian authority within the USSR. The strong cultural and economic connections between mainland Ukraine and Crimea were cited to justify this transfer. 

Significant infrastructure projects were undertaken during the URSR years (1954–1991). The construction of the Kakhovka Dam and the North Crimean Canal facilitated water transfer from the Dnipro to Northern Crimea, enabling extensive agricultural development and resettlement efforts following the deportation of the Crimean Tatars. 

The Ukrainian administration also played a crucial role in developing Crimea’s tourist industry, making it one of the most desirable destinations for citizens of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. This contributed to the rapid growth of cities and infrastructure on the peninsula. 

Contrary to Russian claims, there is no evidence supporting the notion that Nikita Khrushchev irrationally gifted Crimea to Ukraine in a drunken stupor. 


Question 4: 

Is the Crimean population ethnically and/or linguistically Russian? 


To an extent, yes. 

The demographic landscape of Crimea has undergone significant shifts over the years, mainly due to Russification policies by the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. Historical events such as the ethnic cleansing of the Crimean Tatar population in 1944, and subsequent population growth in the region from the 1960s onwards have played an important role. 

According to the 2001 Ukrainian census, the majority of the Crimean population identified as Russian, comprising 58.5% of respondents. Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar populations accounted for 24.4% and 12.1%, respectively. 

Despite constitutional provisions declaring Ukrainian, Russian, and Crimean Tatar as equal languages in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Russian has emerged as the dominant language among the local population. 


Question 5: 

Did the population want to become a part of Russia in 2014? 


In 2014, there was a notable separatist sentiment in Crimea, particularly compared to other regions of Ukraine. It is important, however, to recognize that the separatists constituted a minority. 

Before 2014, many residents of the peninsula were content with the status quo. As an autonomous republic within Ukraine, Crimea enjoyed its own supreme council and special rights. 

A survey conducted in 2013 revealed that 53% of the population preferred Crimea to remain an autonomous part of Ukraine, while a significant minority, comprising 23%, expressed a desire to become part of Russia. However, it’s crucial to note that, despite this sentiment, the Russian Unity-separatist movement lacked significant political influence, garnering little more than 4% of the votes in local elections prior to 2014. 


Question 6: 

What was the Crimean referendum? 


An attempt by Russian occupants and local collaborators to legitimise the illegal annexation of Crimea. 

After the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, the Kremlin took advantage of the political turbulence in Ukraine and invaded Crimea. 

During the night of 26th to 27th February 2014, Russian military forces occupied airports, strategically important transportation hubs, and objects of significant economic value. Local media was overtaken. Ukrainian military bases were surrounded and given an ultimatum to surrender. 

Simultaneously, militants from the fringe Russian Unity party occupied the Autonomous Republic’s Supreme Council in Simferopol and announced that a referendum on the status of Crimea would take place 17 days later, on 16th March 2014. 

There were no forms of open, public discourse before the referendum. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declared it illegitimate. It did not send observers, and the whole process was conducted while a foreign power controlled the polling stations. Many citizens refused to recognise the referendum and did not vote. 

The referendum itself flagrantly violated both the Ukrainian constitution and the constitution of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Despite these breaches of legal and democratic principles, the authorities proclaimed an overwhelming majority of over 95% in favour of Crimea’s “reunification” with Russia. 

Just five days later, Crimea was officially annexed by the Russian Federation, cementing a deeply controversial and internationally condemned act of territorial acquisition. 


Question 7: 

Why did Russia annex Crimea? 


The annexation of Crimea was a complex and multifaceted geopolitical manoeuvre driven by various strategic considerations. 

Russia officially cited concerns for the security and rights of the Russian-speaking population in Crimea amid the political instability in Ukraine. Additionally, there were apprehensions regarding the future of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, stationed in Sevastopol, Crimea’s largest city – even though it was not an issue at the time. (The Russian lease on naval facilities in Crimea had been extended until 2042.) 

However, the annexation likely served several other purposes: 

  • Undermining the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity: By annexing Crimea, Russia aimed to portray the Ukrainian revolution as a failure, thus discouraging popular uprisings against autocratic regimes – a fear particularly resonant with President Vladimir Putin.
  • Increase pressure against Ukraine: The annexation of Crimea allowed Russia to control key territorial waters, including the Kerch Strait. Russia constrained Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea through the Azov Sea by building the Crimean Bridge over the strait.
  • Preventing the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO: The annexation effectively ended any discussion of Ukraine joining NATO, as the presence of territorial disputes is a significant obstacle to membership. This move aligned with Russia’s broader strategic goal of preventing the expansion of Western military alliances into what Russia perceives as its sphere of influence.
  • Setting the stage for future aggression: The annexation of Crimea laid the groundwork for Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022.

In summary, while Russia’s official rationale for annexing Crimea focused on protecting its interests and the rights of Crimean Russians, the move served broader geopolitical aims, including undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and deterring its integration into Western alliances. 


Question 8: 

How has the Russian occupation affected the peninsula since 2014? 


Under Russian military rule, Crimea has witnessed a drastic deterioration in human rights conditions. 

Following the annexation, a wave of repression swept across the peninsula, characterized by: Enforced disappearances targeting Crimean Tatars and pro-Ukrainian activists; Persecution of independent lawyers and journalists; Restrictions on fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and belief. 

The treatment of Crimean Tatars has been particularly brutal. The occupying regime has actively suppressed the Crimean Tatar language and culture. Shortly after the invasion in 2014, they shut down the Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR, and in 2016, they outlawed the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, their representative body. 

Since February 2022, the crackdown on dissent and human rights defenders in Russian-occupied Crimea has escalated significantly. 

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