For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a Russian delegation is absent from Davos. After a year of indecision, the West has finally managed to wean itself off the allure of cheap Russian energy. Ukraine has shown the world that Russia’s military is incapable of even the most basic political and military strategy. Russian war crimes are laid bare and their campaign in Ukraine is inexcusable for any rational observer. Over the past year of civilian bloodshed and destroyed infrastructure, Russia’s reputation on the global stage has been irreparably damaged. While Ukraine will be rebuilt after the war is won, it is difficult to say when the world will trust the Kremlin again. Ukraine can and will continue to defend its sovereignty and territory from this unjust aggression for as long as is necessary, and will secure an independent and democratic future for all her peoples.
Nearly nine years after the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, the de facto consensus of Western observers was shaped around the idea of condemning the occupation, but avoiding meaningful efforts that would have real impact on Russia and would make it respect the principle of inviolability of borders. But after the recent successes of the Ukrainian army in liberating Kherson, some leading international media outlets started to discuss and publish perspectives on deoccupying Crimea, mostly arguing why Ukraine should stay away. But a free Crimea is just as inevitable as the repulsion of Russian troops from Kyiv. The defense of the capital was the first step, and the march will continue until all of Ukraine is free.
One of the most common arguments against Ukraine’s liberation of Crimea is a deeply planted (even when not acknowledged) belief that “Crimea has always been Russian” and that people living in the peninsula are Russians, wanting to be a part of Russia. This assumption ignores when and how the Russian population arrived in the region. Claims of a Russian Crimea ignore the rich history of the peninsula and its diversity which lasted for centuries until the Russian Empire first annexed and colonized it in the 18th century.
Since then, the number of Crimean Tatars, i.e. indigenous people that emerged and have been living on the peninsula for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of the Russians, started to decline due to colonization, repressions, and Stalin-era deportation. The Crimean Tatar people have only one homeland—Crimea, and there is no way these people can co-exist with Moscow, which for centuries has tried to wipe them out. In particular, after the deportation of 1944 was over, the thousands of now empty homes were filled instead with Russian colonizers.
Today, Moscow continues this policy. The self-governing and representative body Medzhlis of Crimean Tatars, is forbidden and its members persecuted. 109 out of 155 persons from Crimea imprisoned in the peninsula and in mainland Russia for political reasons are Crimean Tatars. Aside from the massive inflow of Russian servicemen and their families, occupying law enforcement and civil servants, according to various estimations, not less than 700,000 Russian civilians have been encouraged and supported in relocation to Crimea since the 2014 invasion. If Crimea can be considered as “Russian,” it is a result of the brutal violent colonization which lasted for centuries and is ongoing today.
We are reminded again and again that Crimea allegedly “wanted to join Russia” in 2014. However, what happened was a carefully prepared military and intelligence operation against a temporarily weakened Ukrainian state followed by a so-called “referendum” staged to legitimize this occupation in the eyes of international audiences, not unlike the recent referendums in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions. The difference is that today, a strong Ukraine standing defiantly has forced the international community to open its eyes. In 2014 it was politically convenient to verbally condemn Putin’s actions without jeopardizing access to cheap gas.
Whilst Russia’s claim to Crimea hinges entirely on its imperial heritage, the long-lasting connections between Ukraine and Crimea go back to ancient history. The essential interlink between mainland Ukraine and Crimea in terms of geography, economy, logistics, and communication did not start in 1954 or 1991. It was that connection that informed Khrushchev’s decision to give Crimea to the then Ukrainian Soviet republic.
Before Russia’s occupation, Moscow claimed that its military and naval bases in Crimea are the guarantors of security in the region. Now these ships and equipment launch missiles over the whole territory of Ukraine, destroying civilian infrastructure and lives. What is now evident is that Russia’s occupation was not the will of people, but a strategic first step to prepare for a full-scale invasion in 2022.
The Ukrainian government is working on different practical aspects of the reintegration: law, re-establishment of public governance, judicial and law enforcement systems, revitalization of economy, infrastructure, environment, cultural heritage. Those efforts will allow us to ensure peaceful transition back under Ukrainian rule.
We will have to rebuild and make Crimea welcoming, diverse, and free land again.