How ordinary Crimeans helped Russia annex their home

Five years on, the role of local people in Russia’s annexation of Crimea has been underestimated. Yet their help was vital in seizing the peninsula for Russia.

Olga Zeveleva
14 March 2019, 12.01am
Self-defence unit in Crimea, 2 March 2014.
CC BY-SA 3.0 Pavel Mozhaev / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved

Five years ago this month, the Kremlin proclaimed Crimea to be part of Russia. With that, Russia’s political elites, intelligence officers and military servicemen ushered in a new world order.

This post-2014 era has been described as the end of peace in Europe, the twilight of America’s unipolar international supremacy, or a new Cold War between the US and Russia. Yet Russia’s elites could not have brought about these tectonic shifts without the help of an overlooked, but crucial ally: the Crimean people. In fact, in late February and early March 2014, ordinary Crimeans were helping the great power struggles of the 21st century to take shape.

The tumultuous events that unfolded on the Black Sea coast in 2014 during this period can be best described as follows: a Russian state intelligence and military operation that exploited elements of a local Crimean conservative counter-revolution, which was emerging in response to the change of power in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. Without the full force of Russia’s special operation, local anti-Kyiv Crimeans would never have succeeded in breaking away from Ukraine. Yet the efforts of locals, especially Russian ethnic nationalists, also drove the special operation forward.

The celebratory image of the “referendum” would become the main pillar of Russia’s official depictions of Crimea’s recent history. Yet stories of revolutionary drive, rumours, and pacts between intelligence services and locals have largely remained untold

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In February 2014, mass protests in Kyiv were culminating in a revolution that has come to symbolise Ukraine’s pro-European choice. Ordinary people had rallied for months on the streets of the capital to denounce Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s failure to bring Ukraine closer to the EU after he backed out of signing an Association Agreement. Eventually, protestors also demanded broader changes, such as accountable government, an end to corruption among politicians, good governance, constitutionalism, and civic renewal. The protest was catalysed by police violence and claimed over 100 lives. By 22 February 2014, Yanukovych had been ousted, and an interim government was being formed. One week later, the streets of Crimea were full of those who came to call these events “The Revolution of Dignity”, and those who angrily denounced them as an illegal coup. The latter group, encouraged by Russia, launched its own local revolutionary action.

In 2016-2017, as part of a sociological study on state-society relations during times of political change, I spoke with almost 100 Crimeans about their experiences of 2014. I spoke to people who continue to live in Crimea today, as well as those who fled the region after 2014 to take up residence in Kyiv.

My study participants gave polarised accounts of 2014, which ranged from descriptions of “military takeover, occupation, and tragedy for my family” to “the happiest day of my life, a historical moment.” Media discourse surrounding the events was also polarised, with mainstream Russian and Ukrainian media offering vastly differing coverage of the matter. Mainstream Ukrainian discourse describes it as the “military occupation of Crimea by the aggressor-state Russia.” By contrast, Russian state-controlled media has settled on “Crimea’s reunification with Russia,” using the term “reunification” to hint at the symbolic reinstatement of Crimea’s historical ties with Russia.

Yet many of the pro-Russian Crimeans I spoke with, who live in Crimea today, chose an altogether different approach: they remember the events as “the Crimean Spring”, and their lives are divided into periods they describe as “before the Revolution” and “after”. Many lament the fact that they cannot speak openly about their contributions to the pro-Russian cause, leaving their stories of heroism for brothers in arms, allies, friends and family. “It is too soon now, but one day, we will make it into the history books,” one study participant told me.

To them, history was made not on the day of Crimea’s “referendum” to join the Russian Federation, organised with the aid of Russia on 16 March 2014. Instead, for Crimea’s conservative revolutionaries, history was made several weeks before, on 26 February and 27 February 2014.

Video of pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protests in Simferopol, Crimea, 26 February 2014.

On 26 February, clashes took place outside Crimea’s parliament building in Simferopol, the peninsula’s capital. Two major groups and thousands of people were involved in two protests that occurred alongside each other, and dissolved into outbursts of violence.

The first group involved representatives of the Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority who supported the new government in Ukraine (also supported by some pro-Ukrainian protestors who were not Crimean Tatars). The second group was mobilised by Russian Unity, a pro-Russian political party, and supported by Russian intelligence and security agents. This group included Russian-speaking pro-Russia voices demanding that Crimea’s parliament not recognise the new Ukrainian government. As Russia was the “implicit other” against which the narrative of a new Ukrainian civic unity was forged in Kyiv’s protests in 2014, some Russian-speaking Crimeans feared the implementation of anti-Russian language policies by the new post-revolutionary government. They also panicked at threat of possible anti-Russian violence from the side of Ukrainian ethnic nationalists – a danger widely discussed in Russian state-owned media, which was popular in Crimea during this time. The voices of quietly panicked Russian-speakers were echoed by the louder and more militant cries of local Crimean Russian ethnic nationalists.

Fights broke out in the crowd on 26 February among protestors who were demanding different reactions from the Crimean government to the revolution in Kyiv. According to reports, over 30 people sought medical assistance after the protest, and two people died — a woman was trampled and a man died of a heart attack. The significance of these events is underscored by the fact that approximately one year later, at the start of 2015, some participants of the 26 February protest, all Crimean Tatars, were taken to court on charges of organising or participating in violent civil disorder. Some of the pro-Russian protesters were called upon as witnesses, but none were prosecuted.

The protest signalled that an important rift had emerged among Crimea’s population in response to events in Kyiv. Crimean Tatars, many of whom supported the new government in Kyiv, were arguably ready to mobilise against the impending threat of secession from Ukraine (a small and not sufficiently mobilised group of pro-European Crimeans, consisting of both Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers, overlapped with this group of Crimean Tatars). Parts of the Crimean population that can be characterised as Russian speakers who did not support the Euromaidan were ready to mobilise against the new Ukrainian government. While these latent political differences between various groups in Crimea had not necessarily threatened the stability of the region before 2014, against the backdrop of revolution in Kyiv and extremely polarised media reports, the population of Crimea became mobilised.

"Little green men" take over Perevalne airbase, Crimea, March 2014.
CC BY-SA 3.0 Anton Holoborodko. Some rights reserved

The day after the protests, many locals woke up in fear. Rumours had spread in Crimea that on 27 February armed members of Right Sector, a far-right Ukrainian nationalist group, were to take a train (dubbed the “Train of Friendship”) to Crimea to assist pro-Ukrainian groups in the region, to seize factories and local businesses, to cut off local pensioners from Ukrainian pensions, and to torture and kill a list of pro-Russia Crimean Russian-speakers. Some pro-Russia locals informally recounted to me that “Russian agents” and “well-connected people” had shown them the hit lists. Groups of local Crimean men (hunters, athletes, outdoor enthusiasts) began arming themselves, and local Crimean government officials started following instructions offered to them by Russian agents that would allegedly help save their pensions, their families and their assets. The stakes were rising, and locals became ever more invested in the successes of Crimea’s own pro-Russian revolution.

Yet on 27 February, the day the “Train of Friendship” was allegedly to arrive in Crimea, heavily armed men seized Crimea’s parliament. They raised the Russian flag over the building, and parliament set a date for a referendum in which Crimeans were to vote on the region’s status. Indeed, this referendum was not recognised by Ukraine or by most of the international community, while Russia claims it was a legitimate vote in favour of Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and joining Russia.

The men occupying Crimea’s parliament came to be recognised by locals and by international media as Russian soldiers without insignia. For the pro-Russian groups that believed that Right Sector and other Ukrainian nationalists were a threat, the gunmen became a symbol of salvation and safety. Meanwhile, Sergey Aksyonov, the head of Russian Unity, declared himself in charge of Crimea, appealing to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help in organising a referendum that would decide the legal status of Crimea.

The referendum was initially scheduled for May, but the date was hastily moved to an earlier time on two occasions. Eventually, it took place on 16 March against a backdrop of armed men patrolling the streets. Crimean Tatars and other Crimeans loyal to Kyiv boycotted the vote, while other parts of the population carried Russian flags to polling stations in celebration. One study participant recounted that she saw a drunk man in the centre of Simferopol call out in confusion that day: “Did Russia win the Olympics?!”

The celebratory image of this “referendum” would become the main pillar of Russia’s official depictions of Crimea’s recent history. Yet stories of revolutionary drive, rumours, and pacts between intelligence services and locals have largely remained untold. For Ukraine’s government and exiled Crimeans who fled their homes, these are stories of traitors. For Russia’s ruling elites, these are vignettes on the margins of a grand history about Russia reasserting its status on the international arena, showing Ukraine its place, and forcing the USA to contend with Russian interests. Indeed, without Russia’s military and intelligence efforts behind closed doors in the Kremlin and on the dusty streets of Crimea’s cities, the changes that took place in 2014 would not have been possible.

Neither Western mainstream coverage of Crimea, nor the Kremlin’s projected image of 2014 have given much of a place to Crimea’s self-proclaimed revolutionaries who joined Russia’s special operation in February 2014. While the Kremlin offers us a sterile, legalistic story about a “peaceful” people’s referendum, it is dangerous to forget these local conservative revolutionaries. Without recognising their role, their motivations, and their contributions we will remain ignorant of the local bottom-up dynamics that allow top-down intelligence and military efforts to succeed — and to be welcomed by parts of the population.

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