Russia Celebrates Fifth Anniversary of Occupation of Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin pictured in 2017 at a joint press conference with Moldovan President Igor Dodon. (Wikimedia Commons)

Russian President Vladimir Putin pictured in 2017 at a joint press conference with Moldovan President Igor Dodon. (Wikimedia Commons)

Putin visited Crimea on March 18 to mark five years since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The anniversary has offered a moment to reflect on the conditions within Crimea since its reunification with Russia.

Putin’s arrival in Simferopol provoked much flag-waving and fanfare, punctuated by chants of “Russia!” from the lively crowd. Speaking to those who had gathered to celebrate, Putin emphasized the investment that Russia has made into Crimean infrastructure.

“Russia has taken you into its fold with delight and joy,” he told the crowd. “We will fulfill all of our goals ... because we are together now.”

Since 2014, Ukraine has blocked shipments of cargo and cut off energy supplies to Crimea. In November 2015, unidentified saboteurs blew up the power lines connecting Crimea to Ukraine, triggering a widespread blackout. In response, Russia built new power plants on the peninsula to promote energy security. Additionally, Russia established the first land link between Crimea and mainland Russia after constructing a $3.6 billion bridge. After pumping nearly $13.5 billion into Crimean modernization projects, the Kremlin has seen mixed results. In Crimea, locals appreciate the investment.

“Things are getting better. Crimea is developing fast,” explained Oleg Babanin, an electrician who was among the 96 percent of Crimeans that voted to reunify with Russia in a 2014 referendum.

However, Russians are growing skeptical of such large expenditures in Crimea while their own nation is suffering from economic sanctions sparked by Crimea’s annexation. Although the takeover in 2014 contributed to a wave of patriotic euphoria that boosted Putin’s approval ratings, the popularity of the decision has dropped significantly since then. An opinion poll by the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation found that only 39 percent of Russians now view the takeover of Crimea positively, a down 28 percent from 2014. Among 18-30 year olds, the numbers are even more dire: only 24 percent say the seizure has been beneficial to Russia. This corresponds to a similar drop in Putin’s approval rating, down to a 13-year low of 33 percent.

Russia’s control of Crimea has not only generated economic changes; many Crimeans also describe an increased atmosphere of fear.  

“When we were part of Ukraine, no one demanded that I demonstrated that I was a patriot,” Sergei, a former Red Army officer, told Politico EU. Sergei requested that his name be changed to protect against possible reprisals.

“In today’s Crimea, you have to shout about how big a patriot you are every single day. They have turned Crimea into a mini Soviet Union,” he explained. “There are informers everywhere.”  

The repression has been most severe against Crimean Tatars, a Muslim ethnic group native to the peninsula who faced heavy discrimination and deportation under Joseph Stalin. The Tatars have been outspoken in their opposition to Russian rule in Crimea, and have been targeted accordingly. According to Human Rights Watch,12 Tatars have been “forcibly disappeared” since 2014, and half of these were actually killed. These targeted disappearances have engendered a climate of fear and distrust in Crimea.

“This was done to terrify people,” said Zair Smedlya, a prominent Crimean Tatar activist. “The Russian security forces wanted to demonstrate that no one can expect mercy. These are Gestapo-type tactics.”