Crimea: 10 years of Russian annexation bring on new phase of Tatar question

A protest against Russian occupation of Crimea. Protesters carry Crimean Tatar flags.
A protest against Russian occupation of Crimea. Protesters carry Crimean Tatar flags. Author: Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group
It has been exactly 10 years since the Russian Federation annexed Crimea. Russian control over the Black Sea peninsula has played, and continues to play, a significant geopolitical role in the war between the Ukrainian and Russian armies, which has already killed hundreds of thousands. In the midst of the conflict, Crimean Tatars are again victimized by Russian power. We review the question in detail.

On 27 February 2014, Russian military units without insignia or identification took control of the Parliament of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. They would stand down in history as the “little green men,” for whom the Kremlin initially denied responsibility. Sergei Aksyonov, an ethnic Russian born in Soviet Moldova, was appointed prime minister in a closed session full of irregularities. In the 2010 election, his Russian Unity party had won a mere 3 seats out of 100.

In the streets of the peninsula’s towns and cities, a large part of the population demonstrated with chants and slogans in favour of Russia and against the Ukrainian Maidan. Also, against the impeachment of President Viktor Yanukovych following his flight from the country on 22 February, less than 48 hours after a massacre in which dozens of activists were killed in the centre of Kyiv, most of them by snipers from the special police forces known as Berkut. Demonstrations on both sides multiplied across the peninsula, with Crimean Tatars and pro-Ukrainian sectors calling for unity with Ukraine, while pro-Russian sectors organized themselves into armed self-defence units.

In the days that followed, groups of unofficial Russian armed forces took control of government buildings, civilian and military infrastructure across the peninsula. They blocked access to Ukrainian armed forces bases. Events unfolded very quickly. The actions of the Russian units caught the Ukrainian military commanders in Crimea by surprise and left them unable to respond, against a backdrop of growing political and social unrest and instability throughout the country. Any response would have meant a full-scale military confrontation with Russia.

On 11 March 2014, the Parliament of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea adopted a declaration of independence, surrounded by groups of “little green men.” The text appealed to the right to self-determination and invoked the Kosovo precedent as a pretext for secession. It also made a reference to the July 2010 International Court of Justice decision, which affirmed that unilateral declarations of independence were not contrary to international law. However, in this case, it was not a question of becoming an independent state, but of annexing a territory to a pre-existing independent state, the Russian Federation, as stated in the declaration.

The results announced after the ratification “referendum” that took place on 16 March 2014 in Crimea, under the presence of Russian forces deployed throughout the territory, were 96.6% “yes” votes and 82% turnout. According to a public statement by Mustafa Dzhemilev, then leader of the Crimean Tatar People’s Congress (known as Mejlis), the real turnout was 32.4%. On the evening of the same day, the Parliament of the Autonomous Republic officially requested the peninsula’s incorporation into the Russian Federation.

The building of the Crimean Parliament, at the time it was under Ukrainian control. / Photo: Erud @ Wikimedia Commons

At a solemn ceremony in the Moscow Kremlin two days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the incorporation document. Putin announced he would submit it for ratification by both Russian parliamentary chambers. In his speech, replete with historical references to support Russia’s claim to the peninsula, Putin again referred to the Kosovo precedent. The process was to be completed on 21 March, with the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol being officially incorporated as territorial subjects of the Federation and included as such in the Constitution.

One of the pretexts to justify the annexation of the peninsula was the alleged linguistic discrimination against the Russian language in Crimea following the triumph of the Maidan. On 23 February, the Ukrainian Parliament had annulled the 2012 Law on Languages, which provided for measures to protect and promote minority languages in regions where they were spoken by more than 10% of the population, including Russian. This decision was immediately vetoed by the then acting Ukrainian president, Oleksandr Turchynov.

However, the Russian language status in the region was not unprotected by these developments, given that the 1998 Constitution of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea guaranteed it. Article 10 recognized Russian “as the language of the majority of the population,” providing for its “protection” and “development”, as well as its use in all spheres of public life. It established near equality between Russian and Ukrainian, with partial recognition of Crimean Tatar. Like today, Russian was the predominant and most commonly used language of a large majority of the population. Before the annexation, about 80% of Crimean print media were in Russian, and only 7% of television programmes were broadcast in Crimean Tatar.

Russian annexation of Crimea was considered illegal by most countries in the international community, and by regional and international interstate organizations. On 27 March, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 68/262, stating that the new status was “invalid,” by a vote of 100 in favour, 11 against, and 58 abstentions.

The annexation was the first violation of the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Under the memorandum, Kyiv renounced and handed over to Moscow its entire nuclear arsenal inherited from the USSR, in exchange for guarantees of its security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.

Despite initial denial, in April 2014 Vladimir Putin acknowledged that Russian armed forces units took part in the February and March events in Crimea. Shortly after the annexation process was completed, the Russian Ministry of Defence issued medals for merit for participation in the actions “For the return of Crimea,” with the dates 20.02.14-18.03.14, an evidence that the operation had begun when Viktor Yanukovych was still Ukraine’s president.

According to the current deputy head of the Ukrainian Military Intelligence (HRU), Vadim Skibitsky, since 2010 Russia had strengthened its military presence on the peninsula, which it exercised as part of existing agreements with the Ukrainian government. According to the admiral of Ukraine’s naval forces between 2016 and 2020, Igor Voronchenko, since 2012 Russia had stationed another four brigades in Crimea, equipped with upgraded weaponry, which in January 2014 began preparations to capture the peninsula.

Shortly after the annexation, the Ukrainian government shut down the main canal that supplied 85 per cent of the peninsula’s water needs. Water came from the Dnipro River.

The symbolism of a strategic peninsula

The earliest written references to the Crimean peninsula date back to Herodotus’ Histories. The ancient Greek historian narrated events in these and other coastal areas of the Black Sea, south of today’s Ukraine, where several Greek colonies were established since the 6th century BC.

The Crimean Tatar people was formed from the 13th century onwards through intermingling between various Turkic tribes since the 10th century, as well as through contact with Armenians, Greeks, Genoese, and other settlers.

In 1441, the Tatar warlord Haci Giray proclaimed himself Khan of Crimea and of the Black Sea coast; he founded the Crimean Khanate and broke with the Golden Horde. His successor, Mengli Giray, paid vassalage to the Ottoman Empire, giving way to a long-lasting strategic partnership.

In 1782 Empress Catherine the Great ordered the conquest of the Crimean Khanate as a part of the Russian Empire’s expansion southward, up to the eastern and northern shores of the Black Sea. A year later, the khanate was formally annexed. This marked the end of more than three centuries of existence of that quasi-sovereign state, and the beginning of the imperial subjugation of the local Tatar population, which had inhabited the peninsula for more than half a millennium.

One of the arguments used to justify the annexation to a European power was that Crimea was the site of the ancient Greek colony of Chersonesus. Medieval chronicles say this is where Volodymir the Great, the prince of the Rus’ of Kyiv, was baptized by the Orthodox rite in 988. This myth was exploited by the Russian imperial narrative as the founding moment of “Russian civilization,” and is echoed today in the official speeches of the country’s authorities, starting with the president himself.

Volodymir’s christening was, in fact, one of Putin’s justifications in March 2014 for the annexation of Crimea. The president evoked it as a “spiritual feat” that predetermined “the foundations of culture, civilization, and human values uniting the peoples of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.” In his 18 March 2014 speech, he also referred to the Russian and Soviet military exploits and glories of the Crimean War of the mid-19th century and World War II, and Sevastopol’s status as the first and current base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. All are factors that, in his view, make the “Russian condition” inseparable from the peninsula.

Beyond rhetorical symbolism, the fact is that, both now and at the end of the 18th century, Russian power’s fundamental interest in controlling Crimea was none other than securing a privileged geographical location that allowed it to achieve strategic predominance in the Black Sea area.

After the annexation of April 1783, the Crimean Tatars were progressively dispossessed of their lands and subjected to various forms of servitude. During the 19th century, they were among the Muslim peoples of the empire subjected to persecution and reprisals. This led to several waves of mass emigration to the Ottoman Empire, especially after the Crimean War of 1853-1856.

While in 1785 Tatars made up 84% of the peninsula’s population, a century later, in 1897, their percentage had fallen to 33.11%. Ethnic Russians, who had arrived in successive colonization waves, reached 35.55%. In 1785, they made up 2.2% of the peninsula’s population. The number of Ukrainians (then called “Little Russians” by the imperial authorities) at the end of the 19th century was 11.84%.

The trend of minoritization of the Tatar population accelerated during the first decades of the Soviet era. This was due to an increase in the transfer of Russian population on the peninsula. In 1939, Crimean Tatars made up only 19.4 per cent of the population. This policy culminated in May 1944, when the entire Crimean Tatar population (about 200,000 people) was deported by the Soviet authorities, forcibly transported to Siberia and Central Asia locked up on cattle trains, without food and water, and in unsanitary conditions.

This was a collective punishment in retaliation for the collaboration of some community members with the Nazi occupiers during World War II. Some 8,000 died during deportation. Between 27% and 46% of the total population died during the first three years of deportation and resettlement—often from malnutrition, hardship, and disease.

Commemoration of Tatars' deportation. Kyiv, 2016. Scenography links the stalinist deportation to current occupation. / Photo: Visem @ Commons Wikimedia

10 years later, in February 1954, the USSR Supreme Soviet unanimously approved Russia’s ceding of the Crimean peninsula to Soviet Ukraine. The official narrative presented the decision as a “gesture of friendship” towards Ukraine on the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav between the Ukrainian Cossacks and the state of Muscovy—the predecessor of the Russian Empire. However, the decision was based on geographical proximity and economic necessity, to facilitate the peninsula’s development.

In 1967, a few hundred Tatar families were allowed to return to Crimea. However, it was not until Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika that the entire Crimean Tatar population that wished to return to their homeland could do so. Between 1988 and 1994, 200,000 to 250,000 Tatars did so. They suffered various forms of discrimination from locals and authorities, and in most cases found that their former homes had been destroyed or occupied.

In Ukraine’s referendum on independence from the USSR on 1 December 1991, 54.19% of the inhabitants of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea voted for, 57.07% in the case of the city of Sevastopol. The "yes" vote won in all Ukrainian regions, with a result of 90.32% which surprised many people in Moscow, and which not everyone was happy to accept.

However, the following day, the president of the then Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, Boris Yeltsin, became the third president to recognize Ukraine’s independence on its Soviet republican borders, only behind Poland and Canada. On 8 December, the Belavezha Agreement was signed, in which the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus signed the end of the USSR. On 21 December, the Alma-Ata Protocol was agreed in the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan, where the leaders of 11 of the 15 Soviet republics confirmed the dissolution of the Union, and the recognition of the internal republican borders as new international borders.

Between 1992 and 1995 an institutional give-and-take unfolded between the Crimean and Kyiv authorities to define the contours of the peninsula’s autonomy within independent Ukraine. Finally, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea Constitution adopted in 1998 confirmed its special status, fully integrated into Ukrainian jurisdiction. Of the peninsula’s 2 million inhabitants in 2001, according to that year’s census, Crimean Tatars made up 12.1%, ethnic Russians 58.5%, and ethnic Ukrainians 24%.

The recognition of Ukraine’s borders, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and of Crimea as part of Ukraine, was further entrenched in the 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership, signed by Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Viktor Kuchma. A large part of the Sevastopol naval base was leased to the Russian Black Sea Fleet for 20 years. In 2008, the then Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko stated that the Russian fleet’s presence and use of Sevastopol port would not be extended beyond 2017, when it was due to leave. However, the lease was extended until 2042 in the framework of the Kharkiv agreements, signed a few weeks after Viktor Yanukovych became president of Ukraine in February 2010.

Following Yanukovych’s flee from Ukraine on 22 February 2022, pro-Western forces returned to power thanks to the triumph of the Maidan revolt and an impeachment process that did not meet all the requirements of Article 111 of the Ukrainian Constitution. Putin considered that the unwritten agreement guaranteeing Ukraine’s “conditional sovereignty” had been broken. For the Kremlin, a Ukraine that geopolitically distanced itself from Moscow lost the right to sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The possibility of losing the use of the Sevastopol naval base, and the fact that it might be used by US and allied naval forces, weighed heavily on the Kremlin, and the narrative changed to justify annexation. Thus, in February and March 2014, Putin began his verbal “de-recognition” of Ukrainian sovereignty, first and foremost over the peninsula. According to this logic, in his annexation speech on 18 March, Putin claimed that, as far as Crimea was concerned, in 1991 Russia had been “robbed and plundered.”

Putin also referred to the Soviet authorities’ decision to transfer the peninsula to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954 as “unconstitutional,” another of the pretexts Russia has resorted to in recent years to support the annexation. On 11 March 2024, deputies from the ruling United Russia party submitted a bill to the Russian Duma calling for the 1954 transfer to be declared “illegal.”

Persecution haunts Crimean Tatars again

In March 2014, the Crimean Tatar population overwhelmingly opposed annexation to the Russian Federation. While their relationship with the Ukrainian authorities had not been easy until then, they feared a return to dark times. The most pessimistic forecasts came true. The annexation led to a campaign of systematic repression against the territory’s inhabitants who opposed the newly established authorities, with a special emphasis on the Tatars.

One of the main manifestations of the wave of repression was accusations of terrorism and extremism against Tatar activists. This was despite the fact that there were no terrorist attacks on the territory for more than three decades. More than a hundred members of the Crimean Tatar community have been tried and imprisoned for these crimes on trumped-up charges of alleged links to the Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. Enforced disappearances have also become a common practice. As of June 2022, the UN had documented 50 of them, 13 belonging to the Tatar minority.

The Crimean Tatar People’s Congress, or Mejlis—the main national representative body of the Tatars—, was banned in 2016 as “extremist.” Its leaders were forced into exile and banned from entering Crimea, and those who refused were imprisoned. Since then, Russian authorities have created new state-controlled Tatar community governing organizations.

Mustafa Dzhemilev and Mejlis President Refat Chubarov meet with Czech president Petr Pavel. Kyiv, 2023. / Photo: Mejlis

Restrictions on press freedom and the closure of Tatar- and Ukrainian-language media outlets have also been continuous. Months after the annexation in March 2014, the Russian Federation’s telecommunications and media supervisory body Roskomnadzor imposed a new mandatory registration procedure for all local media and press. This led to 90% of them closing. Television channels such as ATR, radios, and the Tatar press agency QHA were forced to stop broadcasts and activity. Many journalists who have continued to work have done so under constant threats, physical attacks, and political persecution.

Language, culture, and identity have also fallen victim to the new status quo, in favour of Russification. Schools offering education in Crimean Tatar in the 2020-2021 school year were only 3% of the total, and in Ukrainian only 0.1%. In other schools, most Crimean Tatar language classes are optional, often taught outside school hours or on weekends. In the case of Ukrainian, the number of students attending primary education in this language fell from 13,589 in 2013 to 371 in 2016.

Educational programmes in schools depict the peninsula as part of “historical Russia,” hiding the legacy of the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people, and of the significant ethnic diversity that existed. The aim is to promote the assimilation of the entire population under the pan-Russian idea.

Similarly, military camps targeting children are increasingly organized to promote Russian patriotism and adherence to the regime. Police searches are frequent in mosques and religious institutions, which are often fined heavily. A ban on displaying the Crimean Tatar national flag in schools on the peninsula was introduced in August 2023. Many memorials to those who died in the 1944 deportations have been vandalized. Restrictions on events and demonstrations in remembrance of those tragic events are frequent on 18 May, the day they are commemorated.

Since the annexation of the peninsula in 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defence has conducted 15 waves of compulsory military conscription in Crimea. These measures violate the Geneva Conventions insofar as it is an occupied territory, and have forced many young Tatars, as well as Ukrainians, into exile to avoid conscription. This is one of the main reasons why, over the past 10 years, up to 50,000 Tatars have left the peninsula, even if only temporarily.

History does not repeat itself, but rhymes. In October 2016, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted Resolution 2133, warning that the cumulative effect of these repressive and other measures threatens the very existence of the Crimean Tatars as a distinct ethnic, religious, and cultural group—in other words, risks this people to ethnocide.

From annexation to all-out war

In 2005, Vladimir Putin described the Soviet Union’s dissolution as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. “For the Russian nation, it was a real drama. Tens of millions of our compatriots found themselves from one day to the next living outside Russian territory.”

In March 2014, Putin reiterated this idea. In reference to ethnic Russians in Crimea, he said that during those years Russia experienced difficulties that made it “unable” to “protect its interests.” “Millions of Russians and Russian speakers live in Ukraine and will continue to do so. Russia will always defend its interests. It is in Ukraine’s interest that these rights are fully protected. It is the guarantee of the stability of the Ukrainian state, and of its territorial integrity.”

In a self-serving confusion between ethnic Russian, Russian-speaking, and Pro-Russian, this warning concealed a much more complex reality. A study conducted by the International Institute of Sociology in Kyiv in April 2014 revealed that only 27.5% of the inhabitants of Donetsk oblast were in favour of joining Russia. In Luhansk, the percentage was 30.3 per cent. In a similar vein, only 19.3% in Donetsk advocated Russian troops’ intervention, as well as 19.3% in Luhansk. In the rest of Ukraine’s southern and eastern provinces, the percentage of the population wishing to join Russia was less than 10%, except for Kharkiv, where it was 16%.

In a documentary broadcast in December 2021, Putin referred to the end of the USSR as the disintegration of “‘historical Russia’ under the name of the Soviet Union.” If the annexation of Crimea marked the beginning of revisionism of borders established in 1991 and in subsequent agreements, fomenting the war in the Donbas was next. It has been 10 years since Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian were restricted in Crimea; the Ukrainian language has been targeted in newly annexed territories since February 2022, as are local people who oppose Russian rule.

In the Crimean peninsula, since the beginning of the war on a large scale, the increase in repression has been felt even more intensely than in other official subjects of the Russian Federation. Of the 640 political prisoners in Russia, 113 are Crimean Tatars. This is a disproportionate number considering the size of the population, which shows the extent to which this people is a victim of an intense subjugation policy. Most Tatar prisoners have been sent to high-security centres or penal colonies far from the peninsula, where they are subjected to frequent discriminatory practices and ill-treatment, as the United Nations High Representative for Human Rights has repeatedly denounced.

Similarly, in the wave of military mobilization that took place in the fall of 2022, about 1,500 members of the community were called up in a few days—again, a much higher number than would correspond according to demographic proportionality criteria. As with other national minorities, Crimean Tatars have been mobilized disproportionately compared to ethnic Russians, especially those living in large Russian cities.

Currently, two battalions of Tatar volunteers (“Crimea” and “Noman Çelebicihan”), founded between 2014 and 2016, participate in military operations in the war against Russia, integrated into the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Russian authorities refuse to include Crimean Tatars in prisoner-of-war exchanges. In September 2022, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Russians opposed to the war and to the Russian regime created the partisan organization Atesh, which has since conducted multiple counter-espionage actions, sabotage and attacks against Russian military targets in its rear on the peninsula.

Crimea’s strategic importance has been felt in the war, and has provided Russia with territorial advantages that have proved crucial. Since 2014, the Russian armed forces have expanded their presence on the peninsula, with new bases and facilities. During the first weeks of the Russian offensive in February and March 2022, the most remarkable Russian progress was made by units advancing from Crimea into the southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhia, progress that has been consolidated. A significant percentage of missiles and drones striking Ukrainian military and civilian targets are launched from Crimea, and from ships and submarines belonging to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. This fleet enforced a trade blockade against Ukrainian ports that lasted more than one year, crippling the country’s export capacity and economy, with a particular impact on the agricultural sector.

The trend has levelled off. With the support of Western countries, Ukrainian forces have developed an ever-increasing ability to strike Russian military targets on the peninsula with drones and missiles. This has resulted in destroying or rendering useless nearly 25% of the ships and submarines of the Black Sea Fleet. Part of the fleet has been transferred to the Russian base of Novorossisk to protect it. Besides, an additional naval base is planned for Abkhazia. The Kerch Bridge, linking Crimea to mainland Russia since 2018, has also been a frequent target of Ukrainian attacks, although it remains operational.

The 2014 annexation led to a political rapprochement between the Crimean Tatar community and the Ukrainian authorities, based on shared interests. Since then, the Ukrainian government has pledged to assert Tatar rights if it regains control of the peninsula. As with the rest of the areas under Russian occupation, the game is played on the military board. Considering the current imbalance of forces and capabilities, in the short and medium term it is unlikely that Ukrainian forces will be able to regain control of the peninsula.

The fact is that, unlike the rest of the occupied areas in 2014 and since 2022, in Crimea the majority of the population is made up of ethnic Russians, and right now they would probably oppose return under Ukrainian administration. As part of the negotiations that took place in March and April 2022, a proposal was drawn up for the parties to give themselves a period of 15 years to consult on the status of Crimea. That attempt was unsuccessful.

An applicable formula could come from the recognition of a special status for Crimea under international supervision, which would facilitate a solution based on the principle of self-determination and respect for the rights of national minorities, in contrast to the twisted recourse that has been made to this principle as a justification for carrying out violations of international law on the part of Russia, and for irredeemable actions of expansionism that appeal to imperial nostalgia. Unfortunately, such a scenario is now far from possible. Everything will be decided by the fate of a war that does not stop. Nor it does the struggle of the Ukrainians for their sovereignty, or that of the Crimean Tatar people for its own survival and collective rights.