Exactly five years ago on this day February 20, 2014, Russia started its occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea.
Moscow, for the first time in the post-war history of Europe, seized part of the territory of another sovereign state, thus destabilising the European and global security.
The world almost unanimously condemned the annexation of Crimea and since then, has not changed its position, although the Kremlin was sure that Crimea would have been soon forgiven, as it was the case with Georgia in 2008.
All conscious politicians, analysts and lawyers agree that Moscow has grossly violated international law; no one doubts that from the legal point of view Crimea belongs to Ukraine. And this, of course, is very good.
Unfortunately, many people still believe that President Vladimir Putin's act can be understood as "purely human", because, as they have heard somewhere, "Crimea has always been Russian".
It is hard to find a more absurd and less reasonable myth, but strangely enough, it laid deep roots around the world and did penetrate the international consciousness.
The reason, obviously, lies in the fact that Russian propaganda began to slowly launch this misinformation immediately after peaceful collapse of the USSR, when the war was nowhere near. But when the war came, the "unofficial" international opinion had been already processed.
In this article I would like to present historical facts that refute this myth and which truthfulness you can check on Wikipedia or in any other unbiased sources.
So, what the facts look like.
Crimean Tatars are indigenous people to Crimea who had their own state — Crimean Khanate. Moreover, it was a strong and highly cultured Muslim state. As for the Russians, they simply never existed on the peninsula, except for the prisoners of war.
At the beginning of the 18th Century, due to the reforms of Peter the Great, Tsardom of Russia transforms into a Russian empire, gaining strength and conquering neighbouring European countries.
It took Estonia and Latvia in 1721, Lithuania and part of Poland, including Warsaw — in 1795, Finland — in 1809. Today these countries are sovereign states, members of the United Nations, the European Union and Nato (except for Finland). And it is unlikely that someone will have a heart to say they "have always been Russian".
The Crimean Khanate found itself in the list of Moscow-conquered states in 1783, which is, from a historical point of view, relatively recently. Thus, talking about some sort of primordial belonging of the Crimea to Russia is pure absurdity. It is simply one of the countries, one of the peoples, which the Russian Empire in those days enslaved by force of arms.
The only difference between Crimea and the other states mentioned above is that after the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, the Tatars failed to defend their own independence. Crimea, like Ukraine, was captured by the Bolsheviks and remained part of all the same Russian empire, but now under the name of the USSR.
However, in the Soviet Union Crimea was "lucky" even less than Ukraine. Ukraine became a "union republic" with formal features of state sovereignty, while the Crimea in 1921 got only the status of autonomy, moreover in the Russian, and not in the Ukrainian union republic.
Such decision of the Kremlin clearly contradicted reasonable reality, because the Crimean Peninsula is geographically a part of Ukraine, while Russia has no territorial connection. The administrative affiliation to Russia with territorial adjacency to Ukraine greatly complicated the economic development of the peninsula, with all the supplies to Crimea being almost entirely carried out from Ukraine.
Moscow later rectified the situation, by finally recognising the geographical and geo-economic realities. In 1954 the Kremlin initiated transfer of Crimea from Russia to the Ukrainian republic. (The Kremlin could not at that time imagine that Ukraine would once become independent. So for the leadership of the USSR Crimea, like all of Ukraine, still remained Russian).
I would like to make a separate emphasis: The transfer of Crimea was carried out in full compliance with the laws and procedures of the USSR. Russian myth that “Crimea was a gift to Ukraine by silly Khrushchev” is a blatant fiction. In 1954, Khrushchev did not yet have enough power for such a self-initiative.
Well, we came to an understanding of what actually means a call "Crimea has always been Russian." It turns out that this is not even about half a century in the captivity of the Russian Empire (1783-1917), because then such claims would apply to the rest of the former colonies and now independent states. The Russian Crimea can only be referred to the Soviet Crimea of 1921–54, which is only 33 years of recent history!
It looks like since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders have been maddened by the thought that if not the 1954, Crimea would have remained with Russia. At the same time, they have not been embarrassed by the fact that if not the 1921, Crimea would remain part of Ukraine, and if not in 1783, Crimea would have always been an independent state with zero per cent of the Russian population.
And in 2014, imperial insurrection took over – the Kremlin went on to frankly bandit seizure of the Crimea, giving up on international law, historical logic and justice.
As an anecdote, I will give another Russian myth about Crimea, which in 2014 was launched personally by the Russian President. He stated that "for Russia, Crimea has a sacred significance and that it is where a spiritual source of formation of the Russian nation and state lies", as it was in Crimea that Knyaz Volodymyr accepted Christianity, and then baptised all of Rus.
Knyaz Volodymyr was indeed baptised in 988 in Crimea (at least as the Chronicle says) and in the same year he baptized his state. But he was a Kyivan, not a Moscow, Knyaz, and he baptised Kyivan Rus, not Russia. As for Moscow, Russia and the Russian ethnic group itself, at that time they simply did not exist. In the forests on the site of Moscow dominated the Finno-Ugric tribes, which only after a few centuries were assimilated by the Slavs and became the nucleus of the modern Russian nation.
So again, absurd! Nevertheless, even such an extraordinary historical fake is being launched into the international information space today. There is, obviously, as always, an assumption that no one will look into Wikipedia.
However, the myth of the "Russian Crimea" was built, unfortunately, not only on propaganda and absurd distortion of history. In May 1944 Moscow carried out a large-scale criminal operation aimed at completely clearing Crimea from indigenous people and replacing them with ethnic Russians.
The Stalinist regime blamed the Crimean Tatar people in collaboration with the Nazis who occupied the Crimea in 1941-44, and in just two days sent all 191 thousand Crimean Tatars, including infants, to remote Asiatic regions of the USSR. The fact that this was a pure ethnic cleansing, and accusation of betrayal was only an excuse, was evidenced by the fact that families of 9,000 Red Army Tatars, who at that time fought on the front with the Nazis, and then – the fighters themselves, were also sent in exile. In addition, after the Tatars, other ethnic groups were exiled - Greeks, Bulgarians and Armenians, who had lived on the peninsula for centuries and were not accused of betrayal. On the peninsula remained only Slavs, that is, local Russians and Ukrainians.
After that a mass resettlement of people from the Russian mainland to Crimea began. They settled in 80,000 homes that were empty after an exile of the indigenous people. It is the descendants of these Russian colonists that form today the basis of the part of the Crimean population, who support the Russian annexation of the Crimea and whose will the Kremlin so much likes to refer to.
Moscow persevered to prevent the Crimean Tatars from returning to their homeland. Their mass repatriation began only with independent Ukraine. Ukraine itself assumed all the expenses and care for settling the whole people. By 2013 266,000 Tatars returned to their homeland, which made up 13.7 per cent of the population of the peninsula.
Russian occupation of 2014 became a real national catastrophe for Crimean Tatars. They escaped from the Gulag, but the Gulag again came to them on their native land. Therefore, practically all Crimean Tatar people are in opposition to Russian invaders and remain loyal to Ukraine. It is precisely because of this that the Crimean Tatars became today the main victims of persecution and repression by the invaders. Up to 25 thousand Tatars were forced to leave Crimea again and emigrate to mainland Ukraine. The Kremlin has banned the Mejlis, the national Crimean Tatar parliament, Tatar media, education, culture and religion have been harassed, dozens of patriots are thrown into jail. In December 2018, when entering the Crimea, occupiers arrested a Tatar public figure Eden Bekirov who wanted to visit his 78-year-old mother.
Bekirov is a physically disabled person, suffers severe diabetes, had one leg amputated, and 4 shunts on the heart after last year's heart attack. A detention without necessary medication and medical care is essentially a death sentence for him. Nevertheless, Russian "justice" keeps him under arrest. And they accuse him that he allegedly had someone to hand over a bag of 15 kilograms of explosives, although his health did not allow him to lift even 2 kilos. The absurdity of accusations and insolent pursuit of legal tyranny speak for the fact that the Russian repressive machine is trying to intimidate and demoralise the Crimean Tatars.
I will note that victims of repressions are not only Crimean Tatars. The whole world already knows the name of an illegally imprisoned film director, an ethnic Russian and a true patriot of Ukraine Oleg Sentsov, who openly protested against the annexation of Crimea. Volodymyr Baluch, an ethnic Ukrainian, became a symbol of courage, thrown behind bars for raising the Ukrainian flag over his home in occupied Crimea. As we can see, honest and courageous people of Crimea, regardless of nationality, protest against brutal seizure of their land by Russian invaders. Violations of human and national rights on the peninsula by Moscow have been repeatedly convicted by the United Nations and other international organisations. But I am convinced that the international community should triple efforts for the immediate release of political prisoners.
As we can see, current crime against the Crimean Tatar people is a direct extension of the crime of 1944, that entered the world history under the name of "deportation"; this definition is used today by all scholars, politicians and journalists. However this in itself terrible term is in fact a political euphemism which gives the wrong softened picture of the reality. Facts indicate that only during the first 4 years in exile 46.2 per cent of the Crimean Tatars died because of extremely difficult living conditions. And this is not just a deportation, it's a real genocide. Due to substitution of the notions, Crimean Tatar genocide, same way as the Ukrainian Holodomor, perished from the historical memory of humanity, which, we must admit, is another dark victory of Soviet-Russian propaganda.
Consequently, the myth "Crimea has always been Russian" is also needed in Moscow in order to preserve the results of the Crimean Tatars genocide and the settlement of Russian colonists. This is also one of the main goals of current annexation of Crimea.
Thus, de-occupation of Crimea and its return to the sovereignty of Ukraine, apart from political and legal aspects, has also a powerful moral imperative. The international community has no right to allow at least one genocide to "pay off", so that those who carried it out could not achieve their goal even after many decades.
Pavlo Klimkin is Ukraine Foreign Minister. This is dedicated to the fifth anniversary of occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea by the Russian Federation.