An aerial view of the Crimean Bridge linking Russia and the Crimean peninsula, as seen on Dec. 23, 2019.

An aerial view of the Crimean Bridge linking Russia and the Crimean peninsula, as seen on Dec. 23, 2019. (Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin, Pool via AP)

As the Ukraine Peace Summit took place in Switzerland last month, the gathered countries contemplated potential peace. However, as nervous Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested a day before the meeting, the only way to end the war now is to allow him to draw borders as they currently stand. Yet, contrary to the Russian propagandist narratives alluding that parts of Ukraine such as Crimea have always been Russian, Crimea is Ukrainian. The argument lives on not only in the international law, but also in the minds of people, for it is the people in Crimea who are showing the greatest strides of resistance -- 10 years into the Russian occupation.

The Russian narrative suggesting that Crimea has always been Russian is nothing but a myth. From 2014, the Kremlin portrayed the annexation of Crimea as the long-awaited and rightful “return” of the peninsula to its proper harbor. However, the referendum to legitimize Russia’s military intervention was in reality a forged exercise conducted after the fact and under duress -- as indirectly recognized by the decision of the European Court of Human Rights. Importantly, studies have shown that less than 6% of Crimea’s written history, dating to the ninth century B.C., belongs to the Russian chapter.

In fact, the Russian chapter started in 18th century, in the colonial age. It began and continued as the colonization of the Crimean Peninsula, the territory inhabited by the Indigenous peoples of Crimean Tatars, as the majority (more than 90%) who were step by step massively expelled until the complete deportation was committed in 1944 by the Soviet totalitarian regime. The Crimean case presents an epitome of Russian colonialism -- something that was not associated with Moscow in the eyes of the international public, but it has always been seen by Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians and those in many other nations subjected to Russian imperial policies. Prior to 2014, most Ukrainian citizens living in Crimea supported Ukrainian territorial integrity. Annexation, or separatism, seemed inconceivable and undesirable. Additionally, it is only after 2014 that the number of Russian citizens coming from Russia to Crimea increased dramatically due to Soviet-style resettlement practices, forcibly changing the demographic composition of the population in Crimea. At least half a million of Russian citizens were brought to Crimea illegally while the number of the population of the peninsula prior to the occupation was 2.3 million. 

However, the true Crimeans have been reminding the world that Crimea should not be seen as a lost cause by showing many forms of resistance. Public protests swept the peninsula immediately after the full invasion of Ukraine, and other instances of resistance continue to this day, regardless of the Russian prosecution. As of the beginning of June, at least 850 administrative proceedings and eight criminal cases were opened against residents all over Crimea, illustrating the frequency of protest. Additionally, numerous Russian vigilante websites dedicated to tracking down, humiliating and punishing Ukrainian patriots in Crimea have been increasingly active. The types of resistance in Crimea included posts on social media and private messages, anti-war posters and symbols in public places, playing Ukrainian resistance songs, destruction of Russian propaganda and many others. The usage of national songs exemplifies the importance of national identity in building democracy and brings back parallels from Estonia’s singing revolution. 

Crimea also hosts institutionalized protest movements, such as Yellow Ribbon – a civil resistance movement, formed right after the full-scale invasion. The movement unites 10,000 activists from the Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv and Kherson regions, and other temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. The largest part of Yellow Ribbon members (4,000) are located in occupied Crimea. Primarily the movement is organizing informational resistance by hanging patriotic symbols on the streets, organizing social media protests and exposing Russian collaborators. Given that Crimea has been occupied for more than a decade, the existence of such movements proves that Russia was not successful in isolating Crimea from the mainland Ukraine, destroying the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar identity as well as the desire to live in a free and democratic country. 

In addition to social movements, a military partisan movement Atesh was formed in September 2022, composed of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. The movement is known to carry out special sabotage operations against Russian troops and collect operative information about them. The information gathered by the operatives has aided high-profile Ukrainian strikes on Crimea, such as hits on a Russian landing ship and submarine -- the Minsk and Rostov-on-Don -- and an attack on the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in September 2023. With 1,800 informants, agents and activists working for Atesh, the movement continues to be of strategic importance for the Crimean resistance. 

Hence, believing that Crimea is Russian is a mere delusion. So is the hope that if a peace deal is reached under Putin’s terms, the war will stop. If anything, acknowledging that Crimea is Russian would mean opening a Pandora’s box in terms of the revision of borders and possible conflicts in other parts of the world. Crimea stands as a bastion of hope, its people showing resistance to dictatorship, fighting for the future of Europe and democracy as a whole.

And liberation seems closer than it did before. As it is the armament provided to Ukraine by its allies, supported by the capacity of the Ukrainian army, that allowed Kyiv to become successful in targeting Russian military infrastructure and the Black Sea Fleet in and around Crimea.

That contributes directly to the resistance movements in Crimea, says Tamila Tasheva, the Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

“According to our observations, Ukraine’s successful operations in the Black Sea are one of the most significant factors driving the protest movements in occupied Crimea,” Tasheva said. “This success not just opened the grain corridor again, it underlined the Ukraine’s readiness to fight for the peninsula. Our citizens in Crimea see that Ukraine fights for them, that brings hope that de-occupation is only a matter of time, which, in turn, inspires the Ukrainian citizens to resist.” 

NATO is increasingly coming to a realization that it will eventually have to face Putin. The only remaining questions are when and how. If the Alliance faces the Kremlin now, in Ukraine, it is less likely to have to face Putin on its own territory. Aside from a military confrontation NATO has to find ways of cutting off Russia’s gas and oil revenues. Previous methods such as sanctions have failed to stop the Kremlin’s illicit trading. Hence, it is time to allow Ukraine the appropriate tools needed to go after Russia’s oil tankers.

Limiting Russia’s oil revenues would slow down the Kremlin’s war machine. In addition, it would show that NATO does not bow down to bogus nuclear threats, and is ready to defend democracy and Ukraine with its own nuclear arsenal if needed. Crimea has been showing resistance to the occupier for the past 10 years. Today, the West has to resist its war fatigue and find new ways to win against Russia.

Monika Bickauskaite-Aleliune is a former Global Policy Engagement Officer at the Legatum Institute and Researcher at the German Marshall Fund.

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