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The Russian occupation of Crimea started on February 20, 2014. Backed by the false claims about the return of the “ancestral Russian land,” it became the first step in the Russian plan to take over Ukraine.

The Russian military convoy without any insignia near Sevastopol on March 10, 2014.
Photo: Baz Ratner / REUTERS

Why did Russia invade Crimea?

The question of “why Russia wants Crimea” is inseparable from the question “why Russia invaded Ukraine” as a whole. Even in the 21st century, Russia has not dropped its imperialistic ambitions; it sees Ukraine, and Crimea in particular, as an integral part of “Mother Russia”. The aggressor state uses military force to reverse what it considers the “historical mistakes”: Ukrainian independence in its internationally recognized borders. 

Despite what Russia claims, Crimea has never been its “ancestral Russian land”: the Crimean Khanate became part of the Russian Empire (and ceased to exist) after a series of wars in 1783. The peninsula holds significant importance in terms of access to the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, as well as control over those waters.

Therefore, Russia has been trying to hold on to Crimea and closely integrate it ever since. The Crimean Peninsula is the historical homeland of three indigenous people: Crimean Karaites, Krymchaks, and Crimean Tatars or Qırımlılar. Crimean Tatars, in particular, are the largest group of indigenous people on the peninsula and have a long history of statehood.

When the Russian Empire annexed Crimea in the 18th century, the indigenous population dropped from 90% to around 29%. In 1944, USSR unlawfully deported almost all Crimean Tatars from Crimea and forbade them to move back. They were able to return home only almost 50 years later as the Soviet Union collapsed.

Russian occupation in 2014 once again forced hundreds of thousands of people, Crimea Tatars and Ukrainians, to flee their homes. In each case, Russians moved to the peninsula instead, drastically changing the demographic – and later relying on it to strengthen their claim over the Crimea.

When did Russia invade Crimea?

February 20, 2014, is the official date of the beginning of the Russian occupation of Crimea. In the final days of the Revolution of Dignity, the Russian plan to take control of the Crimean Peninsula was put into motion.

Russia had been concentrating troops near the region beforehand, in particular, under the pretext of military exercise, as well as guarding the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Some Russian forces have already been stationed in Crimea as the Russian Black Sea Fleet never left the peninsular, even as Ukraine regained independence in 1991. 

The open phase of the Russian occupation of Crimea began on February 27, when the Russian military without any insignia seized administrative buildings, blocked Ukrainian military units, and turned off Ukrainian television and radio. 

How did Russia take Crimea?

At gunpoint of Russian servicemen, the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) of Crimea “voted” for the so-called “referendum on the status of Crimea”. It was held with numerous violations and falsifications under the total control of the many armed Russian soldiers on March 16, and just two days later, Vladimir Putin and representatives of the Russian occupation administration in Crimea signed the so-called Treaty on the Accession of Crimea to Russia.

“Little green men”, Russian soldiers without insignia, patrol in front of the Crimean Parliament in Simferopol on March 1, 2014.
Photo: AFP

On March 25, 2014, the Russians captured the last military unit holding the Ukrainian flag in Crimea, a Cherkasy Navy minesweeper. The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation entirely occupied the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol.

Why “annexation of Сrimea” may not be the right term?

Annexation may be defined as a formal act: a state’s claim over a taken territory is made effective by actual possession and legitimized by general recognition. In the case of Crimea, annexation implies its inevitable accession to Russia. 

However, Russian claims over the peninsula have never been ever close to wide international acceptance. The UN General Assembly, PACE, OSCE PA, and most countries, including the United States and the EU members, consider Crimea a part of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.

What Russia has been doing for 10 years now is an occupation. A forceful and a temporary one.

Demonstration in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity near the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea on February 26.
Photo: Maksym Kashelev / Suspilne

Amidst the full-scale war, Ukrainians are fighting to liberate every part of the country from the horror that the Russian invasion brought. Even under the occupation: more than 500 people in Crimea have been persecuted by the Russian occupational administration for their actions against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Several underground movements now operate there, spreading leaflets about Russia’s war crimes and helping the Armed Forces of Ukraine with information.  

Crimea will be liberated from Russia: it is an integral part of protecting the people, restoring international security, and establishing a long-lasting peace. And that is what Ukraine is fighting for.