The war in Ukraine began nine years before Russia's full scale invasion in 2022. In late February 2014, armed soldiers in uniforms without insignia began to occupy Crimea. Despite their Russian weapons and equipment, Russia denied involvement. Just two months after their appearance, President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, declared Crimea was now part of Russia. It marked the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War.

So what led to the annexation of Crimea in 2014? And why does the Crimean Peninsula continue to be a crucial sticking point in negotiations in 2023? 

We answer these questions in our below YouTube video. Visit our War in Ukraine page to watch more from our Ukraine video series.

Why was Crimea taken so easily?

IWM

In late 2014, armed soldiers in uniforms without insignia began to occupy Crimea. Despite their Russian weapons and equipment, Russia denied involvement. Just two months after their appearance, Putin declared Crimea was now part of Russia. It marked the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War.

So what led to Putin’s invasion of Crimea in 2014? And why does Crimea continue to be a crucial sticking point in negotiations in 2023?

To understand this in more detail, let’s first take a look back at the complicated history of Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula. Like most of Europe, Ukraine has had a shifting history territorially, and for centuries it has had a complex and antagonistic relationship with Russia. Incorporated into the Russian Empire in the late 18th Century, Ukraine briefly gained its independence in 1918, but three years later became part of the Soviet Republic.

Stalin’s regime ruled the region aggressively, enacting a number of russification tactics. The Holodomor was Stalin’s state-sponsored famine of 1932-33, a genocide in Ukraine. It was a direct assault on Ukraine’s peasantry, and nearly four million people died.

In 1944, as part of Stalin’s systematic repression of ethnic minorities, thousands of Crimean Tatars were deported en masse and exiled from Crimea.

Khrushchev took power of the Soviet Union in 1953, and he had less of Stalin’s anti-Ukrainian anxieties.

In 1954, the Crimean Peninsula was ceremoniously transferred from the Russian S.F.S.R to Ukraine. On 1 December 1991, a referendum on Independence was held in Ukraine. The population voted overwhelmingly for independence.

Geographically, the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea holds a location of great strategic importance.

Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, Russia has held military bases on the peninsula, including the port of Sevastopol.

Emily Ferris: "Crimea has enormous strategic value to Russia, and I think probably the most important is obviously access to Russia's naval base at Sevastopol, which is obviously the home of Russia's Black Sea fleet. And since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, it introduced quite a lot of air defense systems, long range cruise missiles, all of which can strike targets from very well-protected parts of Russia along the coast. And it gives Russia access to different sea routes in the South Atlantic and the Indian Oceans and as well as be a bit of a foothold for some of Russia's support for the Syrian regime as of 2015."

Furthermore, Crimea is home to key energy supplies, including huge amounts of offshore oil and gas resources in the Black Sea. For years, Ukraine’s government under President Viktor Yanukovych tried to decrease the amount of energy that they were importing from Russia, particularly gas. Annexing Crimea allowed Russia to gain control of some of those vital energy assets.

Alongside its geographical value, Putin undoubtedly saw the annexation of Crimea as a politically strategic move.

Emily Ferris: "At the time, in 2014 when Russia decided to annex Crimea, there was a need to retain some influence over Ukraine. Taking control of Crimea was really an attempt by Russia to make any Western integration with Ukraine much less attractive."

Ukraine’s shifting history has caused lasting fault lines through the country. Ukraine is often depicted as divided between Russian-speaking, ethnically Russian regions and Ukrainian-speaking, ethnically Ukrainian regions. But this view is in many ways far too simplistic.

Emily Ferris: "That view is really tied to the geography of the land, which is the idea that the eastern part of Ukraine is geographically closer to Russia and therefore had deeper linguistic and cultural ties that bear out politically. And in some senses, before Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, that was somewhat true. So there were very strong pro-Russian parties, such as the Party of Regions. 

But the reality is that there were always significant communities of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in both the east and the west of Ukraine. And there is also a really important distinction to be made between ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. But Russian as a language is and was widely spoken in Ukraine."

Since 2012, Ukraine’s government had been negotiating a deal for greater integration with the EU. But Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, in a last minute delay, failed to sign the agreement in 2013. Under pressure from Putin, Yanukovych had instead opted for a closer relationship with Russia. The decision was met with outrage. In November 2013, mass protests erupted across the country which became known as Euromaidan.

As well as the rejection of the deal, there was widespread anger at government corruption. The protesters clashed with the riot police, the Berkut, and their heavy-handedness fuelled public anger. What began as protests escalated over the winter months into a revolution.

Photojournalist Anastasia Taylor-Lind arrived in Kyiv in January 2014. She was originally passing through the city to collect a press pass but found herself in the centre of the protests in Independence Square.

Anastasia Taylor-Lind: "So I would approach men as they were usually changing shifts on the frontline barricade, and I would stop them and say, "can I make your portrait?". 

I chose to portray people in the visuals against the black backdrop in order to remove this very chaotic, very visually dramatic backdrop of fire, ice and smoke. So that the viewer, but also myself, was able to see each person one at a time as an individual.

So, the portrait studio was set up on the quieter days, but on the days where violence really intensified and particularly on the 20th February 2014, the frontline barricade had moved quite dramatically and as in this picture, it sat right across the centre of Independence Square.

What I didn't know in the moments that I made this picture was that behind this wall of smoke, snipers were atop several rooftops. And once the protesters broke through this barricade and ran up the hill on Institute Street, they would open fire on them and start killing protesters with single shots to the full head or to the chest with high velocity sniper rifles."

On 21 February 2014, Yanukovych fled Ukraine via Crimea to Russia. The following day, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove him from his post. Just a few weeks later on the 27 February, groups of armed masked soldiers without insignias appeared on the streets of Crimea. They became known as the little green men. The soldiers surrounded the airports in Simferopol and Sevastopol, and most military bases in Crimea and later seized key government buildings. A referendum was held within Crimea on 16 March. The results apparently indicated that 95.5% of voters were in favour of joining Russia. But the vote was condemned by the EU as illegal and illegitimate, asserting that its outcome would not be recognised.

A few days later, Putin signed a treaty, incorporating Crimea into the Russian Federation. Ukraine evacuated some 25 thousand military personnel and their families from Crimea. The US and the EU were quick to condemn the invasion. Sanctions were put in place including asset freezes and travel bans on Russian officials.

The G8 summit that was to be held in Russia that year was cancelled, and Russia’s membership with the group was suspended. But the restrictions made little change to Putin’s agenda. But what was Putin’s long-term objective in 2014?

Emily Ferris: "So, in 2014 and 2015, I don't really believe that there were plans on the table in Russia to take over the entire of Ukraine, unlike the situation that we see today in 2023. So, at the time there were a lot of important political reasons why Russia was interested in keeping Ukraine close to Russia politically. Russia has always seen Ukraine and Belarus, as well as part of not only Russia's sphere of influence, but as an extension really, of Russia's own security space.

So Russia, of course, had a vested interest in making sure that Ukraine did not drift more closely towards structures like NATO or the European Union, which of course, Russia sees the European Union very much as a security structure. And even though it would argue that the block is otherwise."

In March 2014, pro-Russian separatist groups arose in the Donbas region. They began to storm government buildings, leading to armed conflict with Ukrainian government forces. Once again there was a presence of men in uniforms without insignia armed with Russian equipment. Soon after, Russian troops were reported to be amassing across the Ukrainian border.

Over the next few months, fighting between the separatist groups and the Ukrainian military intensified. Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk proclaimed their independence. But Russia continued to deny all involvement.

Emily Ferris: "The problem was that Putin denied this for years, even in the face of growing evidence to the contrary. And I think that was part and parcel of Russia's way of trying to continue to exert its influence over Ukraine, where this would just be a continued thorn in Ukraine's side. This was a conflict that Russia could dial up and down as necessary to extract political concessions from Kiev. And there was also a need, obviously to not claim responsibility internationally for what was going on in the east of Ukraine."

By November 2014, the fighting had become static along the front line, leading the war to be known as a frozen conflict and yet the war zone remained a deadly place with dozens of soldiers and civilians killed every month. 

Anastasia Taylor-Lind: "Towns in the Donbas region were cut in half by this fairly arbitrary front line. Whole communities were disconnected from public services, hospitals, schools, universities and also families fell with homes on either side of the frontline, including Alisa Sopovaâs.

This project, which we called 5km from the Frontline, saw us following the same communities and the same families over the last five years."

Towards the end of 2014, a number of European countries including France and Germany stepped in to aid peace negotiations. The talks were held in Minsk, Belarus. In 2015, Belarus, despite its close ties to Russia, was trying to position itself as a neutral third party.

In early 2015, the second attempt at an agreement called Minsk II, was established between Russia, Ukraine, and the leaders of the separatist groups. In the months that followed, no more than minor skirmishes took place along the line of contact. But once again, the tentative truce didn’t last. Over the next 7 years the war in Donbas continued to rage, resulting in around 14,000 deaths since 2014.

Yet between 2015 and 2022, the war in Ukraine disappeared from the headlines in the west. In 2019, ex-TV star Volodymyr Zelenskiy was elected with a large majority. Zelenskiy immediately asserted that he would secure peace in the east. But just a few years later, everything changed.

In the early hours of 22 February 2022, Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border. For the past year, Zelenskiy has taken a strong stance within negotiations with Russia. Throughout the talks, Crimea has been a key sticking point.

Emily Ferris: "So, Zelenskiy in 2021, started to set up something called the Crimean platform. So, this was an initiative which was specifically designed to retake Crimea from Russia. Obviously in Russia, this was seen as a potential security threat.

And so, the rhetoric from Russia also started to increase against Ukraine, and that all contributed to the ratcheting up of tensions between both sides throughout 2021. And Zelenskiy's stance on Crimea has become that there is now no deal on the table until Crimea territory is returned to Ukraine.

Now, this is obviously a major sticking point in negotiations because Russia has explicitly also said that Crimea cannot be part of the negotiations and that it considers it to be Russian territory, even though this is, of course, internationally unrecognised as Russian territory. 

So, it seems that Crimea is likely to be a continued stumbling block in any kind of resolution to the current war. And as Zelenskiy has put it, "this began with Crimea, and it's likely to end with Crimea."

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