‘It feels inevitable’: Ukraine starts to believe it can win back Crimea

Even as Russia lays claim to more of the country, confidence is growing that the former territory can be retaken

From an elegant mansion in Kyiv’s government quarter, Tamila Tasheva is planning what the Ukrainian takeover of Crimea might look like.

Tasheva, president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s top representative for Crimea, and her team spend their days discussing issues such as how many Ukrainian teachers or police should be sent to the peninsula if Kyiv regains control, and what else would be required to help reverse eight years of Russian rule.

No serious military analyst is suggesting that Ukraine is close to being in a position to regain Crimea, but the idea feels much less fanciful than it did a year ago.

“This is moment X. Right now everything is happening in a way that it feels inevitable,” said Tasheva. “It may not happen tomorrow, but I think it will be much quicker than I thought a year ago.”

Even as Russian President Vladimir Putin lays claim to more territory, with his attempted annexation of four Ukrainian regions on Friday, the mood in Kyiv is that a full victory ought to involve not just taking things back to how they were before the February invasion, but regaining all of Ukraine’s territory.

Before, Ukrainian officials said Crimea would be theirs again more out of hope than a firm belief it would actually happen. The same went for most western officials and diplomats, who privately suggested there was little chance of Kyiv ever restoring control.

Now, as Russia struggles on the battlefield in southern and eastern Ukraine, and cracks of dissent appear over president Putin’s unpopular mobilisation drive, some in Kyiv hope the writing is on the wall. “Everything began with Crimea and everything will end with Crimea,” said Zelenskiy, in an August speech.

The Crimea office was opened by Zelenskiy last year as part of a strategy known as the Crimea Platform, which is aimed at envisioning eventual Ukrainian control over the territory. Sculptures by Crimean artists dot the gardens: one emits the sounds of waves and dolphins to evoke the seaside resorts of the peninsula. Inside, large photographs of spectacular Crimean landscapes and activists jailed by Russian authorities hang from the walls. Tasheva, a former rights activist who is Crimean Tatar, has been in the role since April this year.

Ukrainian officials say targeting Crimea is key to stopping the Russian war machine in other parts of occupied Ukraine, and Kyiv appears to have done so several times in recent months, most notably in early August, when several explosions rocked the Saky airbase.

“Crimea is the key base for their army reserves. It’s where they have their bases for ammunition, hardware and soldiers, so of course destroying these bases is a major part of de-blockading our territory,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior aide to Zelenskiy.

He said the attitude of Kyiv’s western partners, particularly the US, had changed over the summer. “Until the middle of the summer our partners really had doubts that Crimea could be a legitimate target. Now they accept that given the intensity of this war it’s absolutely a legitimate target,” said Podolyak.

Currently Kyiv did not have enough Himars missiles to use on Crimea, said Podolyak, and the systems could not reach much of the peninsula from Ukrainian positions with their range in any case. “So for now we are working mainly through diversionary groups, and using the local partisans, the local partisan mood has grown significantly in the past few months,” he said.

The US has so far declined to deliver ATACMS systems that have an even longer range than Himars, but if it does, Crimea is likely to be one of the first targets. “I think soon we’re going to see the Ukrainians pushing long-range rocket launchers into position to start hitting targets in Crimea, and this will really cause a problem for the Russians, it could make Crimea untenable for them,” said Ben Hodges, formerly the commander of the US Army in Europe.

Inside the peninsula, Russian authorities have stepped up a crackdown on dissent, and Sergei Aksyonov, the Kremlin-installed leader of Crimea, went as far as to threaten that anyone who sang pro-Ukrainian songs would be prosecuted.

“People who chant slogans, sing songs or nationalist hymns will be punished according to the criminal code,” he said earlier this month, after six guests at a Crimean Tatar wedding were arrested when footage was shared of guests dancing to a song that calls for Ukraine to be freed “from Muscovite shackles”.

“People who behave like this are traitors … if you don’t love our country then leave and go to the place you do love,” said Aksyonov, who was a marginal local politician before Moscow installed him as leader in 2014.

Gauging the public mood in Crimea is difficult. Ukrainians say a number of surveys in recent years purporting to show that a majority of Crimeans are happy under Russian rule should be taken in the context of the Kremlin’s lack of tolerance of dissent and the exodus of large numbers of pro-Ukraine Crimeans after annexation. There is some anecdotal evidence that support for Russia could be waning.

“Of course there are loads of people who are staunchly pro-Russian, but there are also many people who feel they’ve been cheated over the past eight years, and feel increasingly uncomfortable with life under Moscow,” said one Crimea resident who has fled the peninsula to escape Putin’s mobilisation decree.

In 2014 the Kremlin launched a lightning invasion of “little green men”, who wore no insignia and who Moscow initially denied were Russian special forces. Later, they disabled the TV stations, threatened Ukrainian military installations on the peninsula and co-opted much of the Ukrainian law enforcement, judicial and other infrastructure.

This will be one of many thorny issues for Ukraine should it ever win back control of Crimea. Who should face punishment for working with Russian authorities, and who should receive an amnesty?

Officials say that after so many years of occupation, that decision will be different from those that will have to be made in the territories occupied by Russia since the February invasion.

“Crimea is a different case. Our laws will not have a retrospective aspect,” said Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister. “People believed Russia was there for ever, and you could not function there without interacting with Russian authorities.”

There are other tricky questions. Between 500,000 and 800,000 Russians have moved to the peninsula since 2014, according to Ukrainian estimates. Technically, they have all entered the territory of Ukraine illegally. Then there is the question of property transactions since 2014. Should Ukrainian law recognise any of them?

Tasheva said the important thing was to ensure that these issues were dealt with ahead of time, not on the hop. “Back in 2014, Russia was ready to implement its rule in Crimea. We need to be ready too,” she said.


Shaun Walker in Kyiv

The GuardianTramp

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