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Amid broken ties and families, Crimean views toward Russia start to shift

Olga Oleinikova is the director of the Ukraine Democracy Initiative at the University of Technology Sydney. She and Oleg Skrypka are part of the university’s Social Impact Technologies and Democracy Research Hub.

We both know Crimea very well. 

Since Olga was two years old, as a Kyiv-born child, her every summer was spent there: on the beach of the beautiful Black Sea in Sudak, Alushta or Gursuf, enjoying the cedar forests, climbing atop the world heritage sites. Oleg was born and raised in Crimea in Simferopol. He was there until he moved to Prague for his education. 

The last time either of us visited was in 2013. At that point, Crimea was a laid-back autonomous republic of Ukraine with its own unique cultural mix. But the situation changed drastically in 2014, when Crimea was annexed by Russia — and now once again, when the war in Ukraine began two months ago. 

In September 2014, six months after the referendum, we interviewed 12 locals from Simferopol and Sevastopol, asking them about their life in Crimea before and how they felt about becoming part of Russia, and their future. Now, after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we reached out to the same individuals again, trying to capture shifting attitudes on the ground, eight years on, as the war rages on. 

In 2014, we recorded a massive post-referendum euphoria among those we spoke to. “I am one of those who voted ‘yes’ in the 2014 referendum,” said a 28-year-old digital marketer from Sevastopol. “Then, I sincerely believed that ‘we will become part of a great country.’” 

One of our participants had mentioned that “Perhaps it was different in Simferopol or Kerch, but in Sevastopol, Russian holidays were always celebrated louder than Ukrainian ones.” 

Another said, “We studied Ukrainian at school as a foreign language — several hours a week. Everything Ukrainian-speaking was considered imposed, caused rejection. The same with television. People watched Russian TV channels where they spoke Russian. It’s sad, but it’s a fact: Sevastopol residents lived in the information field of Russia, not Ukraine.” 

At that time, however, interviewees said their lives were changing for the better, that they enjoyed higher wages and retirement pensions, that small and medium-sized businesses were developing and the peninsula’s infrastructure and tourism sector were being invested in. “Not one Ukrainian president devoted as much attention and support to Crimea as Putin did. He took lots of issues under his personal control,” a 62-year-old civil engineer from Simferopol had explained. 

Several respondents also talked about “moral satisfaction” from unification with Russia — the exception being the Crimean Tatars we interviewed, who were against Russia, and expressed worry about equality, justice and their rights under Russian rule.  

As people started to feel the collapse of the former financial systems, complications with movement and the impact of the first wave of sanctions, the general state of elation began to diminish. “At every turn, there was an obstacle due to sanctions,” said a Simferopol resident. “The card can be used, but it is not international. There is an airport and a train station, but you can only go to Russia. You can call a taxi, but it’s like you’re in 2005.” 

Still, many enjoyed living in Crimea and had no plans to move. Those whose work and lifestyle weren’t connected to the outside world quickly adapted. Local producers benefited — competitors from Ukraine dropped away, and supplies from Russia were still too expensive. Pensioners were also satisfied with the annexation, as the sanctions practically did not affect them. 

The situation changed again in February 2022, when Russia escalated the war in Ukraine — and the political, economic, national security and humanitarian aftershocks from the conflict are now starting to reshape Crimeans’ attitudes toward Russia. 

In our recent round of surveying, we asked our participants whether their feelings toward Russia and Russian politics had changed since 2014, and if so, in which direction? We asked how they felt about the war, and how they see Crimea’s future as well as their own. 

Despite the fact that half of them expressed fears over voicing their real opinions in the face of new censorship laws in Russia, we were still able to capture their growing negativity and dissatisfaction with Russian politics and the Russian president — a dramatic shift from just eight years ago. 

The most commonly expressed feeling was shock. Shock from the Russian military’s unthinkable actions in Ukraine, and the brutality and speed at which the war had evolved, with more than 20,000 civilian and military casualties from both sides.  

They often referred to their past life under Ukrainian rule, their relatives who still live in Ukraine now under threat from shelling, forced displacement, lack of food and humanitarian crisis. “I have family in Kherson, and its heartbreaking to talk to them on the phone, their life turned into a nightmare,” mentioned a resident of Simferopol. 

Amid the horror of Russia’s Ukraine invasion, many we spoke to placed the blame on Putin — an attitude contradicting the dominant trend in mainland Russia, where recent polling shows popular support for the war. While these Kremlin-linked polls suffer from obvious credibility issues, a recent survey carried out by a group of independent research organizations reached strikingly similar conclusions. 

Those we spoke to in Crimea saw the picture differently. For them, the high-tech security fence that emerged on the border between Crimea and Ukraine in 2018 is now a permanent symbol of broken ties, friendships and families. 

A majority of them expressed strong worry that Putin is determined to continue the fight, even as the Kremlin has had to scale back its ambitions, shifting from quickly capturing most of the country to a grueling battle over the Donbas in the east. And to escape the growing global impacts of economic isolation and the strong likelihood of the war’s longevity, a third of those we interviewed are planning their move to Europe in the following months. 

“The official position of [the] Crimean government, as communicated by our local MPs, is that Russia will be taking over the southern regions of Ukraine to provide a safe land corridor to the Crimea and Transnistria,” said one of the interviewees.  

“It means the war will continue for [a] long time. It’s not a short story, and it’s worrying.”

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