Ten years on from Russia’s annexation, with all-out war making its dominance vulnerable, authorities are increasing a crackdown on pro-Ukrainian voices – while others simply want to live their lives

Shaun Walker and Pjotr Sauer

14 March 2024

The Guardian


“Ten years of the Crimean spring,” say billboards around the Crimean peninsula. “It all started with us.”

The Russian presidential election, to be held over three days at the end of this week, coincides with the 10-year anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The swift seizure of the peninsula in March that year, Vladimir Putin’s response to the Maidan Revolution in Kyiv, was indeed the beginning of 10 years of military action against Ukraine.

At the time, although almost no other countries recognised the annexation as legitimate, most people believed Russian rule was likely to remain in Crimea for decades. Since the start of Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine, however, the situation has become increasingly unpredictable.

The stalling of Ukraine’s counteroffensive makes it highly unlikely that Kyiv could take back Crimea militarily any time soon, and the brief period of optimism in late 2022 when top officials described the return of Crimea as “inevitable” has long dissipated. But the two years of war have exposed Russian dominance of the peninsula as vulnerable for the first time since 2014.

The Ukraine-based Black Sea Institute of Strategic Studies found that Ukrainian armed forces launched 184 strikes against targets in Crimea in 2023, frequently using drones to attack military targets on land and naval vessels off its coast. “These are all preparatory moves before a serious operation in Crimea,” Ukraine’s military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said earlier this week.

Amid the shaky security situation, Russia’s crackdown on dissent in Crimea, which has been ruthless since 2014, has risen to a new level. As well as the continuing persecution of activists from the Crimean Tatar minority, traditionally largely pro-Ukrainian, Russia’s police and FSB security services have rounded up local people who post Ukrainian-language songs on their social media profiles or express pro-Ukraine views in public.

Since the beginning of the full-scale war, Crimea is second only to Moscow, among Russian regions, when it comes to the number of court cases opened against citizens for “discrediting the Russian army”, a broadly interpreted charge that can include posting pro-Ukrainian content.  “People who chant slogans, sing songs or nationalist hymns will be punished according to the

criminal code,” said Crimea’s Moscow-installed leader Sergei Aksyonov in 2022. “People who behave like this are traitors; if you don’t love our country then leave and go to the place you do love,” he added.

Since then, the hunt for pro-Ukrainian elements has only intensified. An active player in the battle to subdue dissent in the peninsula is Crimean Smersh, a Telegram account named after a second world war counterintelligence body whose name was derived from the Russian phrase “Death to Spies”.

Crimean Smersh offers people the chance to denounce their friends and neighbours for “anti-Russian” behaviour. Users can message a secure Telegram bot to send information about such incidents. The channel then posts videos of police raids on people’s houses, and frequently adds mumbled on-camera “confessions” and “apologies” from those accused of being pro-Ukraine.

On Tuesday, the channel published an apology from a woman who had posted a Ukrainian resistance song to a social media account under an alias, accompanied by a message: “If anyone thinks they can use a different name online to complain and nothing will happen, here is proof that they’re wrong.” It added that the woman had been detained and would now face a court case.  “I sincerely apologise and I support the special military operation,” she said in a video, using the official Russian name for the war.

Given that the channel posts these “confessions” alongside footage of brutal police raids, it appears that the goal is less to convince people that the apologies are real, and more to terrify people into silence.

Yaroslav Bozhko, the Kyiv-based spokesperson for the Yellow Ribbon, a nonviolent underground movement in occupied areas of Ukraine, said that operating in Crimea now was extremely dangerous, but that even small actions like painting pro-Ukraine graffiti or tying yellow ribbons in public spaces helped the mood of other pro-Ukraine minded citizens. “Even if someone from Crimea is silent and cannot speak, they will go through the city and see these symbols, and will understand that the fight for Ukrainian Crimea is continuing,” he said. Recently, the group posted photographs apparently showing Russian electoral materials being set on fire.

Gauging what level of support Russian authorities really have in Crimea is hard given the total crackdown on any dissent, the replacement of pro-Ukrainian Crimeans, who emigrated, with Russians who have moved in over the past decade, and the lack of any independent polling data.

Phone interviews with people currently in the peninsula suggested that, while there are many staunch Russia fans and many quiet Ukraine supporters in Crimea, there is also a significant group who have tried to disengage from these issues and simply live their lives. Even they have been affected by the war, however, as men are mobilised for the Russian army, people are woken at night by drone attacks, and the economy has faltered.

Natalya, who runs a small hotel in Crimea, said business had boomed after the Russian takeover, with thousands of new holidaymakers coming from Russia, but the coronavirus and then the war had scared many of them off. “I don’t blame them. All the clips of people running away didn’t

help. I think people are worried about being so close to the water now. Last summer was the worst we ever had; I considered closing the hotel,” she said. Natalya did not vote in the referendum in 2014, but did not mind the Russian takeover either. “I don’t care about politics; all I want is a peaceful sky above my head which we had for eight years. Now, I just want this all to end,” she said.

Alexander, a 32-year-old resident of Crimea who was born there and has lived there his whole life, said he had wanted to join Russia in 2014, though some of his family disagreed. “I had family members who left. They live in Kyiv now, and we are still in touch. I have other friends who left as well and we are in contact. I understand their choice and they understand mine,” he said. Alexander said that over the past decade, the infrastructure in his home town had improved dramatically, and he also felt he had better job opportunities as part of Russia. However, like many Crimeans with relatives and friends in mainland Ukraine, hearing their first-hand stories of the invasion has affected the way he views the war. “Of course, it feels different when you know people there you call your friends and they are hiding in bomb shelters; it’s not pleasant at all,” he said. He knows to avoid the subject of the war with strangers. “There are people who are aggressive and for the war; you just have to be careful who you talk to,” he said.

Olha Skrypnyk, chair of the Crimean Human Rights Group, said that the first major Russian drone attacks on Kyiv in October 2022, which were proudly broadcast on Russian television, were a wake-up call for many in Crimea who had previously believed Russia was not attacking civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. Skrypnyk said she knew this from her own experience, as the images had changed the mind of her elderly grandmother, who lived in Yalta and broadly supported the Russian war effort. “I was sending her information from Bucha from my own research, [along with] other links and she didn’t want to believe it. And then she saw this footage, and after that she stopped claiming that we were shelling ourselves,” she said.

Most western politicians say this weekend’s election will be rigged, and the voting in Crimea and other occupied parts of Ukraine will be doubly illegitimate. But there is also a belief among many that the Russification of Crimea over the past decade makes a Ukrainian takeover hard to imagine.

Skrypnyk, who has been based in Kyiv since 2014, and frequently travels to raise awareness on Crimean issues, said she is often told in western capitals that Ukraine must accept that Crimea has become Russian by this point, a message that frustrates her. “I think it’s important to show the Ukrainian-minded people in Crimea that we didn’t give up on their freedom,” she said.


Shaun Walker is a British publicist​ and journalist based in Budapest, Hungary. He is an expert on political history of Eastern and Middle Europe. He has lived in Russia for more than ten years and was working as a correspondent for The Guardian. Before that, he was a correspondent for The Independent​ from Russia.  Walker studied Russian and Soviet history ​at Oxford University​. Some of his famous books are The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past, Odessa Dreams: The Dark Heart of Ukraine’s Online Marriage Industry, Our Cosmic Family: We are all brothers and sisters, Un-Making a Murderer: The Framing of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey.  Readers, especially ones in the West were particularly interested in The Long Hangover, mostly because of the author’s new and critical view of the Russian reality, as well as the history of the Soviet Union.