Moscow spent more than $6 billion to re-militarize Crimea and analysts compare the current shape of the region to Kaliningrad, an exclave of the former Soviet Union.
KYIV, Ukraine – "In people's hearts, Crimea has always been an inalienable part of Russia.”
That’s what Russian President Vladimir Putin told lawmakers and senators seven years ago, on March 18, 2014, after “accepting” Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula “back into Russia.”
He finger-counted the locations where Czarist and Soviet armies fought major battles, and added that “each of these sites is sacred for us, these are symbols of Russia’s military glory.”
Weeks before his speech, thousands of “little green people,” a nickname for Russian soldiers in unmarked green uniforms, sprung up all over Crimea taking over government buildings, military bases and key junctions.
What Putin didn’t mention in his speech that in Crimea’s history, the arrival of Russians meant war, deportations and militarization of the strategic peninsula that wedges into the Black Sea providing easy naval access to the Bosporus and northern Turkey, Russia’s old adversary.
And what Moscow did for the next seven years was a resumption of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s policies which made ethnic Russians the majority of Crimea’s population that backed the militarization.
“In his maniacal drive to purge Crimea of its natives and populated the peninsula with ethnic Russians Putin proved to be the real successor of Stalin,” Refat Chubarov, head of the Mejlis, an informal parliament of Crimean Tatars, Turkic-speaking natives of the peninsula who face persecution after the annexation, told Ukrainian lawmakers in 2017.
When imperial Russia annexed Crimea for the first time in 1783, the peninsula was ruled by a Muslim dynasty of Genghis Khan’s descendants whose subjects included Tatars, Greeks and Armenians.
There even was a handful of Goths, the last of the Germanic people that helped topple the Roman Empire. Adolf Hitler used their presence in Crimea to justify Berlin’s “right” to “resettle” the peninsula with Germans.
After the 1941-44 Nazi occupation of Crimea, Stalin ordered the genocidal deportation of every Tatar, Armenian and Greek – in cattle cars, with next to no food and no medical aid to the dying.
“During stops, soldiers yelled, ‘Got any dead? Bring them out!'” Nuri Emirvaliyev, a frail, 87-year-old Tatar historian who was 10 during the deportation, told this reporter in 2018 while recalling his family’s two-month-long odyssey in cattle cars to Soviet Uzbekistan.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russian newcomers occupied the lands and houses of the deported, even though the peninsula became part of Soviet Ukraine in 1954.
These days, they comprise some 1.5 million of Crimea's population of 2.3 million, and most of the 250,000 ethnic Ukrainians are mostly Russian-speakers, Putin said.
Only in the late 1980s, Tatars were allowed to return to Crimea – without any compensation for lost property.
They were tacitly allowed to squat on small lots of former collective farmland or settle in the peninsula’s arid north, where Emirvaliyev’s house stands now – surrounded by grapevines and fig trees, and drowning in the smell of red roses.
These days, there’s a new wave of Russians – at least 200,000, according to Russian migration officials, settling on the peninsula.
One of them is Valentina Chevyakina, a former accountant from the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk who moved to Crimea with her husband Sergey to open a gas station near the southern city of Yalta. Even though the pandemic decreased the number of customers, they don’t regret moving there.
“The climate is great, and we just love it here,” she told TRT World. “Back home, there are still heaps of snow, and here, the magnolias are blossoming.”
Communist Moscow thought Crimea was too close to Turkey, a NATO member.
Secluded bays were transformed into hideouts for nuclear submarines, and the naval port of Sevastopol, the headquarters of the Black Fleet, became inaccessible to civilian outsiders.
Post-Soviet Ukraine sought to demilitarize Crimea and turn it into a tourism hub as the descendants of the deportees trickled back to find their houses and land occupied by newcomers.
But Russia kept its Black Sea fleet there, several dozen rusty and outdated ships, paying up to $100 million a year to Kyiv.
After the annexation, between 2014 and 2020, Moscow spent more than $6 billion to re-militarize Crimea by deploying frigates and diesel submarines, the advanced 400 anti-missile systems aimed at countering new NATO missile installations in Eastern Europe, bringing in tens of thousands of servicemen, building new military bases, airfields, radar stations, garrisons and living quarters, according to a defense analyst.
"Militarization is the main purpose of Russia's entire economic activity in Crimea, because otherwise the 2014 annexation is absolutely meaningless," Pavel Luzin Luzin, Russia-based analyst for the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington DC told TRT World.
"Given that Crimea needs to be defended again, the peninsula has to be transformed into a real fortress, into an anti-access and area-denial zone,” he said referring to a defense strategy of total prevention of enemy invasions.
Analysts compare the newly-militarized Crimea to Kaliningrad, Russia’s westernmost exclave on the Baltic coast sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, where Moscow installed advanced weaponry and nuclear missiles.
“Crimea is turning into a large, unsinkable aircraft-carrier, and its militarization in the context of Russia's foreign policies is a factor of pressuring the West just like the northern Baltic face [of Moscow’s defense axis] in Kaliningrad,” Kyiv-based analyst Alexey Kushch told TRT World.
The presence of more servicemen and military machinery affects daily life.
"There were incidents when a tank fell during transportation, there were accidents caused by the drivers of armed personnel carriers and other kinds of armored vehicles," a Crimean man told TRT World on condition of anonymity.
Explosion-like sonic boom of supersonic aircraft startles people on the ground, and frequent military drills with real bullets and artillery keep some national parks closed for the picnicking public and tourists, he said.
Meanwhile, squashing domestic dissent is key to securing Crimea’s security from within.
Unlike Russians under Putin, after a quarter century of living in chaotic, yet democratic Ukraine, Crimeans got used to openly expressing their dissatisfaction with the central government, local politics or rising prices.
Many believed Putin’s promises of higher pensions, better roads and new hospitals – and the Kremlin has to spend tens of billions on dollars on infrastructure and direct subsidies.
“Russia does solve many problems of big cities,” admits Nikolay Poritsky, Crimea’s former minister of housing and communal services under Ukraine. However, “to make people less agitated, it has to spend colossal amounts on solving the problems of Crimeans,” he told TRT World.
But those who opposed the annexation, were openly pro-Ukrainian, displayed Ukrainian or Tatar flags or simply recited Ukrainian poems, face searches, interrogations, abductions, arrests, trumped-up charges and prison sentences.
At least 109 political prisoners are jailed in Crimea, most of whom are Tatars, Ukraine’s top human rights official Lyudmila Denisova said in late March.
Tens of thousands were forced to flee to mainland Ukraine – including publicist Pavel Kazarin.
After annexing Crimea, “Moscow switched to wartime logic,” he wrote in February. “According to which, citizens are prescribed the role of forage reserve. And forage reserve can’t have its own opinion.”