For only thirty-two years in history, from 1922 to 1954, Crimea had been administratively linked to the territory of today’s Russian Federation. Before that, it was connected via the Crimean Khanate (until 1783) and the Tsarist Empire’s Taurida Governorate (1802–1917) to the territory of today’s southern Ukrainian mainland. After its subsequent brief period in the so-called Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, it was linked, via the Ukrainian Soviet Republic (1954–1991) and independent Ukraine (since 1991), to the territory of today’s entire Ukrainian state.
The Russian character of Crimea is partly historical fiction and partly the result of ruthless demographic engineering by pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet governments in Moscow. Over the last 240 years, according to Russian official statistics, St. Petersburg/Moscow brought down the percentage of indigenous Crimean Tatars in Crimea’s population from over 84 percent in 1785 to 12 percent in 2014. The Tsars, Bolsheviks, and Putin engaged in violent repression, deportation, and expulsion to permanently displace hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars from their native lands.
Furthermore, Russia’s colonial policies on the Black Sea peninsula meant the replacement of indigenous people with Eastern Slavs. Until 1991, this included Ukrainians, who comprised about a fourth of Crimea’s population. Since the 1940s, most of Crimea’s population has been ethnically Russian. Only after Stalin’s violent mass deportation of almost all of Crimea’s indigenous people to the Asian part of the Soviet Union in 1944, with many of them dying during their enforced exile, did the Russians become an absolute majority on the peninsula. The ethnic Russian demographic dominance in Crimea—achieved via a horrendous mass crime—is less than eighty years old.
Notwithstanding, most Russians and some outside observers believe that Crimea has belonged to Russia since ancient times. This popular mythology is driven more by the peninsula’s beauty, long Black Sea beaches, and partly subtropical climate than by Crimea’s largely non-Russian history. When Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, many Russians became so ecstatic that Russia’s corruption perception index, measured by Transparency International, went down temporarily. In 2014, the sky was bluer and the grass greener for most Russians, making the likelihood of Russia returning Crimea to Ukraine due to negotiations unlikely.
This creates a peculiar strategic dilemma for the Kremlin. Moscow may, at some point, become interested in ending the war. A new Russian leadership may perhaps be ready to officially “sacrifice” some of the mainland Russian territories annexed in 2022 and even reverse the constitutional reform of that year. Yet, Crimea always needed these same Ukrainian mainland territories to its north for its development.
The close geographical and historical connection between Crimea and Ukraine’s mainland was the primary reason that the Soviet government collectively (rather than Nikita Khrushchev personally) decided to transfer Crimea from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954. In 2022, a somewhat similar consideration prompted Putin to attack Ukraine’s east and south. Having successfully captured the peninsula in 2014, Moscow realized that Russia also needed to occupy the Ukrainian mainland territories to Crimea’s north to sustain the Black Sea pearl’s economic development. Between 2014 and 2021, illegally annexed Crimea was the Russian Federation’s most heavily subsidized region, with—among other transfers from Moscow— $10 billion worth of Russian investment pouring in between 2014 and 2020.
Crimea was always and remains today part of a larger geo-economic area that also embraces Ukraine’s southern mainland. In a hypothetical Russian-Ukrainian negotiation on the future of the currently occupied territories, it is thus all or nothing not only for Kyiv but also for Moscow. This is especially so once the Kerch Bridge is destroyed by Ukraine’s armed forces—an action likely to happen sooner or later. A partial Russian acceptance of Ukraine regaining its mainland territories, yet leaving Crimea as a consolation prize to Moscow, would not only be unacceptable for Kyiv. It would also be an unsustainable solution for the Kremlin. Keeping Crimea as an isolated occupied exclave far away from other Russian-controlled lands would make neither economic nor strategic sense for Moscow.
Nevertheless, many non-Ukrainian observers see Crimea as an object of negotiation and a potential compromise instrument. However, the peninsula is neither. A simple glance at the map and consultation of Crimea’s history should clarify that the peninsula would be more of a problem than a means to its solution in negotiations. Crimea’s need for a close connection to the Ukrainian mainland in the north, i.e., a link to the Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, and Donbas regions, decreases the likelihood of compromise between Kyiv and Moscow.
East-Central European Skepticism Towards Moscow
The most important factor holding Kyiv from premature negotiations with Moscow is its historical experience with Russia and comparative interpretation of its current dilemma. Ukrainian national history and the past of other east-central European nations suggest that Russia will not uphold an agreement reached via diplomatic compromise. Independent Ukraine has, over the last thirty years, signed hundreds of agreements with Russia—most of which are void today.
Among them were political memoranda and accords such as the 1994 Budapest Memorandum or 2014/2015 Minsk Agreements, and fully ratified deals like the 1991 trilateral Belovezha Pact signed by Boris Yeltsin or the 2003 bilateral Russian-Ukrainian Border Treaty signed by Vladimir Putin. Several documents explicitly acknowledge Ukraine’s borders, integrity, and sovereignty. Yet even those with the signature of Russia’s president and ratified by the Russian parliament became invalid in 2014 and 2022.
One of the earliest and most instructive post-Soviet examples of how Moscow behaves vis-à-vis its former colonies was its intervention in Moldova in the early 1990s when Putin was still a secondary bureaucrat in St. Petersburg. In 1992, the commander of the Fourteenth Russian Army, the late Aleksandr Lebed, justified his troops’ intervention in an intra-Moldovan conflict by alleging that Moldova’s new government was behaving worse than SS men fifty years prior. Lebed provided the explanation that Putin would later use for his invasions into Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. The Russian military supported pro-Russian separatists in Moldova, leading to the consolidation of a separatist pseudo-state, the so-called “Transnistrian-Moldovan Republic.” This oddly shaped entity stretches hundreds of kilometers between the eastern shore of the Nistru River and Moldova’s border with Ukraine.
To solve the issue, Chisinau entered negotiations with Moscow and involved international organizations like the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) in conflict resolution. The West did not economically sanction Russia or support Moldova with weapons. In 1994, Chisinau signed a treaty with Moscow on the withdrawal of Russia’s troops from Moldova. Moreover, in its new Constitution, adopted the same year and still valid today, Moldova defined itself as a bloc-free country, thus preventing a potential future in NATO. During the following years, multiple negotiations were held between Chisinau and Tiraspol—with and without Western participation. Economic exchange, person-to-person contact, and other confidence-building measures, including international organizations and other instruments of conflict mediation and resolution, were applied in a textbook manner.
Yet, the remnants of Lebed’s Fourteenth Army, now called the Operational Group of the Russian Forces, are still in Transnistria. They continue to uphold the separatist quasi-regime. After over three decades, the Moscow-supported pseudo-state on Moldova’s internationally acknowledged territory is alive and well. Since 2014, the Transnistrian “republic” has created, for the Kremlin, an additional security threat for Ukraine from the West.
For thirty years, Moldova has been one of the poorest countries in Europe and a permanently failed state. The fate of Moldova, the success of Moscow’s Transnistrian experiment, and the behavior of the West became instructive experiences for the Kremlin. They informed Russia’s behavior and strategies in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. The model of the Transnistrian blueprint went so far that some of the Moscow-installed functionaries of the pseudo-state’s government in Tiraspol were transferred to the Donbas region in 2014. There, they helped create the so-called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, which Russia annexed in September 2022.
This and similar adventures by Moscow in the post-Soviet space do not bode well, from a Ukrainian standpoint, for negotiations with the Kremlin. Ukrainians, as well as other nations and ethnicities of the former Tsarist and Soviet empires, have, over the centuries, accumulated many bitter experiences with Russian imperialism, which is—once again—Moscow’s barely disguised ideology. These historical lessons advise not only Kyiv but also Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw, or Prague that Ukraine must reach, at least, partial victory before entering meaningful negotiations with Russia. Only when facing military disaster will Moscow engage in a genuine search for a diplomatic solution that may be acceptable to Kyiv and have the potential to hold.
Negotiations will, at some point, start to play a role. Yet they must wait until the situation on the ground and in Moscow changes to a degree that such talks make sense for Kyiv. An agreement signed before Ukraine has achieved a salient military advantage and a stronger negotiation position will likely be a charade. At most, it will accomplish a postponement rather than an end of armed conflict.
A quick ceasefire agreement today could eventually even help prolong the overall length of high-intensity warfare. Such a result would counter the security concerns that led to the start of negotiations in the first place. The Minsk Agreements did soothe the armed confrontation in 2014 and 2015. Yet they did not prevent the massive 2022 escalation and have arguably co-prepared it.