Amid broken ties and families, Crimea’s views on Russia are beginning to change – POLITICO

Olga Oleinikova is 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 child born in Kyiv, she spent every summer there: on the beach of the beautiful Black Sea in Sudak, Alushta or Gurzuf, enjoyed the cedar forests, climbed the peaks of world heritage sites. Oleg was born and raised in Simferopol, Crimea. He was there until he moved to Prague for his education.

The last time we 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 again when the war in Ukraine started two months ago.

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

In 2014, we recorded massive post-referendum euphoria among our interlocutors. “I’m one of those who voted yes in the 2014 referendum,” said a 28-year-old digital marketer from Sevastopol. “At the time, I genuinely believed that we were going to be part of a great country.”

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

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

At the time, however, respondents said their lives were changing for the better, that they were enjoying higher wages and pensions, that small and medium-sized businesses were developing, and that there was investment in the peninsula’s infrastructure and tourism sector. “Not a single Ukrainian President paid as much attention and support to Crimea as Putin did. He took many things under his personal control,” explained a 62-year-old civil engineer from Simferopol.

Several respondents also spoke of “moral satisfaction” from unification with Russia – with the exception of the Crimean Tatars we interviewed, who opposed Russia and expressed concerns about equality, justice and their rights under Russian rule.

As people began to feel the collapse of the previous financial systems, complications in the movement and the impact of the first wave of sanctions, general elation began to wane. “At every corner there was an obstacle due to sanctions,” said a resident of Simferopol. “The card can be used, but it is not international. There is an airport and a train station, but you can travel only to Russia. You can hail a cab but it’s like 2005.”

Still, many were happy to live in Crimea and had no plans to move. Those whose work and lifestyle were not connected to the outside world adapted quickly. Local producers benefited – competitors from Ukraine were eliminated and supplies from Russia were still too expensive. Pensioners were also satisfied with the annexation, as they were practically unaffected by the sanctions.

The situation changed again in February 2022, when Russia escalated the war in Ukraine – and the political, economic, national security and humanitarian aftershocks of the conflict are now beginning to change Crimea’s attitude towards Russia.

In our last poll, we asked our participants whether their feelings about Russia and Russian politics have changed since 2014, and if so, in which direction? We asked them what they think about the war and how they see the future of Crimea and their own.

Despite the fact that half of them expressed fears about speaking their true minds in the face of New censorship laws in Russiawe were still able to capture their growing negativity and dissatisfaction with Russian politics and the Russian President – a dramatic change from just eight years ago.

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

They often referred to their former lives under Ukrainian rule, their relatives still living in Ukraine and now facing shelling, displacement, food shortages and humanitarian crises. “I have family in Kherson and it’s heartbreaking to talk to them on the phone, their life has become a nightmare,” said a Simferopol resident.

Amid the horror of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many we spoke to blamed it on Putin – an attitude that goes against the prevailing trend in mainland Russia, which has only recently emerged opinion poll shows popular support for the war. While these Kremlin-related polls suffer from obvious credibility issues, a recent one is opinion poll Research conducted by a group of independent research organizations came to strikingly similar conclusions.

Our interlocutors in the Crimea saw the picture differently. For them, the 2018 high-tech security fence on the border between Crimea and Ukraine is now an enduring symbol of broken ties, friendships and families.

A majority of them expressed grave concern that Putin is determined to continue the struggle, even as the Kremlin has had to scale back its ambitions and switch from quickly conquering most of the country to a grueling struggle for Donbass in the east. And to escape the growing global impact of economic isolation and the high likelihood of the war lasting, a third of our respondents plan to move to Europe in the coming months.

“The official position of [the] The Crimean government, as reported by our local deputies, is that Russia will take over the southern regions of Ukraine in order to create a safe land corridor to Crimea and Transnistria,” said one of the interviewees.

“That means the war will continue [a] long time. It’s not a short story, and it’s worrying.” Amid broken ties and families, Crimea's views on Russia are beginning to change - POLITICO

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