Losing its grip

A decade on from its illegal annexation of Crimea, Russia’s hold on the peninsula looks increasingly shaky

Losing its grip

A man mounts a Soviet flag on an observation deck overlooking the Crimean Bridge on the anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Photo: EPA-EFE / STRINGER

It is now 10 years since Russia illegally annexed Crimea on 18 March 2014. Subsequent efforts to firmly integrate the peninsula into the Russian Federation, however, have been far from the success story that the Kremlin often likes to tell.

In fact, comparing the increasingly shaky grip that Moscow has on the peninsula today with the situation before the annexation would suggest that Russia’s strategic position has actually worsened over the past decade.

The Crimean Bridge connecting the peninsula and the Russian mainland opened to much fanfare in 2018 with Russian President Vladimir Putin driving a truck across it. It has become a symbol not only of the Russian occupation of Crimea, but also of Ukrainian resistance. Spectacular Ukrainian attacks in October 2022 and July 2023 exposed the tenuousness of Russia’s connection to the peninsula.

Not only that, but repeated missile and drone attacks on Russian installations on the peninsula and partisan activity in Crimea have further heightened the sense of Russian vulnerability.

Black Sea successes

Most significant of all, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has suffered significant losses over the past two years. As a result of these Ukrainian successes, the Kremlin decided to relocate the Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol, in Crimea, to Novorossiysk on the Russian mainland. Compare that with the situation prior to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 when Russia had a secure lease on the naval base of Sevastopol until 2042.

Moreover, the Turkish closure of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles shortly after the start of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 means that Russia can no longer freely move war ships in and out of the Black Sea. This makes losses, like those of the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship cruiser Moskva in April 2022, and, more recently, the patrol boat Sergey Kotov and the amphibian landing ship Caesar Kunikov, even more of a strategic blow to Russian capabilities.

These attacks also have a significant symbolic value for Ukraine and its allies. While the 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive on the mainland failed to deliver on expectations, Kyiv’s deft deployment of air and sea drones and of longer-range missiles ensured its remarkable change of fortune in the Black Sea. This was underlined recently when the Kremlin removed its second commander of the Black Sea Fleet since the invasion of Ukraine.

Momentum around Crimea clearly seems to be on Ukraine’s side. Earlier this month, Ukrainian intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov signalled that a major operation aimed at further loosening Russia’s grip on Crimea was imminent.

Apart from the strategic military and symbolic value of these Ukrainian successes, there is also a clear economic benefit. After Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea grain initiative brokered by Turkey and the United Nations, the fact that Moscow lost naval superiority in the Black Sea enabled Kyiv to establish its own shipping corridor.

This now carries key Ukrainian agricultural exports to global markets at levels exceeding those during the period when the grain deal was actually in operation.

Russian angst

This is overall undeniably good news at a time when there are many grim assessments of Ukraine’s prospects in this illegal Russian war. The renewed and arguably more optimistic focus on Ukraine was also obvious in recent comments by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Recognising the strategic importance of the peninsula, including for the security of EU members such as Romania and Bulgaria with their own Black Sea coastlines, Macron insisted that restoring Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea was essential for lasting peace in the region.

This contrasts sharply with a move by lawmakers in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, who introduced a draft bill on 11 March that seeks to annul the transfer of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine by former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.

A concert on Red Square marking the 10th anniversary of Crimea's “reunification” with Russia, 18 March 2024. Photo: SERGEY ILNITSKY

A concert on Red Square marking the 10th anniversary of Crimea's “reunification” with Russia, 18 March 2024. Photo: SERGEY ILNITSKY

It is not clear what effect, if any, such a law would have on the international legal status of Crimea as part of sovereign Ukrainian territory. But it suggests a degree of nervousness in Moscow regarding its grip on the peninsula.

This does not mean, however, that Russia is in any imminent danger of losing Crimea, let alone of losing the war that it has illegally fought against Ukraine both overtly and covertly for a decade now. The importance of Crimea in this war was established long before the beginning of Moscow’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

And Putin and his proxies have threatened the use of nuclear weapons on more than one occasion if Russian were in danger of being forced out of Ukraine. These threats may be overblown, but they indicate the level of determination with which Moscow is committed to holding onto Crimea.

Ukrainian efforts have clearly demonstrated, however, that Putin’s personal commitment may not be enough to secure Russia’s hold forever. Kyiv’s western partners would do well to keep that in mind amid the increasing gloom over the trajectory of the war.

This article was first published by The Conversation. Views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of Novaya Gazeta Europe

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