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Six years and $20 billion in Russian investment later, Crimeans are happy with Russian annexation

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2020-03-18 Gerard Toal, John O’Loughlin, Kristin M. Bakke
a man riding a skateboard down the side view mirror of a car: People attend a demonstration of military equipment and hardware on the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, on Feb. 23. © Alexey Pavlishak/Reuters People attend a demonstration of military equipment and hardware on the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, on Feb. 23.

Wednesday is the sixth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. After a hastily organized and deeply contentious referendum on March 16, 2014, following Russia’s military occupation of the peninsula, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty of accession with Crimean leaders in Moscow two days later. 

An avalanche of international criticism followed. Analysts pointed out that this was the first annexation by one state of the territory of a neighboring state on the European continent since World War II. In the United Nations, 100 countries condemned the unauthorized referendum and affirmed their support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

In Crimea itself, the annexation was popular, especially among Crimea’s large population of older ethnic Russians. More than five years later, and billions of rubles of investment later, it remains popular. Here’s what we found from surveys in December 2014 and December 2019.

Crimeans favored rejoining Russia

The conditions under which the March 2014 referendum in Crimea was conducted were far from ideal. Yet, most observers acknowledge that the majority, though certainly not all, of Crimeans supported the peninsula joining Russia (Russia’s government bans use of the word “annexation” to describe these events).

Numerous polls supported this conclusion. In December 2014, the Levada Center, Russia’s most reliable polling company, conducted a survey for us in Crimea that affirmed these findings. Our analysis of these survey results used the term “Crimea conundrum” to describe the disjuncture between the legitimacy of Crimea’s new status to most of its residents and its illegitimacy within the international community.

In 2020, after an estimated $20 billion (CAD$30 billion) in investment from Moscow and alignment with Russian infrastructure, have attitudes toward the annexation changed? The short answer is no. Crimea’s three largest ethnic groups are, by and in large, happy with the direction of events on the peninsula.

The December 2019 representative survey, also conducted by Levada, repeated many questions we asked five years earlier. Thus, we asked again about support for the annexation (we used “joining Russia” — a more neutral term) and how much people trusted specific political leaders.

Here’s what we found: Support for joining Russia remains very high (86 percent in 2014 and 82 percent in 2019) — and is especially high among ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. A key change since 2014 has been a significant increase in support by Tatars, a Turkic Muslim population that makes up about 12 percent of the Crimean population. In 2014, only 39 percent of this group viewed joining Russia as a positive move, but this figure rose to 58 percent in 2019.

While Tatars still tend to be more negative about the Russian annexation than other nationalities, this growth is noteworthy, and we can track the more positive outlook among Tatars in other questions about expectations for the future and views on how Crimea has changed since 2014.

Tatars have been the focus of U.S. and Western complaints about human rights abuses on the peninsula, both by local authorities and by Moscow. At the same time, a growing acceptance of the new political reality matched with rising expectations of a more prosperous future appears to underlie the changing numbers that we see for this important minority population.

a screenshot of a cell phone: How do Crimeans feel about joining Russia? We surveyed 752 people in Crimea in 2014 and 826 in 2019 – in both surveys, the overwhelming majority approved of the 2014 incorporation of Crimea into Russia. Source: Prepared by authors using data from our 2014 and 2019 Levada-administered polls. How do Crimeans feel about joining Russia? We surveyed 752 people in Crimea in 2014 and 826 in 2019 – in both surveys, the overwhelming majority approved of the 2014 incorporation of Crimea into Russia. Source: Prepared by authors using data from our 2014 and 2019 Levada-administered polls.

Which leaders do Crimeans trust?

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump told George Stephanopoulos of ABC that “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.” Trump’s critics charged him with using Vladimir Putin’s talking points. Yet Trump, in this instance, was broadly correct.

Crimeans, however, have little love for Trump — they show higher levels of trust in China’s leadership than they do in the U.S. president. As the figure below shows, only 3 percent said that they had a “lot of trust in President Trump” and only 12 percent went so far as “a little trust.” Three-quarters of the sample had “no trust at all” in Trump.

What about Putin? Crimea’s trust in Putin, as might be expected, swamps those of external political leaders. This figure is down almost 20 percent from the 2014 figure for the highest support — the “trust a lot” bar, but these levels correspond to Putin’s overall support in Russia.

We did not name the Chinese leader in the survey, since pilot surveys showed a very low level of name recognition for Xi Jinping. These results show a high level of unfamiliarity about his government, with nearly 20 percent giving a “don’t know” answer and 41 percent declaring “no trust at all” for the Chinese government.

a screenshot of a cell phone: Who do Crimeans trust most? In 2019, Crimeans had considerable trust in Vladimir Putin, and relatively little trust in Donald Trump or the Chinese government. Source: Prepared by authors, using data from our Levada-administered poll in December 2019. Who do Crimeans trust most? In 2019, Crimeans had considerable trust in Vladimir Putin, and relatively little trust in Donald Trump or the Chinese government. Source: Prepared by authors, using data from our Levada-administered poll in December 2019.

The Baltic analogy

Crimea’s annexation remains an outrage to most Euro-Atlantic states, though sentiments are clearly different on the political far right. But even Russia’s fiercest critics recognize, though they rarely express it publicly, that Crimea is not going to return to Ukraine any time soon.

The analogy these critics use is that of the Baltic States, whose occupation and incorporation into the Soviet Union was something the U.S. government never formally recognized. While this analogy resonates with the U.S.’s deep story of the Cold War as nations held captive by an evil empire, its vision of Crimea as “occupied territory” is out-of-sync with the material and attitudinal realities of contemporary Crimea.

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Gerard Toal, professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Tech’s campus in Arlington, is the author of “Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest for Ukraine and the Caucasus” (Oxford University Press, 2019), which won the ENMISA Distinguished Book Award in 2019.

John O’Loughlin, college professor of distinction at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is a political geographer with research interests in the human outcomes of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa and in the geopolitical orientations of people in post-Soviet states.

Kristin M. Bakke is a professor of political science and international relations at University College London and associate research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Her current research focuses on postwar state-building and wartime legacies, as well as geopolitical orientations in post-Soviet states.

The authors acknowledge funding for this work from a joint National Science Foundation/Research Council UK grant (NSF award #1759645; ESRC award # ES/S005919/1).

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