Crimea: Six years after illegal annexation

Russia’s seizure of Crimea is the biggest land-grab in Europe since World War II. It has caused considerable damage to Europe’s post-Cold War security order.


Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution ended in late February 2014, when President Victor Yanukovych fled Kyiv. The Ukrainian parliament made clear its intention to draw Ukraine closer to Europe.

Almost immediately, armed men in Russian uniforms began occupying key facilities on the Crimean peninsula. The Ukrainian military presence in Crimea held their fire. If shooting began, Kyiv wanted the world to see the Russians fire first.

Within a month, Russian troops had occupied the entire Crimean peninsula. The Crimean Supreme Council scheduled a public referendum. Citizens were asked to vote to join Russia or to return to Crimea’s 1992 constitution, which gave the peninsula significant autonomy. There was no choice to vote for Crimea remaining part of Ukraine under the current constitution.

In the referendum, 96.7 percent voted to join Russia. Yet the results of the referendum raised the suspicions of rigged voting.

On March 18, Crimean and Russian officials signed the Treaty of Accession of the Republic of Crimea to Russia. Putin ratified the treaty three days later.


Moscow maintains a historical claim to Crimea. The Russians colonized Crimea during the reign of Catherine the Great. The major port of Sevastopol was built as the homeport for the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Following the establishment of the Soviet Union, Crimea was a part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic until 1954, when it was transferred administratively to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

In 2014 Crimea had an ethnic Russian majority of about 60 percent — the only part of Ukraine where ethnic Russians constituted the majority. On the other hand, when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, the newly independent states recognized one another in their then-existing borders. Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine violated many existing agreements.

Domestic politics may have provided one motive behind Putin’s decision to seize Crimea. He based his reelection bid in 2012 on Russian nationalism. Taking over Crimea in a quick and relatively bloodless operation was a popular step.

Source: Crimea: Six years after illegal annexation
Copyright 2023 The Brookings Institution

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