It’s often difficult to recall just how far the debate around the crisis in Ukraine has shifted over the course of the past eight months. War in eastern Ukraine, with all its accompanied tragedies, has dominated the narrative on the crisis. The recent spate of violence in and around Donetsk over the now smoldering international airport as well as the shelling of Mariupol and Kramatorsk has been the latest manifestation of months of shock and disappointment. In the wake of Russia’s ongoing war in the Donbas, the aggressive action that put Ukraine on the world map in first place, the annexation of Crimea in foreign press has all but fallen off the radar entirely. Perhaps that’s the point.
While many in Ukraine and elsewhere expressed hope that Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula might be quickly reversed through a combination of international pressure and negotiation, that time seems long passed. Crimea—officially incorporated into the Russian Federation despite its isolation and resistance from Crimean Tatars and others—does not represent grave security challenges for Ukraine at a time when the country’s future is very much in jeopardy.
While many Ukrainians have resigned themselves to the once unpalatable idea that Crimea might never return to Kyiv’s control, many more are holding out hope that the region might return even despite all the negative news in recent days. This is perhaps one of the most surprising findings of recent polls about Ukrainians’ views on the conflict in the country and the annexation of Crimea.
Recent polling conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) demonstrates that majority of the population is still holding out on the peninsula’s return, despite the despondence of many given the ongoing conflict. A majority of Ukrainians (55,5 percent) believe in the possibility of Crimea’s return in the event of external and internal political developments, including fighting the Russian Federation over the peninsula. Just over 21 percent of Ukrainian respondents to the survey stated that Crimea might freely return to Ukraine if the country successfully reforms and improves its political and economic situation. Another 16 percent believe that Ukraine might regain Crimea in the event of political and economic upheaval in the Russian Federation. Another 18,5 percent of Ukrainians polled believe that the Ukrainian government should fight for the peninsula. Less than one-fourth of Ukraine, 23,5 percent, say that Crimea is lost forever.
While a majority of Ukrainians believe that the Crimean peninsula might still return, these poll figures in part reflect both the realities of the current war in the east and the difference between Crimea and Donbas in the popular imagination. Russian military installations based on the Crimean peninsula, the inclusion of Crimea into Russia’s nuclear umbrella, and the broad support of the annexation by the Russian people, are all obstacles. While Crimea was illegally seized by Moscow at a moment of weakness in Ukraine, the fight over the eastern region of Donbas is seen as critical for the survival of Ukraine as a whole. So while a fourth of Ukrainians have taken a pessimistic approach, the more optimistic majority is the half that should be celebrated even in an environment of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
While Crimea shouldn’t take precedence over the Donbas in the ongoing struggle for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the peninsula hasn’t been and can’t be forgotten. Many Western politicians are already looking to normalize relations with Russia at the expense of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. It’s imperative that Ukrainian activists, former and current Crimea residents, and the broader public refuse to stay silent or cowed by Russia.