By Ann Wright
Most Americans don’t have a clue what has happened in a place called Crimea, in fact, they don’t even know where it is. But, Crimea’s location has made it one of the most frequent battlegrounds of empires—and today is no exception.
A few may remember Crimea through Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” about the deaths of almost 600 British soldiers during the 1854 Crimean War as they walked into an ambush immortalized in the infamous words of war…
“Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred…
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.”
Most don’t remember that in 1941, the Nazi had a 250-day siege of one of Crimea’s cities-Sevastopol in which 26,000 were killed, 50,000 wounded and 95,000 taken prisoner. Ultimately, with the defeat of Germany, the Soviet Union regained control of Crimea. Stalin deported 180,000 in 48 hours-a large part of the Crimean population, Crimean Tatars and others- to Central Asia and the over the years Crimea was repopulated with ethnic Russians. The Soviet government assigned Crimea to the Republic of Ukraine in 1954.
Now, Crimea is in the world’s focus with its 2014 people’s referendum following the coup against the elected government of the Ukraine which brought to power a right wing nationalist government supported by the US. United States involvement in the overthrow of the elected government and its aftermath can be traced through the phone call intercepted by Russian government communications spy facilities between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, US Ambassador to the Ukraine. In no uncertain terms, with her now infamous phrase “Fuck the EU,” Nuland castigated the EU’s lack of efforts to support the Maidan Square events that were leading to the coup. The referendum and annexation are considered as against international law by the US, EU or United Nations.
Despite a U.S. government travel advisory against visiting Crimea, our delegation of 20 persons including 19 Americans and one Singaporean went to see for ourselves what had happened there and to speak with as many persons as we could. Ours was the first international delegation to visit the Crimea from the United States in over two years. Organized through the Center for Citizen Initiatives, our delegation met with government officials, business people, veterans of World War II and the Soviet-Afghan war, students and Crimean Tatars. We spoke with people who voted for reunification with Russia and some who did not.
80 percent of the population of Crimea went to the polls and 97 percent of them voted to “reunite” with Russia. The Russian Federation formally annexed Crimea six days after the vote. Russia’s southern naval fleet is located in Crimea and Russia gave as its rationale for annexing Crimea, the national security necessity to protect the port and fleet from anti-Russian forces.
On December 19, 2014 both United States and the European Union placed sanctions on Russia…and specifically on Crimea. The EU sanctions prohibited investment in Crimea, infrastructure assistance to Russian oil and gas exploration in the Black Sea, and certain tourist activities in Crimea. The U.S. sanctions prohibited new investments in Crimea; the import and export of goods, technology and services from or to Crimea; and the purchase of real estate in Crimea and blocked certain individuals from coming to the U.S.
The sanctions have been successful in destroying the tourism business in Crimea. Most visitors have come to Crimea by cruise ships from Turkey and Greece through the Bosphorus Straits into the Black Sea to the ports of Yalta or Sevastopol. Annually, over 260 cruise ships dock in Crimea, but for the past two years none have arrived, thereby decimating the international tourist industry. However, travel by Russian citizens to Crimea has increased.
Before the referendum, international visitors could fly to Crimea directly from Europe. However under the EU sanctions, European airlines no longer fly into Crimea. International visitors can fly into Crimea only from Russian cities.
Sanctions on use of international credit cards and on cellphone technologies were some of the most striking aspects of the sanctions for daily life in Crimea. Now, two years later, some international credit cards will work in Crimea, but I-phone and other cellphone services are spotty. Interestingly, these type of sanctions were not aimed at Russia itself, but just Crimea-to teach the citizens of Crimea a lesson, they told us.
Travel for citizens of Crimea is more difficult as they must obtain a Russian Federation passport. Individuals said it is more difficult to travel with a Russian passport and particularly from Crimea.
After the referendum, the interim Ukrainian government cut off electric power to Crimea and several electric transmission stations were blown up forcing businesses and families to get generators. Russia eventually provided a massive electric power grid bringing electricity into Crimea from Russia. Russia is also constructing a $3.2 billion, 19-kilometer (11.8 miles) bridge that will connect Crimea directly with Russia.
For its part, the US government cancelled its programs formally available to people in Crimea when it was a part of the Ukraine. Peace Corps volunteers were removed from Crimea and school construction projects by US military units were canceled. US funded professional exchange programs ended as did US agricultural and law enforcement projects. Some with whom we spoke regretted the loss of contact with the United States and its programs, particularly its exchange programs. One educator lamented the difficulty in finding exchange programs for high school and college students in the Crimea to live and learn in the United States. Graduates of universities in Crimea are finding that some educational institutions outside of Russia are no longer recognizing their diplomas and certificates because of the sanctions.
Educators said they do not want to be isolated from the world. They asked that our delegation assist in finding professional and educational exchanges with educational institutions and civic organizations in the United States.
One local official expressed great concern about the negative reaction of the international community to the decision of Crimeans to reunite with Russia and the lack of criticism for the overthrow of the elected government of the Ukraine.
She believed that without the overthrow of the elected Ukrainian government, there never would’ve been a referendum in Crimea and a subsequent annexation by Russia. She asked, “Why isn’t the international community focusing on the overthrow?”