Ukraine and the Crimea Question

When the United States invaded Iraq, they were hoping to be greeted as liberators. In a similar vein, the current discourse suggests that if Ukraine uses its military to successfully liberate Crimea, Crimeans will greet Ukrainians as liberators. The West that currently supports Ukraine has to make a decision on whether to support Ukraine in retaking Crimea. Understanding what’s likely going to happen in Crimea should Ukraine reconquer Crimea is vital to making good decisions.

Girard talks about how society uses scapegoating to assign the blame to one individual to end conflicts with other people. The Western media likes to scapegoat Putin because it is an easy way to relate to the conflict without having to understand anything about the underlying circumstances. In both 2014 and in 2022 Putin increased his approval rating by > +15% by ordering his military into Ukraine. If those conflicts just exist because Putin is crazy, it wouldn’t push his approval that much. That’s slightly more than the growth in approval that George Bush got when he started the Iraq war.

You could argue that George Bush only got this bump in approval because of the propaganda of the United States government and the willingness of the United States media to uncritically broadcast that propaganda. By the same token the Russian media also uncritically broadcasts their state propaganda that makes the population happier about going to war.

Unfortunately, it’s true that government propaganda makes citizens approve of war when they shouldn’t. War creates a lot of suffering and it would be great if nations would be more cautious about starting them. On the other hand, it shows that wars are often not just fought because the person at the top wants to fight the war. Many actors take part in a complex system that increases presidential approval at the start of a war.

How much fascism is there in Ukraine?

To understand the current conflicts, it’s vital to understand what the Russian discourse means when it talks about Nazis. Crimeans largely consume Russian media and their views are shaped by the Russian discourse. It’s both useful to understand what they think and what’s objectively happening.

Unfortunately, the current Western discourse isn’t very truth-seeking. Twitter censored a journalist who posted a collage out of photos obtained either from mainstream reporting or from primary sources — NATO’s official Twitter account, Tarrant’s manifesto, and Ukraine’s foreign ministry — because the collage focused on the Nazi symbols on those pictures.

While the main channels of our information landscape are filtered for propaganda, our free press still allows Western outlets to take all positions and publish their views freely, which allows us to inform ourselves if we actually search for sources. Many of the sources I use for this article are from Western human rights organizations and anti-fascist organizations.

To understand how Russia reacted in 2014 on the eve of the Maidan revolution, it’s worth looking at their position from 2008 as summarized by a confidential US Embassy cable (that we can access thanks to Wikileaks):

3. (U) Lavrov emphasized that Russia was convinced that enlargement was not based on security reasons, but was a legacy of the Cold War. He disputed arguments that NATO was an appropriate mechanism for helping to strengthen democratic governments. He said that Russia understood that NATO was in search of a new mission, but there was a growing tendency for new members to do and say whatever they wanted simply because they were under the NATO umbrella (e.g. attempts of some new member countries to “rewrite history and glorify fascists”).

The Second World War

In the Nüremberg trials, we decided that one aspect of our global democratic culture is that those who engaged in the Holocaust and mass murdered Jews and other groups were war criminals even if their excuse was that they followed orders. Attempts to rewrite history and glorify fascists go both against our general Western consensus and against the desires of Russia, so we could agree that if that happens that’s bad.

One argument made, about why Russia’s claims of far-right influence in Ukraine are overblown, is that far-right parties don’t have much influence because they have relatively poor electoral results. In 2014, Svoboda achieved 4.7% and the Right Sector 1.7%. In the 2019 election, their results were also quite underwhelming. In 2019, Svoboda, who ran in alliance with the Right Sector, only achieved 2.25%. While it’s good that Ukraine’s far-right got few votes, the term “far-right” is relative to the local political spectrum. It’s worth noting that ideologically liberal parties Democratic Alliance or Syla Liudei are even weaker, and that the parties in Ukraine’s parliament are mainly non-ideological.

According to the British Foreign Policy Centre:

Moreover, the ideological tradition of Ukrainian liberalism is underdeveloped and many of self-declared Ukrainian liberals are simply moderate nationalists in the crucial historical and language questions of Ukrainian national identity.

To understand what happened in Ukraine in the last decade, we have to look back at what happened during the Second World War.

In anticipation of the German invasion in May 1941, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists’ preparations included instructions for ethnic cleansing to its planned militia units; the instructions specified that “Russians, Poles, Jews” were hostile to the Ukrainian nation and were to be “destroyed in battle”. Stepan Bandera was at a time a leader of the faction of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists in Kyiv where Ukrainian nationalists together with German death squads committed pogroms.

In 1943, after the battle of Stalingrad, it was clear that the tides in World War II turned. The Bandera wing of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and part of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army decided to engage in the ethnic cleansing of Poles in Volhynia to have an ethnically pure Ukraine. According to Polish historians, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army killed around 100,000 Polish victims. Poland repeatedly demanded that Ukraine acknowledge the ethnic cleansing, but Ukraine refuses to do so in an official capacity.

Decommunization laws

In 2015, the Ukrainian parliament Rada voted for a series of five laws they called decommunization laws. One of those laws gives the historical Ukrainian archives to Volodymyr Viatrovych (over objections from the Union of Archivists of Ukraine), who worked to paint the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and Ukrainian Insurgent Army as Ukrainian folk heroes. According to Jeffrey Burds, a professor of Russian and Soviet history at Northeastern University, his staff has a history of falsifying historical documents.

One of the laws calls for the demolishing of communist monuments, which is deeply unpopular in the regions with more native Russian speakers: according to a March 2015 survey in Kharkiv, only 11% supported the demolition while in Odesa it’s 18%. Given that Crimea has even more ethnic Russians, such demolitions would likely be even more unpopular in Crimea.

The justification of Volodymyr Viatrovych, who co-sponsored the laws, as described by AlJazeera is “Soviet influence on the country was the reason Russian President Vladimir Putin was able to gain a foothold in the country, and the laws were needed to undo this”. This is an interesting way to acknowledge that Russia didn’t just get Ukrainian territory because of the Russian military, but because a decent amount of the population in those areas welcomed the Russian occupation.

The laws declared among other Stepan Bandera, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army to be national heroes who aren’t allowed to be insulted. From my German perspective, where we consider the Holocaust as one of the worst episodes of the 20th century, declaring people who participated in the Holocaust to be national heroes who shall not be criticized feels deeply wrong. It’s also easy to see how this validates the belief that Kyiv is ruled by people who are quite fascist in the areas with a large Russian minority.

Trying to use government power to force a minority to change their views is bad, and in multiethnic states more likely to inflame the conflict than to make the minority just accept the views of the ethnic majority. If Biden would propose a Federal law that would call for the destruction of all monuments of leaders of the Confederacy, this would likely inflame partisan tensions in the United States and there’s also a good chance that the courts would find it unconstitutional because it infringes on the rights of the states. Decisions about which monuments to tear down aren’t well made at the federal level when the goal is to have multiple groups live in harmony together.

Education reform of 2017

In 2017, the Ukrainian Rada passed a law to reform its system of education. Part of the law is about general changes to the education system, such as teaching children for 12 instead of 11 years to be more in line with European standards. openDemocracy describes the effects of the law on Russian speakers as:

From the fifth grade on [… ] In Russian-language schools, all subjects apart from Russian language and literature (and in certain cases, connected subjects such as Russian cultural history) will be taught in Ukrainian.

FreedomHouse described the law by saying:

Mandating rather than simply encouraging Ukrainian-language schooling represents a swerve toward ethnic nationalism, and away from European allies.


Rather than using a “stick” approach to force ethnic minorities into the Ukrainian fold, lawmakers and supporters of the Ukrainian language could instead dangle a “carrot,” incentivizing minorities—through scholarships or community language courses, for example—to learn Ukrainian in a manner that gets results but does not hamper minorities’ cultural development or needlessly provoke resistance.

Right-wing ethnonationalism seems to me the best explanation for Ukrainians needlessly creating both internal conflicts that alienate internal minorities and conflicts with Europeans, at a time when Ukraine wants European support.

Street militia

Out of the Azov movement in 2017, the street militia National Militia was formed with the stated aim of assisting law enforcement and making street patrols. The group stormed a city council meeting in the central Ukrainian town of Cherkasy, forcing them to pass a new budget.

Ukrainian militias are rarely punished for acts of violence. After an attack on a remembrance gathering for two murdered journalists by C14, police detained the peaceful demonstrators instead of the attackers. Ukraine’s Ministry of Youth and Sports provided some funding for C14 to promote “national patriotic education projects”.

In 2018, Reuters wrote:

In an ideal world, President Petro Poroshenko would purge the police and the interior ministry of far-right sympathizers, including Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who has close ties to Azov leader Andriy Biletsky, as well as Sergei Korotkykh, an Azov veteran who is now a high-ranking police official. But Poroshenko would risk major repercussions if he did so; Avakov is his chief political rival, and the ministry he runs controls the police, the National Guard and several former militias.

Later Nikita Makeev, who wasn’t a Ukrainian at the time but a Russian, was part of a group that attacked the motorcade of former president Petro Poroshenko. After the attack, President Zelensky decided to give Makeev Ukrainian citizenship because he was an Azov veteran. In the United States, anybody who attacked the motorcade of a former president likely wouldn’t leave prison for a long time, and rewarding them by giving them citizenship would be unthinkable no matter what other desirable things they did.

In 2020, FreedomHouse wrote:

Violence and intimidation by far-right groups has taken place with near-total impunity, as Ukrainian law enforcement has rarely taken meaningful action to hold perpetrators accountable in recent years. This is primarily due to a lack of political will among policymakers and the Ukrainian public to take a stand on this issue in the context of the ongoing war. This failure of political will is complex and stems from many sources, ranging from genuine popular support for these groups as defenders of threatened Ukrainian identity, to powerful interest groups who stand to gain from the thriving industry of far-right thuggery.

According to the British Foreign Policy Centre:

The far right has also been the harshest critics of the Minsk Accords with Russia and Donbass separatists. They also strongly opposed any reconciliatory dialogue or even tolerance to the voices sceptical about or hostile to the official pro-Maidan narrative about 2013-14 events, which comprise a significant proportion of the public even in the governmental-controlled territories.

This essentially prevented the government in Kyiv from implementing the Minsk agreements and coming to peace with Russia before the 2022 invasion.

One example of this happened in 2015 when the Rada wanted to pass a law giving the separatist regions in the east more autonomy which was one of the points of the Minsk agreements. In an attack on the parliament, a Ukrainian soldier died from gunshot wounds, and 100 others were injured by a grenade blast. The law died.

Liberal projects such as the International Women’s March have been repeatedly attacked with violence. In 2018, Vitalina Koval, who organized events on International Women’s Day, suffered chemical burns to her eyes in an attack.

By using street militia, the far-right has power that goes beyond its parliamentary representation and should be frightening for any minority whose opinions differ from those of the far-right.

Crimea referendum and public opinion

If we believe that Russia might have manipulated the counting of the referendum, the straightforward way to get a sense of what the Crimeans think is to look at polling data.

In the article Challenging annexation: in Crimea, the referendum, openDemocracy makes the case that Crimeans likely didn’t want annexation. The article argues:

In fact, an opinion poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology between February 8 to 18, 2014 (during the peak of the Maidan revolution in Ukraine) showed that in Crimea, public support for joining Russia was 41%.

According to Wikipedia, the Maidan revolution was from February 18 to 23. In Wikipedia’s recounting on February 22, police withdrew from central Kyiv, which as a result came under the effective control of the protesters.

On the eve of the referendum, FiveThirtyEight reported that the director of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology didn’t think that polling history meant much. He also hesitated to poll Crimeans about the referendum because doing so could seem to legitimate it, a position at odds with Ukraine’s government.

The Right Sector is an organization that sees itself in the tradition of the guerrilla Ukrainian Insurgent Army from the 40s. On 19 January, the Right Sector encouraged its members to bring bottles to the protests to produce Molotov cocktails and bombs. The BBC describes their role by saying:

Activists claiming to be Right Sector members were involved in Kiev’s Maidan protests from late November, but the group did not attract much attention until violent clashes with police in central Kiev on 19 January, in which it played a leading role.

By early February Mr Yarosh was saying the Right Sector had 500 fighters on Independence Square and could mobilise up to 5,000 nationwide, although close observers of the protests doubt this.


Some far-right activists interviewed by the BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse in Kiev in early March made it clear that they wanted a Ukraine “just for Ukrainians”.

On February 23 the parliament voted to remove President Yanukovych when there weren’t any police to protect them. Yanukovych alleged that this vote was illegal and possibly coerced, and asked Russia for help. If the US capitol police would have withdrawn from the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and the Senate would have voted to affirm Trump to be president, it’s unlikely that we would consider that vote to be legitimate.

To me, it seems straightforward that such a vote would drastically change the view of the Crimean population toward the value of seceding from Ukraine and being part of Russia. As an example of how the justification looked, Reuters recounts that a person at the voting booth said:

Vasilyeva voiced fears common among some of Ukraine’s native Russian speakers about the consequences of Yanukovich’s exit after protests in which over 100 people were killed. “We want to leave Ukraine because Ukrainians told us that we are people of a lower kind. How can you stay in such a country?” she said.

Beyond the result of the referendum that might be faked, we have opinion polls that were made after the referendum. In June 2014, a Gallup poll found that 71.3% of Crimeans saw the role of Russia in the crisis as mostly positive while only 8.8% saw it as mostly negative. In contrast, only 35.7% of people in eastern Ukraine believed that Russia’s involvement was mostly positive.

82.8% of Crimeans saw the referendum as likely reflecting the views of most people in Crimea, while only 6.7% disagreed. 59.3% of ethnic Ukrainians and 83.5% of ethnic Russians in Crimea believed that Crimea’s becoming part of Russia will make life better for them and their family.

In February 2015, German polling firm GfK did another poll. When they asked Crimeans “Do you endorse Russia’s annexation of Crimea?” 82% said “yes, definitely” and another 11% said “yes, for the most part”.

By March, openDemocracy also commissioned a poll and came around to believing that the annexation enjoys the widespread support of the peninsula’s inhabitants. Given that openDemocracy updated their view and has a good idea of how likely a poll is trustworthy, I consider their switch good evidence, that the polls that suggest Crimean approval of the referendum are valid.

When pollsters asked again in 2017 in Crimea, 86% of non-Crimean Tatars say they would expect the same result in a repeat referendum, while 52 percent of the surveyed Crimean Tatars would also expect the same result. This is against the backdrop of a worsened economic situation.

A big part of why the economic situation in Crimea worsened is that Western nations sanctioned Crimea strongly after the annexation. The sanctions of the United States toward Crimea has similar to those against Iran, Sudan, Syria, and North Korea. Punishing Crimeans for voting for the annexation feels morally wrong to me. There’s no good moral reason to sanction Crimea more strongly than the rest of Russia unless one believes that punishing Crimeans for their vote is more important than punishing Moscow.

Retaking Crimea

If Ukraine would retake Crimea, it would likely require waging war in the territory that kills civilians, and that destroys houses and infrastructure. From the war Ukraine is waging the current way, we already know that Ukraine does not prioritize avoiding civilian harm. Given that Crimea’s accepted the referendum, they would likely hold Ukrainians responsible for that harm.

Together with a project of stopping the majority of native Russians from having their children taught Russian and the tear down of monuments in the spirit of the 2015 law, Crimeans are likely to be very unhappy about being under Ukrainian governance. Very likely, that will lead to continued armed resistance. The only way to face that armed resistance from the Ukrainian side would be to let armed militias deal with it. That would likely involve a lot of violence against Crimeans and make them even less happy about being under Ukrainian governance.


The fight of Ukraine against Russia is not one with clear lines between good and evil. Both sides commit harm in countless ways and don’t value Western norms of the protection of minority rights or having a political landscape that’s free of violent coercion.

Crimeans deserve to live happy lives and a peace agreement that settles the current conflict and that respects the referendum of 2014 according to the wishes of Crimeans while removing the sanctions against Crimea, would be what’s best for Crimeans.

The ability to give up Crimea means also having room to negotiate in a way that allows Putin to come to the table to end the war. This means we could negotiate a peace deal that would end the current risk of nuclear war. If we focus our rhetoric on the desires of Crimeans, we could do the deal in a way that wouldn’t set a precedent for landgrabs of territory where the local population doesn’t want to be under Russian control, like in the Balkans.