Behind the scenes

How life in Crimea changed under Russian rule

The 2014 annexation provides insights about potential impact of future invasions of Ukraine

The advance of Russian troops into separatist-held parts of eastern Ukraine on so-called “peace-keeping duties” has fuelled fears of an imminent repeat of the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Moscow’s escalation has triggered economic sanctions by the UK, US and EU members, and came after Vladimir Putin signed decrees recognising the independence of the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. In an hour-long speech last night, the Russian president raged against Kyiv’s growing security ties with the West and claimed his nation had been “robbed” during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, told an emergency meeting of the Security Council that Russian recognition of the separatist regions was “clearly the basis for Russia's attempt to create a pretext for a further invasion of Ukraine”.

Eight years after the annexation of Crimea, the biggest land-grab in Europe since the Second World War, the peninsula remains caught in the middle of a battle between Kyiv and the Kremlin. So how did daily life change for the 2.4m Crimean residents under Russian rule – and what might their situation reveal about what may lie ahead for the people of Donetsk, Luhansk and other regions with a similarly precarious status?

Economy and banking

Following the annexation in March 2014, Russia forced all Ukrainian banks in the region to close, leaving thousands of people without access to their savings, salaries and pensions. Russia claimed to have allocated 30bn roubles in compensation for affected people.

But The New York Times correspondent Neil MacFarquhar told National Public Radio (NPR) four months later that online banking, credit cards and ATMs was still out of action, because “the Ukrainian banks have been all shut down and the Russian banks aren’t operating”.

Reuters reported in November 2014 that the economic turmoil resulting from the conflict had “shuttered” businesses and “complicated life for thousands, forcing people to deal with a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to try to get their money returned”.

Two years later, the news agency reported that “residents say prices have soared, wages and pensions have stagnated and tourists have fled”.

Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, said in article published by the Brookings Institution think tank in 2020 that the economic picture remained “mixed”. 

On the positive side, Moscow had “poured in more than $10bn in direct subsidies” and funded major infrastructure projects, including the highway and bridges linking Crimea directly to Russia, in the hope of creating a “success story”, he wrote.

But small businesses had struggled, both as a result of the decline in tourism to the region and the economic and other sanctions imposed on Crimea by the West. “It is probably fair to say that the reality of the economic situation today falls short of what many in Crimea expected, or hoped for, with Russia’s annexation,” added Pifer. 

Electricity 

Crimea suffered power supply problems for years after the annexation – a “stark reminder” that when Putin decided to invade Crimea in 2014, “he was not just courting international outcry but also taking on huge practical problems about how to sustain a peninsula that is physically cut off from Russia”, said Reuters.

In response to the annexation, the Ukrainian government said it would reduce electricity supplies to Crimea, and threatened to cut off the region altogether due to its own power shortages resulting from the conflict with Russian rebels in the east. 

In 2015, The Guardian reported that the people of Crimea were “learning to live with thawing fridges, pitch-dark highways and shuttered schools”, after Ukranian militants began attacking the power lines feeding the region.

In 2018, the region suffered another mass power outage, during which “phone lines were down, traffic lights stopped working and trolley buses halted in their tracks”, said The Moscow Times.  

Tourism

National Geographic magazine once described the Crimean Peninsula as “a diamond suspended from the south coast of Ukraine”, and listed the region as one of the world's top destinations. Before the conflict, tourism accounted for about a quarter of Crimea’s economy, with Ukrainian, Russian and Western visitors flooding in, along with passengers on luxury cruises. 

But fighting had a devastating impact on Crimea’s tourism sector, which was also impacted by the introduction of a Russian visa entry requirement. Under Ukrainian law, it had been relatively easier to travel to the region, as US and EU nationals did not require a visa to enter Crimea.

But the 2014 annexation “marked a drastic shift in the peninsula’s tourism landscape as it had to reorient itself towards the Russian market”, reported Reuters in 2020. 

Time

Another major change experienced by Crimea residents was that their time zone. In March 2014, the Crimean peninsula officially changed its time zone to align with Moscow’s, putting it two or three hours ahead of Ukraine (depending on the time of year). 

While the shift was largely symbolic, Crimean newspaper Krymskaya Gazeta warned at the time that the move could result in “health problems such as sleep disorder, apathy, depression and possible changes to the endocrine system”.

Tension and ‘perpetual confusion’

New York Times journalist MacFarquhar told NPR back in 2014 that “a state of perpetual confusion” was being felt across all sectors of society in Crimea. 

“Nobody knows what law to use in the courts,” he said. “Virtually any aspect of life you pick, people aren’t really sure what Russian law is or what to apply.” 

Tensions were also reported among citizens, as patriotic Russians living side-by-side with proud Ukrainians each remained equally convinced that the land belonged to their nation.

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