Russia’s third celebration of Crimea's takeover got the media attention once again, with some experts warning that the euphoria over Crimea might end sooner and later.

Unidentified gunmen wearing camouflage uniforms blocked the entrance of the Crimean Parliament building, with a poster reading "Crimea Russia" in Simferopol, Crimea, on March 1, 2014. Photo: AP

Last week Russia celebrated the third anniversary of Crimea's takeover, while the EU condemned the Kremlin’s “annexation” of the Black Sea territory as a “direct challenge to international security.” The statement came from EU Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini one day before the official celebration of the anniversary.

“The European Union remains firmly committed to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Mogherini said. "It does not recognize and continues to condemn this violation of international law.”

Likewise, despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s plans to improve relations with Moscow, Washington made it clear that it won’t lift sanctions on Russia unless the Kremlin returns the peninsula back to Ukraine, according to AFP, a news agency.

Also read: "Two years after Crimea's takeover, no signs of reconciliation"

“Crimea is a part of Ukraine,” U.S. State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said in the Mar. 16 statement. “The United States again condemns the Russian occupation of Crimea and calls for its immediate end. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine.”

The takeover of the peninsula resulted in the sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union and the U.S. In fact, this incident exacerbated the dormant problems in Russia-West relations and turned into harsh confrontation. Moscow’s role in the Ukranian civil war aggravated the problem. Although the opposing sides reached the so-called Minsk Agreements under the mediating role of Germany and France (the agreements were supposed to resolve the conflict diplomatically), they failed to come up with a compromise and alleviate the tensions.  

Before retaking Crimea, in the early March of 2014, Russia orchestrated a referendum shortly after seizing the key government building, launching large-scale media campaign and secretly deploying its troops on the peninsula (also known as “little green men” and “polite people”). In fact, the Kremlin conducted the poll to legitimize “the incorporation”, even though Ukraine and the West saw the referendum as illegitimate in its nature, because it contradicted the Ukrainian constitution.

Furthermore, the Kremlin is reported to have neglected the opinion of Crimean Tatars, a national minority on the peninsula. Regardless of this fact, Moscow confidently said that the referendum represented the will of the people and was peaceful in its nature.

Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly highlighted that Russia's operation in Crimea didn't lead to bloodshed. But, at the same time, he passed over in silence the fact that Crimea's takeover finally led to the Donbas war, which claimed thousands of lives. To quote the 2016 UN report on the human rights situation in Ukraine, almost 10,000 people had been killed between April 2014 and December 2016, with about 23,000 people injured.

Is the accession to Russia a game-changer for Crimea? 

However, Moscow's official position is crystal clear. "Sooner or later Kiev will start to treat the will expressed by the several million Crimean residents with respect and will accept the results [of the 2014 referendum],” the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters during the anniversary, as quoted by Radio Free Europe/Liberty.

Recommended: "Why the Kremlin has faced troubles to integrate the Crimean Tatars"

Even though there is no unanimity in Crimea about the impact of the peninsula's accession to Russia, the locals seem to be happy despite the persisting economic challenges. "We've returned home, we're again in Russia. Our children are growing up without war," a resident of Simferopol, the city in Crimea, told Russia Beyond The Headlines (RBTH), an English-language media outlet.

Nevertheless, according to an alternative narrative, far from improving, the life on the Crimean peninsula gets even worse, with the Kremlin-backed authorities have been reportedly violating the rights of the ethnic minorities — Crimean Tatars, who don’t support Moscow.  

According to Vladimir Garnachuk, the former aid to the peninsula’s vice-premier, the Crimean people fought against the system imposed by Ukraine, but today this system is coming back in a much tougher edition, with persisting corruption and human rights abuses. Crimean people have not enjoyed better living standards since they became the citizens of Russia. Instead of developing, Crimea is falling behind, he said.

“One should clearly understand that Crimea in 2014 and Crimea in 2017 are different,” he told Dozhd TV, an independent television channel. “The problem is that those ideals that were defended in March 2014 have been betrayed.”

Likewise, some people in Crimea seem to have been disappointed. "Ukraine never took care of it, but Russia is also not taking caring of it," said Russian language teacher Yulia Minaeva in an interview to RBTH. "At least, they started repairing the road that connects the airport with the city."

Is Crimea still a source of national pride for Russians?

However, ordinary Russians are still feelling a sort of euphoria over Crimea’s annexation. According to a recent public opinion poll of the Levada Center, Crimea’s takeover is the second most important event in the Russian history, following the victory in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War. While 43 percent of respondents believe that “Crimea’s return to Russia” inspires the feeling of national pride, 83 percent vote for the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Moreover, Crimea outpaced Russia’s achievements in the space exploration, with 41 percent voted for the latter. This is a remarkable shift, given the fact that "the space exploration" has been second, at least until 2017.

According to some Russian sociologists, Crimea is the manifestation of a surge of Russian nationalism, with the flavor of imperial renaissance. “Russians boasted that they finally returned to the status of a great power and forced the rest of the world to respect us,” Lev Gudkov, the director of the Moscow-based Levada Center, told Russia Direct in an August interview in 2016.

On Mar. 18, the Russian authorities organized the large-scale rally and concert, dedicated to the third anniversary of Crimea’s "incorporation" near Lomonosov Moscow State University. According to the police, it brought together 150 thousand people. At first glance, it indicates that most Russians are indeed supporting Crimea’s takeover. However, if one pays closer attention to the nuances and details, which the authorities pass over, the situation will be more complicated, with Russians (at least those living in Moscow and St. Petersburg) being not unanimous in their support of the Kremlin’s moves in Crimea.

The Riga-based Meduza, a Russian-language independent media outlet, published a reportage from the Mar. 18 rally and found out that the authorities paid 300 rubles (about $5) to volunteers for participating in the meeting, implying that many attendees came to celebrate “the return of Crimea” not because of their patriotism. Meduza’s undercover correspondent received the money from the rally's organizers after she spent several hours at the meeting.

Also read: "Understanding the context of the Kremlin's post-Crimean ideology"

As indicated by the interviews with the participants, they attended the rally because they needed money, not because of politics or their national pride for Crimea. In fact, many of them made no bones about their political apathy, indifference toward Crimea and mercantile interests.

“I came here not to defend ideas, but to get money,” one of the participants told Meduza. “I see it as a job.”

The situation is complicated by the fact that Lomonosov Moscow State University’s leadership and its students were against organizing the rally on the territory of the University. They tried to protest and, moreover, signed an online petition to the authorities to return the territory of the University under its legitimate control. The initiators of the petition, which has brought together more than 3, 500 signatures by Mar. 20, made it clear that “the University should stay out of politics.” However, the authorities seems to have ignored their demand and staged the rally.

Expert commentary
Alexey Levinson, social research director at Levada Center:

The number of Russians who support Crimea’s accession has not changed [since Russia retook the peninsula in 2014]. And this figure — 82-84 percent — turns out to have been more stable than the ranking of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, which also depends on Crimea (now the president’s ranking is about 81 percent, yet previously it reached 89 percent). … And this is despite the fact that the living standards have been decreased for the last two years.

And everybody is ready accept this as a matter of fact, yet the mantra “Crimea is Ours” is still a very important factor. Some [experts] express fears that sooner or later the Crimea effect will come to an end and the authorities will have to offer an alternative that could mobilize the nation. It seems to me that such logic is dangerous and fallacious. The population got a high — yet what’s next, what is to be done with those who united [under to the Crimea agenda] to maintain their euphoria? It is not going to be easy.

That’s why today it is necessary to think over of how to live without such doping. And this question should be addressed not only to the authorities [the Kremlin] that don’t know how to respond to it, but also to the country’s [political and intellectual] elites to offer new ideas to the society — what is to be done?     

In this regard, Russia would better build the national state with all its attributes. This is the state that lives for its own sake, but not for the sake of foreign policy goals. And we are not accustomed to it. We need to learn of how to care about ourselves first and foremost.  

This commentary is based on a video interview with Levinson to Vedomosti newspaper. It has been edited and condensed by Russia Direct’s editorial team. Watch the original video here.