At a formal ceremony which took place in Moscow on 18 March 2014, President Vladimir Putin declared Crimea and Sevastopol to be Russian again following a controversial referendum held on the Crimean Peninsula on 16 March 2014. This momentous occasion, brought about by an illegal annexation of Crimea (to Western and Ukrainian eyes), and still hotly disputed today, is described in Sevastopol’s Wars. Crimea from Potemkin to Putin (due to be published on 20 April 2017):
… Crimean and Sevastopol leaders were invited to the Kremlin to sign a treaty of accession. In his speech to State Duma deputies, Federation Council members, heads of Russian regions and civil society representatives, President Putin declared that the referendum had been held ‘in full compliance with democratic procedures and international norms’. He justified the unification on several grounds, not least emotional:
In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia. This firm conviction is based on truth and justice and was passed from generation to generation, over time, under any circumstances, despite all the dramatic changes our country went through during the entire 20th century.
Putin questioned the legitimacy of the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, observing:
The decision was made behind the scenes. Naturally, in a totalitarian state nobody bothered to ask the citizens of Crimea and Sevastopol. They were faced with the fact. People, of course, wondered why all of a sudden Crimea became part of Ukraine. But on the whole – and we must state this clearly, we all know it – this decision was treated as a formality of sorts because the territory was transferred within the boundaries of a single state. Back then, it was impossible to imagine that Ukraine and Russia may split up and become two separate states.
President Putin further justified Sevastopol and Crimea as being Russian on historical and patriotic grounds:
Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride …The graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian Empire are also in Crimea… Sevastopol – a legendary city with an outstanding story, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of the Black Sea Fleet – [is] dear to our hearts, symbolizing Russian military glory and outstanding valour.
Sevastopol’s Wars critically examines these claims, and many other issues for that matter, concerning the history – both that long past and the more recent – of Crimea and its maritime bastion, the city and naval base of Sevastopol.
In 2014, the majority of international opinion did not accept President Putin’s views and actions. As I observe in my book, ‘By a very clear margin (100 states for to eleven against, with fifty-eight abstentions), the United Nations General Assembly rejected the unification in its session on 27 March 2014’. But I also offer the opinion that ‘notwithstanding considerable doubts as to the legitimacy, legality and results of the referendum, it would appear that a majority of the people of both Sevastopol and Crimea who voted was in favour of the union with Russia’. While its is fair to say that Russians living in Crimea today do not consider themselves as having been ‘annexed’, other populations, not least the Tatars, may have other views.