Putin’s Holy Grail: Myth, Power, And the Retaking Of Russian-Occupied Crimea – Analysis
By Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute
By Olga Khvostunova*
(FPRI) — Following weeks of Kyiv’s warnings about an upcoming counteroffensive, Russian troops in Crimea are reportedly bracingfor a possible attack. This development takes place despite the West’s reluctance to offer military assistance to Ukraine amidst concerns that its attempt at retaking Crimea would be a crossing of the red line for Vladimir Putin, who attachesgreat importance to the peninsula. The worst-case scenario would be for Putin to resort to the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine, which some Russian officials implied he could do. While some observers caution that the nuclear threat is real because the annexation of Crimea is the Russian president’s “crowning achievement,” others argue that it is not, since Putin was given a clear indication that the United States would strike back with a much more powerful response.
Ukraine’s plan also goes against the Pentagon’s estimate that Kyiv is unlikely to take back Crimea in the near future. According to Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, “for this year, it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces [from all of] Russian-occupied Ukraine,” although, he added, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
Until recently, the Biden administration refused to supply Ukraine with offensive weapons to target Crimea. In private, the Biden administration may now be reconsidering its hard-line position. While Kyiv’s rationale for retaking Crimea is that it would not be able to withstand years of war with Russia and therefore needs to use a narrow opportunity for a counteroffensive now, their US counterparts see the move’s value in creating the perception among Russians that the peninsula is at risk, thus giving Ukraine leverage in future negotiations.
But how important is Crimea really for Russia? Why does Putin seem to draw a red line there? Understanding the peninsula’s value is crucial for calculating future risk. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, this question has been addressed many times, but most analyses tend to focus on its strategic and geopolitical advantages (e.g., the city of Sevastopol as a naval base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet) or link it to Putin’s imperial ambitions (e.g., reclaiming former territories of the Soviet Union and its predecessor, the Russian Empire).
Yet, two important points are often overlooked. For Putin, the return of Crimea to Russia secured his place in history, as he understands it. For the Russian people, it symbolized the restoration of historical justice and return of Russian greatness, which was largely lost in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse.
In that sense, Crimea’s value lies in its symbolism and its place in Russian national myths. Crimea is Putin’s Holy Grail, which is why it is the perfect target for Ukraine: its loss could fatally wound the Putin regime. But the retaking of Crimea could also threaten Russia’s insecure national identity, potentially turning the conflict from a “special military operation” into a “people’s war.”
The Crimea Effect
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the Russian people responded with patriotic euphoria. This so-called “Crimea effect” is a unique phenomenon in Russian public opinion. Nine years after the annexation, despite sanctions and an aggressive war against Ukraine, Russian public support for this decision remains largely unchanged in both independent(carried out by Levada) and state-controlled polls—never dropping below 84 percent. When asked about reasons for their support, 65 percent of the respondents (the highest number) say they believe that Crimea is historically a Russian territory, and 22 percent add that the majority of Crimea’s population are Russians. Only 7 percent point out that Crimea “is not ours.”
Since the annexation, about three-quarters of the respondents consistently say that “Crimea joining Russia” was useful for them and the country. For instance, Russians pointed out that the main Crimea benefits are: a new tourist destination (24 percent), a secured naval base (18 percent), a restored territorial integrity for Russia (9 percent), an expanded territory for Russia (7 percent), and a return of the Russian-speaking population to their homeland (7 percent).
These attitudes might appear strange to a Western observer, but they are not surprising. For instance, back in May 1998, 77 percent of Russians said that they wished Crimea would be “returned to Russia.” In the following years, this view only strengthened: 80 percent supported it in 2002, and 85 percent supported it in 2008. In other words, support for retaking Crimea has been a long-term trend predating Putin, and the Russian president’s 2014 move to illegally occupy the peninsula amidst the political crisis in Ukraine, which had been incited by Moscow, was largely aligned with Russian public opinion.
The Myths of Crimea
The significance of Crimea for ordinary Russians is partially related to the symbols of both the Soviet and Russian imperial past. Levada’s polls have shown that people often associate Crimea with a prestigious Soviet seaside resort, the glory of Soviet weapons, and the base of the Black Sea Fleet. But historians point to a deeper layer of the public consciousness that harbors foundational myths of the Russian national identity.
According to Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy, in the Soviet period, the Russian national identity, which had emerged during the imperial times and imagined Russian superiority over other nations of the multinational empire, was fused with the Soviet institutions and their symbols. As a result, when the Soviet Union collapsed, not only did many Russians find themselves in the newly independent states, but Russia discovered that many of its identity symbols were now outside its borders. The city of Narva ended up in Estonia, the cities of Poltava and Sevastopol in Ukraine, the Brest Fortress in Belarus, and the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The profound feeling of national humiliation that many Russians experienced in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s bankruptcy was exacerbated by these losses.
The need for the renewal of national identity was acknowledged by independent Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin, who called for the search of a national idea in 1996. But it was Putin who identified patriotism as a national idea and imposed it from the top. Putin managed to present himself as an “embodiment of the shared national identity” by manipulating people’s emotions about the post-Soviet humiliation, appealing to the Soviet identity symbols, and fostering fervent patriotism through propaganda and an aggressive foreign policy. The “return of Crimea” in 2014 secured, “in the eyes of the Russian citizens, their insecure national identity.” As a result, Crimea has emerged as a symbol that united imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet constructs of the Russian national identity. It had an emotional effect of making whole something that had been broken. It appealed to people as a restoration of historical justice, which was also essentially a restoration of Russian greatness.
These two motives—the restoration of historical justice and Russian greatness—can be seen in other myths related to Crimea. One is that Soviet Secretary General Nikita Khrushchev unfairly transferred Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. The reasons for the transfer are debated: one version of the myth holds that it was a “gift” to Ukraine to mark the 300th anniversary of the Pereiaslav Agreement (the decision by the Cossack army to submit to the Russian rule); another that it was Khrushchev’s appeasement for the Stalin repressions against Ukraine.
A more rational explanation could be that it was a technical and not unprecedented decision to optimize public administration, which had little bearing within the Soviet Union. After the Soviet collapse, however, it was politicized by Russian nationalists and picked up by the nostalgic population. But there was nothing “unjust” about Khrushchev’s Crimea transfer per se. It should be seen as even less unjust given the fact that at the 1991 referendum, 54 percent of the Crimean residents voted to be part of independent Ukraine, with the turnout at 67.5 percent in the region.
Another myth regarding Crimea is that it is a historically Russian land. But facts, again, tell a more complicated story. In ancient times, Crimea was inhabited by the indigenous people of Tauri; it was later colonized by the Greeks, and, after a period of turbulence, the Crimean Khanate that had formed on the peninsula, was absorbed by the Osman Empire. The Khanate was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1784 following a victory in the Russo-Turkish War. Overall, throughout its long history, Crimea was part of Russia for only 150 years, which makes the argument of “historically Russian land” weak and questionable.
Finally, there are myths related to the heroic defenses of Sevastopol and the strategic value of the Black Sea Fleet. The first defense of Sevastopol (1854–1855) had a great emotional effect on the nation during imperial times and was consequently glorified in Russian literature. Heroism as it was demonstrated by the Sevastopol defenders, including admirals Pavel Nakhimov and Mikhail Istomin, who entered the Russian military pantheon, became embedded in the national identity. But it is a particular kind of heroism—mixed with a tragic feeling of sacrifice and loss. Some of the most well-known battles in Russian history ended in defeat despite the heroism of the participants (e.g., Borodino in the Napoleonic Wars or the siege of Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War). In fact, both heroic defenses of Sevastopol (the other one took place in 1941–1942 during World War II), resulted in Russian troops’ retreat.
The myth of the Black Sea Fleet has two historical connotations. The original sail fleet was established along with the city of Sevastopol immediately after the annexation of the Crimean Khanate by the Russian Empire. However, following the events of the 1917 October Revolution and the Russian civil war, a large portion of the fleet’s ships joined the White Army forces under Gen. Pyotr Wrangel and sailed to Tunisia, where they were eventually destroyed. And yet, despite the fleet’s professed strategic significance, the Soviet Union survived without it.
The second component of the myth emerged in Soviet times. Most of the ships of the current Black Sea Fleet were built in the 1960s, amidst the great-power rivalry of the Cold War. After the Soviet collapse, the fleet was divided between Russia and Ukraine. Negotiations were difficult, and the resulting agreements were seen as unfair by Russian nationalist forces (this view has become mainstream under Putin) since Moscow failed to secure all of the ships, equipment, and infrastructure. Reversing this “injustice” was one of the proclaimed objectives of Russia’s retaking of Crimea. Today, nine years after the annexation, the Soviet ships still constitute the core of the fleet, and many are in desperate need of modernization. The myth of the glorious Black Sea Fleet is further undermined by the fact that, in 2022, Ukraine successfully targeted its ships, delivering a particularly humiliating blow by hitting its flagship, Moskva, resulting in its sinking.
Moreover, Ukrainian military experts estimate that the Black Sea Fleet plays the role of an “operational, not a strategic formation,” as opposed to the Northern and Pacific Fleets, which are more important strategically. This view is clearly not shared by the Russian Navy officers, some of whom see the Black Sea Fleet as a crucial geopolitical instrument for defending Russia’s interests in the Crimea region—a zone of active rivalry between Russia and various foreign powers for over a thousand years. Echoing this grand vision, the Russian media maintain the image of the Black Sea Fleet as a “living, breathing thing.” Ironically, the Russian authorities seem to care about the symbolism of the Black Sea Fleet more than they do about thousands of human beings that are being sacrificed in Ukraine for the sake of abstract concepts of geopolitics, revanchism, and military glory.
Putin the Historian
The annexation of Crimea had a strong effect not only on the Russian public, but on the Russian president as well: Putin’s approval rating soared from 72 percent to 88 percent in one month, and this “boost” faded only in 2018 due to the unpopular pension reform. Yet, Putin knew he could afford it because he had secured a special place in history—something he had sought for a long time. The problem is not only that Putin’s understanding of Russian history is also distorted by myths, but that the Crimea effect made him believe in his historic mission.
Putin’s favorite subject in school was history, but for a while, this personal interest was not evident in his policies. In 2008, when Putin served as prime minister, following two presidential terms, he had a conversation about history with Alexei Venediktov, then editor-in-chief of the liberal Echo of Moscow radio station and a long-term observer of Russian politics. Putin asked him what future history textbooks would say about his presidency (Venediktov had previously been a history teacher at a Moscow school). Venediktov responded that perhaps Putin’s efforts to reunite the Russian Orthodox Church would get a mention, to which the Russian president responded, with surprise: “Is that all?” Fast forward to 2014, Putin asked Venediktov again: “What about now?” The veteran journalist, who thought that the annexation was illegal, tried to make a joke: “Now, they will call you ‘Putin the Crimean.’” Putin laughed, seemingly pleased with the answer.
In his 2018 book, Venediktov further intimated that Putin had been long concerned with his role in world history. But it was after the Crimea annexation that Putin truly believed that a historic mission was entrusted to him—whether it is uniting the “Russian World,” raising Russia from the knees, collecting former Russian territories, or something else. Moreover, according to Venediktov, Putin believes that no matter how it looks—illegal or dishonest—the “return of Crimea” to Russia was just, because Crimea is historically Russian land, and, therefore, he simply restored historical justice.
In his 2014 address on Crimea’s “return,” Putin heavily appealed to history, as he saw it, when he laid out his vision: “in Crimea, literally everything is permeated with our history and pride.” Putin added that “Crimea is a unique fusion of cultures and traditions, and in this way it is so similar to Russia,” and “Crimea in the hearts and minds of people has been and remains an integral part of Russia.” Finally, he insisted that “in 1991, Crimea was handed over [to Ukraine] like a sack of potatoes,” because Russia “was in such a difficult condition that it could not protect its interests.” This interpretation of history resonated strongly with the Russian public.
After Crimea, Putin’s flirting with history has become a cross-cutting theme in his private meetings and then in public statements. His historical revisionism was likely fully shaped by 2017–2018, as shown by the amount of scholarship on the subject. Russia’s heroic role in World War II has become a pervasive fixture of his worldview—the role that, in his opinion, the current Western leaders were trying to downplay in their attempts to rewrite history. Another theme that appeared later is the revival of the imperial construct of the three-partite brotherly peoples—Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian—with Russian people being the elder brother to the other two. This view is not only antiquated but simply wrong in today’s realities. Yet, in the personalist centralized authoritarian regime built by Putin, his vision remains unchallenged and is further propelled and amplified to the Russian public through a powerful propaganda machine.
In his more than two decades in power, Putin wrote numerous articles focusing on political, social, and economic issues. But most recently, he penned three articles that venture deeply into history. The topics are telling: “75th Anniversary of the Great Victory: Shared Responsibility to History and our Future” (2020), “Being Open, Despite the Past” (2021, published in Die Zeit to mark the 80th anniversary of the WWII), and “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” (2021). The latter article was especially controversial, triggering fierce debates among Russian, Ukrainian, and Western historians, most of whom identified various distortions, biases, and factual mistakes in the text. At the time, only a few observers could foresee that Putin was not simply speculating about history but rather laying out his revisionist case to take over all of Ukraine.
Reclaiming Putin’s Holy Grail
Before he ordered a full-blown invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the annexation of Crimea was Putin’s “most consequential” decision. Perhaps it was Putin’s bitterness with the West, his distorted and biased view of history, his fundamental misunderstanding of Ukraine, or some other factor that caused him to push for a full-fledged war. By doing so, Putin inadvertently destroyed another myth of Russian national identity, one that envisions Russia as the “country that won against fascism.” Under this myth, Russia is not an aggressor but rather the country that has always had to defend itself against foreign invaders. It is an increasingly hard task for the Kremlin propaganda to defend and justify military aggression as a pre-emptive attack or as a necessary step in fighting against fascism in Ukraine.
The consequences of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in 2022 are likely to be catastrophic for Russia in the long term. It is also likely that, given the great symbolic value of Crimea for both the Putin regime and the Russian public, Ukraine’s plan to retake the peninsula is a sharp and sober choice, as it goes after Putin’s most precious possession, his Holy Grail, that he believes earned him a place in history and restored Russian greatness. Ukraine’s retaking Crimea would strip his regime of both achievements and render it weak and inadequate, as it would undermine some of the fundamental myths of the Russian national identity that Putin grew to embody. Russia’s defeat in Crimea would be not just a defeat, but a humiliation.
Ukraine seems to understand this well. Earlier in April, a plan for Crimea’s “de-occupation” was unveiled, including renaming Sevastopol, the so-called “city of Russian glory,” into “Object No. 6” until the Ukrainian parliament can choose another name. This detail would add an insult to the injury of Russia losing Crimea.
The problem is that since Putin now embodies Russian national identity and articulates its core myths, his personal humiliation would also signify a national humiliation, and such events can lead to undesirable outcomes, including the hardening of the resolve in the Russian army, mass mobilization, and rallying around the flag. For months, the Kremlin has tried to rehash the so-called “special military operation” as a people’s war, but the majority of Russians remained unimpressed. Losing Crimea, especially in a humiliating defeat, might change that. If history is any indication, Russia is capable of a powerful comeback. And, considering how much Putin’s safety depends on the survival of his regime, one can assume that the Russian president will fight hard for its preservation.
While targeting Crimea as part of Ukraine’s counteroffensive can bring powerful dividends, it would be wise for Western policymakers to carefully weigh all the potential risks—not only nuclear or military risks but also undesirable side effects for the Russian domestic situation.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
*About the author: Olga Khvostunova is a Fellow in the Eurasia Program. She is a journalist, researcher, and political analyst. She holds a PhD from the Moscow State University’s School of Journalism and is a coauthor of Media and Politics (2007) and Media in Changing Russia (2010). She has worked at the Institute of Modern Russia since 2011.
Source: This article was published by FPRI