Vladimir Putin's 'Crimea effect' ebbs away 5 years on

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Vladimir Putin's approval ratings shot up. Five years later, this euphoria has given way to disillusionment and presented society with a real dilemma.

Five years ago, heavily armed pro-Russian fighters in green uniforms without insignia took control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. Several weeks later, on March 16, 2014, Russia's government held a highly controversial referendum asking the local population whether it wanted Crimea to become part of Russia or remain in Ukraine. Almost 97 percent of the electorate voted for Crimea to join Russia.

Most countries, however, did not recognize the referendum. Two days after the vote, a treaty was signed over Crimea's accession to Russia. Moscow refers to this as Crimea's "reunification" with Russia, while Ukraine and many other countries dismiss this move as a violation of international law. They say Russia annexed the peninsula.

Read more: Ukraine to ditch Russian friendship treaty amid tensions

Crimea affair boosts Putin's approval ratings

Crimea's controversial accession to Russia bolstered Russian President Vladimir Putin's domestic standing, boosting his approval ratings from 60 to over 80 percent. Russian experts called this the "Crimea effect." Nikolay Petrov of Moscow's Higher School of Economics says a wave of euphoria swept over the country. "Back in 2014, people felt anything was possible and everything was allowed," adding that Russians were excited about their nation's return to greatness. He says this let "Russians forget their worries."

Konstantin Gaase of the Carnegie Moscow Center believes this "Crimea effect" was a unique phenomenon that cannot be compared to any other event in Russian history. He thinks that "any attempt to emulate this effect would fail." And that this effect "was more than just propaganda, the Crimea affair allowed many to express things they had never dared to say before."

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DW News | 10.12.2018

Everyday tensions at the Crimean Bridge

2014 euphoria is history

Alexey Titov of the committee of civil society initiatives differentiates between two kinds of groups who supported Putin's actions in Crimea back in 2014. "One group was fascinated by the armed conflict, and harbored radical views like completely breaking with the West," he told DW. The other group, according to Titov, was more careful and pragmatic about the Crimea affair. And today has mixed feelings about Putin.

Today, the "Crimea effect" is history. This became clear in the summer of 2018, when Putin announced that Russia's pension system would be reformed and the retirement age raised, causing his approval ratings to plummet. Today, only about 64 percent of Russians say they are satisfied with the president. 

Though experts say disillusionment grew much earlier. "The number of Russians who thought the sanctions [imposed by the US and the EU] were harming their country started increasing in late 2014," says Titov. Many Russians were shocked when authorities publicly destroyed food stuff in 2015 that had been brought into the country illegally. While many still supported Moscow's foreign policy, they also realized that the situation at home was becoming increasingly dire.

Read more: Despite EU sanctions, hotel rooms available in Crimea

Russia officially claims Crimea

Ukraine overshadows EU summit

At the EU's spring summit, Europe's leaders are deciding on further sanctions against Russia. Ahead of the two-day meeting, which began on Thursday (20.03.2014), the EU heads of state and government announced the cancelation of the next EU-Russia summit, as a punitive measure against Russia's actions in Crimea.

Russia officially claims Crimea

Military control

Russia is expanding its military power on the Black Sea peninsula. On Wednesday (19.03.2014), pro-Russian forces brought a number of Ukrainian military bases under their control - such as in the port city of Sevastopol, where this picture was taken.

Russia officially claims Crimea

Constitutional approach

As Russian troops advanced on the Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoe, Russia's Constitutional Court declared the treaty to annex Crimea to the Russian Federation to be constitutional. President Vladimir Putin signed the document, which has not been internationally recognized, on Tuesday (18.03.2014), and it has since been ratified by the Duma.

Russia officially claims Crimea

Wordless retreat

"Russian soldiers came and demanded that we leave the base," said a Ukrainian army official, as quoted by news agencies. In this photo, an officer leaves the Ukrainian navy base at Novoozerne. Ukraine wants to bring its troops back from Crimea, but said it plans to put its military on full combat readiness.

Russia officially claims Crimea

Striking performance

In his speech to the Russian Federation Council and the deputies of the Duma, against the magnificent backdrop of the Grand Kremlin Palace on Tuesday, Putin referred to Crimea as an "inseparable part" of Russia and accused the West of crossing a "red line" in Ukraine.

Russia officially claims Crimea

Fast track to annexation

No sooner said than done: In a ceremony at the Kremlin, Putin signed off on Crimea's accession treaty. Seen here are the Russian president (second from right), Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov (left), Vladimir Konstantinov, speaker of the Crimean parliament (second from left) and Alexei Chaly, the mayor of Sevastopol (right).

Russia officially claims Crimea

Joyful anticipation

As Ukrainian soldiers and their families leave the Crimean peninsula, others are welcoming the accession to Russia. "I am sure that our lives will be better," said a pro-Russian resident of Sevastopol.

Russia officially claims Crimea

Cheers for annexation

Hundreds of people in Crimea greeted Vladimir Putin's speech announcing the annexation with enthusiasm - some watching on large screens, as seen here in Simferopol. More than 90 percent of Crimea's residents voted in the referendum on Sunday (16.03.2014) in support of closer ties with Russia.

Russia officially claims Crimea

Popular president

Putin's inroads in Crimea have been popular with many Russians. After his speech to the nation, hundreds of thousands of followers gathered in several Russian cities to celebrate their president's appearance and Crimea's annexation.

Russia officially claims Crimea

Fighters of the Maidan

Activists are still gathering on the Maidan, Kyiv's Independence Square, the scene of the months-long struggle against the regime of Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych. They have not given up hope, even on the day after Crimea's secession from Ukraine seemed certain.

Russia officially claims Crimea

Moving closer to Europe

A few months ago, demonstrators from this pro-Europe group met on the Maidan to call for a referendum on joining Ukraine to the European Union. At the EU summit on March 21 this goal came one step closer, as a part of the association agreement with Ukraine was signed.

Nobody is talking about Crimea

Today, a sense of disappointment and frustration pervades the country. And the Kremlin has not yet found a way of boosting approval ratings. One thing that could change things, meanwhile, would be taking an uncompromising stance on corruption. Which is what Singapore and China have done, says Titov. But "Russia's current leadership will not go through with this for a number of reasons, which is why they go after small fry like governors or mayors instead," he told DW

There is no more public debate over whether Crimea truly belongs to Ukraine or Russia. Even though back in 2014 most Russians did not really question the annexation of the peninsula, either. Konstantin Gaase says that now, "even the Russian opposition has stopped talking about Crimea." And one of the most vocal critics at the time, Boris Nemtsov, was murdered in 2015.

But Gaase says Crimea "remains a major problem for international law." It is to be expected that the peninsula will pose a problem for Russian society and its rulers in decades to come.

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