(A map showing Crimea (in beige) and its proximity to both the Ukrainian mainland and Russia.)
We had boarded the bus that would transport us from the gates of Moscow’s Vnukovo airport to the plane waiting on the tarmac to fly us to Simferopol, Crimea, when a friendly blonde in her late 30’s asked us in accented English if we were from “The States”?
When we answered that we were, she told us she currently lived in Texas but was going to visit relatives in Crimea. As we chatted more and my travel mate and I explained our reason for going there – to see Crimea for ourselves and find out from the people living there what they thought about the Ukraine war and the peninsula’s reunification with Russia – it became apparent that this lady had a few things she wanted to get off her chest.
“You cannot separate Ukraine from Russia, there is too much culture and history together,” she said. Choking up on her words, she continued, “American people are good people – I have many friends in the U.S. – but their government leaders are not because they interfere too much in other places. I worry about Hillary [Clinton], you know. When [Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi was killed, she said ‘We came, we saw, he died. Ha ha.’ What kind of leader is that? Is she going to be the next president?”
She felt that, due to the violence on the Maidan and Washington’s interference in the form of Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland’s manipulations, Putin’s intervention in Crimea was correct: “Putin did the right thing for Crimea, he is a good leader.”
When we landed in Simferopol, it was clear that the small airport had been recently renovated as everything was clean and freshly painted. After haggling down the price to something reasonable with the proprietor of a taxi service, we loaded ourselves into a cab in which stale cigarette smoke hung thick in the air.
My travel mate, who spoke functional Russian, asked the driver what he thought about Crimea’s reunification with Russia. He replied in broken English, “Historically and ethnically we are Russian, so it is better to be with Russia than Ukraine.” He acknowledged, however, that there were still many problems to be addressed and it would take time, but with Russia they now had hope.
His sentiments would be echoed throughout our stay in Crimea. Tatyana, a professional tour guide from Yalta, told us the next day that, in terms of road repair and airport renovation, there had been more infrastructure investment in one year under Russian governance than there had been in all the 23 years with post-Soviet Ukraine.
Looking around Simferopol, more such investment would obviously be needed. The roads and buildings had not been sufficiently maintained and it gave the place an air of being run down. Alongside that, however, were parks and trees, roads filled with people in cars and packed mini-buses during commute hours, and parents walking on sidewalks clutching the hands of their small children. Everyone was dressed in the typical Western attire one would see in the U.S. and most young people fingered smart phones.
On the bus ride from Simferopol to Yalta, there were many small houses in various stages of disrepair and frozen construction. My travel mate, who had been going in and out of Russia since the 1980s, remarked that it looked like the Soviet era.
As we approached the Yalta coastline, however, the lush trees and sparkling blue water that reflected a sunlit sky, emerged from the mountainous journey, dissipating the gloom. We toured Livadia Palace, the seasonal home of the czars from Alexander II to Nicholas II. It was also the location of the famous Yalta Conference of 1945 where Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin met as WWII was winding down.
Afterwards, we walked down a lane littered with lovely and well-cared for “stray” cats that now took up residence on the grounds of the palace. Then we came to a small two-story restaurant where we had lunch with Tatyana, who articulated the feelings of many Crimeans about the Maidan protests that rocked Kiev in early 2014:
“No one asked us if we wanted to go along with Maidan. There are Russians as well as people who are a mix of Russian and Ukrainian here. We are not against Ukraine as many of us have relatives there, but Maidan was not simply a spontaneous protest. We are aware of the phone call with Victoria Nuland and [U.S. Ambassador] Geoffrey Pyatt, we saw the photos of her with [opposition leaders] Yatsenyuk, Tiagnibok [leader of Svoboda, the neo-fascist group that was condemned by the EU in 2012], and Klitschko on television. We saw the images of her handing out cookies to the protesters.”
We returned to Simferopol that evening and talked to a group of local small business entrepreneurs. They spoke of the many disruptions that the political upheaval with Ukraine and the subsequent reunification had caused. Kiev stopped paying salaries and pensions and even cut off electricity, which prompted Russia to provide generators to hospitals and other establishments where there were significant numbers of people in need.
In fact, Crimea had been dependent upon Ukraine for 70 percent of its power since reunification. Consequently, Russia is in the process of laying a power cable beneath the Kerch Strait from the Krasnodar region, which is now partially operational and will be fully operational by summer of 2016.
In the meantime, Russia had been paying Ukraine $211 million to supply Crimea with energy through the end of 2015. In what is perceived by many to be retaliation for seceding, Ukraine had seriously cut energy supplies to Crimea without notice numerous times throughout 2014 andraised prices by 15 percent. Similar issues with water supply have also been reported.
“Kiev claims they want us back, but then they alienate us even more with these kinds of actions,” said one of the entrepreneurs, shaking his head.
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