It was an unusually sunny November day in Sevastopol, Crimea. Perched behind a great podium, Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared to deliver his celebratory Unity Day remarks. Just three months before instigating a bloody war against Ukraine, Putin used this historic holiday to commemorate the reunification of Crimea, a peninsula in Ukraine’s Black Sea, with the Russian Federation.
“Our country has regained its historical unity,” proclaimed Putin. “They are with Russia forever now, as that is the sovereign, free and unbending will of the people, of all our people.”
Russian forces invaded Crimea in 2014 and compelled civilians to participate in a controversial referendum that would determine the future of the peninsula. Crimea’s sizable Russian population overwhelmingly voted to cede from Ukraine. But another unwilling community was forced to return to the clutches of Russia’s empire. They are known as the Crimean Tatars, an Indigenous Turkic minority group that has resisted Russian occupation in Crimea for many centuries.
Responding with minimal sanctions and a weak indictment of the illegal annexation, the international community practically stood by and watched as the Crimean Tatars were absorbed by Russia’s oppressive leadership.
And now more than ever, as Crimean Tatars are forced to fight as conscripted cannon fodder alongside Russian forces against their ally, Ukraine, it is crucial that their story be told.
CENTURIES OF OPPRESSION
The Crimean Tatars didn’t always constitute a minority of the peninsula’s population. The actions of the Russian empire, the Soviet Union, and Russia’s present leadership caused their numbers and political power to plummet. Before the Russian Empire seized Crimea in 1783, the Crimean Tatars accounted for 98% of the population. The empire’s periodic expulsions of Crimean Tatars didn’t end until the Russian Revolution’s conclusion in 1923, as the new Soviet government made a concerted effort to empower the local Tatar language and culture.
This period of relative peace for the Crimean Tatars imploded in April 1944, when Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin accused the Crimean Tatar people of collaborating with Nazi forces and deported the entire population to Central Asia. The accused Nazi collaborators included women, children, the elderly, and thousands of demobilized Crimean Tatar soldiers who fought for the Soviet Red Army.
Of the 180,000 deported Crimean Tatars, a whopping 46% died from disease and starvation during the hellish journey. In the wake of their sudden exile, Russian soldiers destroyed mosques, books, and other markers of Tatar and Muslim culture. While Crimean Tatars were brutally torn from the land they had lived in for several centuries, ethnic Russians poured into the empty peninsula. When Crimean Tatars returned some decades later around the time of the collapse of the Soviet state which had exiled them, they found themselves isolated in their Russified homeland.
Before the Russian Empire seized Crimea in 1783, the Crimean Tatars accounted for 98% of the population.
Still, the Crimean Tatars persisted. Thanks to Krushchev’s decision to gift the Ukrainian government the peninsula in 1954, they were able to rebuild their communities under a more tolerant leadership. This newfound stability proved to be temporary, as a tragic twist of fate injected chaos back into the peninsula.
In 2014, Putin demanded that the territory return to Russia. Arguing that the territory was Russia’s by right due to the empire’s colonial conquest of Crimea in the 18th century, Putin held a referendum to confirm the peninsula’s rightful ruler. Despite the referendum’s unbelievable 96% vote in favor of a Russian government, Ukrainian journalist Mykola Semena explained in an interview with Crimea Realities how Crimeans voted at gunpoint and were given little choice but to endorse a transition to Russian leadership. The Crimean Tatars were once again pushed further into minority status, as an estimated one million ethnic Russians poured into the peninsula after the annexation.
Back under the familiar shackles of an old enemy, Crimean Tatars have been disproportionately subjected to raids, nonstop surveillance, and crackdowns on their media. Any criticism of the occupying power results in trumped-up terrorism charges and swift trips to prison for the accused party or their family members.
CANNON FODDER IN PUTIN’S WAR WITH UKRAINE
In September 2022, Putin issued a partial mobilization order to rally fresh troops for his catastrophic war with Ukraine. Even though Crimean Tatars comprise roughly 15% of the Crimean population, “90% of conscription notices in Crimea were received by Crimean Tatars,” said analyst Yevgeny Yaroschenko in an interview with Crimea SOS. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy encourages those who are forcibly drafted to lay down their arms and surrender to Ukrainian forces. However, the battlefield position of Crimean Tatars makes this feat impossible to pull off.
Borys Babin, the former presidential representative of Ukraine in Crimea and an expert with the Association of Reintegration of Crimea, explained in an email that in an artillery war, “deaths and injuries happen in situations when troops do not see the enemy.” Because the Russian command is aware that “Crimean Tatars are not loyal to the ideas of the aggressor, they place such ‘mobilized’ units as ‘cannon fodder’ simply to die on positions.”
The legal ramifications for Russia’s forced mobilization and fatal placement of Crimean Tatar troops are severe. The fourth Geneva convention forbids occupying powers from forcing “protected persons to serve in its armed or auxiliary forces.” Russia has broken this convention at least 15 times since its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, by including the occupied Crimean Tatar population in its conscription campaigns.
Now in its war with Ukraine, Russia is ramping up its blatant disregard for international law. Babin included Association of Reintegration of Crimea’s official statement in his email, which indicates that the vast majority of conscripted Crimean Tatars “did not ‘sign contracts’ with the Russian army and ended up in the war against their will.” These illegal conscription campaigns demonstrate that Russia is committing a war crime and the deliberate placement of Crimean Tatar men along the most fatal segments of the frontlines provides a compelling case for genocide.
“THERE AREN’T ALARM BELLS GOING OFF”
Babin believes that the Crimean Tatar people don’t have a future under Russia’s violent discriminatory violent rule.
After a successful push into Kherson, Zelenskyy affirmed his intention to liberate all Russian occupied territories in Ukraine — including Crimea. But discourse on the strategic feasibility of a Ukrainian offensive in Crimea is hotly contested since some of Washington’s foreign policy analysts see Crimea as a bargaining chip to entice Russia towards negotiations.
Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and author of the book “The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide To Putin’s Conquest,” outlined the unique risks involved in retaking the peninsula. “You enter Crimea; it is according to various estimates 67% ethnic Russians. They will support the Russian army the way the Ukrainian people are supporting the Ukrainian army, in Ukrainian territories,” he said. “I don’t think even NATO has the stomach for supporting a Ukrainian offensive against Crimea.” Moreover, Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev, a former Russian president and close ally to Putin, stated in a meeting with World War II veterans in Volgograd that a Ukrainian attack on Crimea would trigger “Judgement Day” and that “it will be very difficult to take cover.”
Even if Medvedev’s doomsday scenario were likely, the international community still hasn’t acknowledged Russia’s covert genocide of the Crimean Tatar people, much less voiced a meaningful alternative to protecting the dwindling population. And with Ukraine’s momentum on the battlefield, military experts like retired US General Ben Hodges argue that Ukraine could retake Crimea by 2023.
Despite Hodges’ optimism, the United States, its allies, and international organizations remain silent. “I think the international community isn’t too highly concerned about the Crimean Tatars and few people really know their true story,” admitted Williams. “There aren’t alarm bells going off that should be.”
Western powers and humanitarian organizations could easily take additional steps to protect Crimean Tatars. In a letter to the UN Secretary General, the Crimean Tatar Resource Center provided several paths to justice, requesting a more vocal opposition to Russia’s illegal conscription of Crimean Tatars, the construction of humanitarian corridors to help men flee from the draft, and the provision of humanitarian assistance to Crimean Tatar refugees. The UN has yet to respond to these alternatives and comment on Russia’s forced mobilization of Crimean Tatars.
Manon Fuchs is a junior at Duke University studying Russian and Public Policy and is a research assistant at US Institute of Peace’s Center for Russia and Europe.