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Crimea: 10 years on, fight to liberate peninsula continues

Viktoriia Pokatilova
March 16, 2024

When Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, many locals protested vehemently and were forced to flee. But some joined the Ukrainian army to fight for the liberation of the peninsula.

A group of four men wearing military fatigues, standing with weapons in a grassy field, looking at the camera
Ukraine's Crimea battalion forms a special unit within Ukraine's military intelligence serviceImage: DW

When Russia illegally annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014, tens of thousands of people fled the southern peninsula. Some of these exiles joined Ukraine's armed forces in the fight against Russia, including Isa Akayev and Iryna Holosna.

 Akayev, whose real name is Nariman Bilyalov, is the commander of Ukraine's Crimea battalion, which he founded together with other Crimeans. The small unit is dominated by Crimean Tatars, the Muslim Turkic group indigenous to the region. Today, the battalion forms a special unit within Ukraine's military intelligence service.

Akayev sees parallels between Russia's 2014 occupation of Crimea and the time when Soviet authorities deported scores of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia at the end of World War II. In 1944 his parents, who were still children at the time, and his grandparents were sent by the Soviets from Crimea to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, where they lived for 40 years.

Isa Akayev wears a blue coat and cap and stands with a busy city streets behind him.
Isa Akayev co-founded a battalion to fight Russian forces in UkraineImage: DW

Akayev and his sisters were born there, although their parents told them that one day they would return to Crimea, their true home. This only became possible in 1990, as the Soviet Union began collapsing.

It was a historic moment, Akayev told DW. He realized then that Crimea would have to gain support from newly independent Ukraine to build its future. "We can't be part of Russia, the Russians have taken everything from us," Akayev said, who added that Russia even destroyed Crimean Tatar cemeteries and mosques.

Russian soldiers without insignia took control

In the winter of 2014, Russian soldiers carrying Russian weapons and wearing Russian military uniforms — but without identifying insignia — first appeared in Crimea. They took control of administrative buildings and military facilities.

At the time, Crimeans didn't believe this would lead to the occupation of the entire peninsula, Akayev said. They were sure the success of the pro-European protest movement against the then Russian-backed government in Kyiv meant that pro-Russian forces wouldn't prevail.

Akayev recalled the major protests that he attended in Simferopol, Crimea's capital, on February 26, 2014. The demonstrations against the Russian presence were organized by the Mejlis, the highest executive-representative body of the Crimean Tatar People.

A Russian flag waves in the courtyard of the parliament building in Simferopol, Crimea
Russia hoisted its flag over Crimea's parliament in March 2014Image: Vasily Maximov/AFP via Getty Images

Yet pro-Russian rallies also took place at the time, leading to violent clashes with anti-Russian protesters. Soon after, Akayev left the peninsula and traveled to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where he appealed for support for the people of Crimea.

It was only after a call from his wife, in which she told him that unfamiliar people were waiting outside the house and warned him not to travel home, that he realized he wouldn't be to return. A few days later, Akayev's wife and children fled the peninsula as well.

Annexation a long time in the making

Iryna Holosna is a pro-Ukrainian Crimean who initially stayed on the peninsula after Russia's annexation to resist the occupiers. She has lived in Sevastopol, Crimea's largest city, since the 1990s and said Russian narratives about the history of Crimea were circulating well before annexation.

Crimeans were offered Russian citizenship when Ukraine's pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych governed the country from 2010 to 2014. They were told these passports would provide them with great opportunities and jobs in Russia, Holosna said. But Crimeans didn't perceive this offer as a threat, Holosna added.

"Nobody minded it, they thought it was normal, though ultimately, not many people got Russian passports. I think the Russians were already preparing the annexation [of Crimea] and wanted to test the population."

Iryna Holosna wears mlitary fatigues as she stands on a grassy field.
Iryna Holosna fled Crimea after it was annexed by RussiaImage: DW

When Russian soldiers first appeared on the peninsula in 2014, Holosna said she and the wives of Ukrainian soldiers kept watch over Ukrainian barracks at night to prevent the Russians from taking control of the army's facilities and weapons depots.

Yearning for their true home

Despite pro-Ukrainian resistance, Russian troops succeeded in taking full control of Crimea in early March 2014. Even after Russia held a referendum later that month that was widely slammed internationally as a sham, Holosna continued openly supporting Ukraine. She said none of her Sevastopol relatives and friends believed the results of the referendum, which showed 97% of voters allegedly wanting to join Russia.

"We didn't accept it, we took the trolley bus home and loudly sang the Ukrainian national anthem. We thought it would all be over soon," she said.

In the months that followed, the situation deteriorated. Teachers began harassing Holosna's children at school, and she was repeatedly threatened for wearing Ukrainian symbols on her clothes.

Crimea marks 10 years since Russian annexation

In September 2014, Holosna finally decided to leave Crimea with her son and daughter. They traveled to Lviv in the west of Ukraine. There, she joined the Ukrainian army, which was already fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east.

Since then, Holosna has served along many hot spots on the front line in the Donetsk region, and stayed on after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. She is now preparing for deployment in the south as a member of the air reconnaissance unit.

For 10 years, Akayev and Holosna have been fighting Russia as members of the Ukrainian army. They want to help liberate the Crimean Peninsula and return one day.

Almost all of Akayev's family still lives there. In Holosna's case, her brother's family and one grandmother stayed behind.

Holosna is convinced Crimea can only be liberated through military force — though she's sure this won't happen anytime soon.

This article was originally written in German.