Andrey Zubov: Russians regret taking over Crimea, but haven’t repented yet

Andrei Zubov, archive photo from 

Crimea, International, More, Ukraine

A prominent Russian historian and political scientist, Andrey Zubov was dismissed from his post of Professor at the MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations ) after criticizing Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine. Two years after the annexation of Crimea, I meet him in Stockholm where he was taking part in a seminar about Russia’s domestic policy at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.

“I rarely refuse an interview to Ukrainian journalists. As a Russian, I feel guilty,” says Zubov and shares that bad relations between Russia and Ukraine are painful for him and, he believes, the majority of Russians.

You’ve been predicting that Russia will eventually give Crimea back. But the proceedings against Crimean activists are gaining momentum, Crimean land has recently been surveyed for a Russian property register. That does not happen to a land that is to be returned.

This is a usual political demonstration of ownership. When the time comes, Russia will give Crimea back. Prosecutions (related to the anti-annexation protests) of 26th February, those against Oleh Sentsov, Haiser Dzhemilev are considered as bills of exchange that will be used later as a pay off  (for the annexation of Crimea – ed. ) -but I don’t think anyone will speak about paying anyone off. Russia will just need to give back what it took.

Russian political elites speak about Crimea like a “suitcase without a handle.” (more trouble than it is worth, ed.) The Opposition supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In academic circles, the less people are fascinated by Soviet imperialism, the more they condemn the annexation of Crimea.

Without giving Crimea back and agreeing to a referendum with an unpredictable result, Russia has no future in Europe. It will never accept Russia in its current state as the aggressor.

Russia doesn’t seem to admit that either the annexation of Crimea or that the invasion of Donbas was a mistake.

Russia’s ruling elite clearly understands that there is no chance of going back to the reestablishment of the Soviet empire. During the first months after annexation, there was much talk about Russian minorities in Kazakhstan, Eastern Belarus, even Latvia and Estonia – but not any more. The aggression failed; Crimea was the only “accomplishment,” (one) that turned out to be an unbearable political and economic burden.

The lesson still to be learned is about stealing someone’s land. For some reason, this has a very intoxicating effect on people. The Russian people were fascinated by an annexed Crimea, it was the apple that the serpent offered to Eve. Now Russians must grasp that evangelical principle “do not unto others what you don’t want done to yourself” is applicable in the realm of international politics.

Read also: Crimean Anschluss opened way for justification of Stalin and Soviet system, Zubov says

The more the economic situation in Russia worsens, the bigger the realization will be that this was the wrong thing to do. Unless some feeling of guilt and repentance appear, there is no future in relations between Russian and Ukraine.

The Russian economy is already in bad condition but we’ve seen people cheering the burning of food. How bad should things get before people repent?

Nobody can predict that. It depends on various factors. No one is happy to have Crimea, but the repentance hasn’t come yet, either. Now we’re witnessing a very interesting psychological moment: silence and confusion. It is when people realize the price they have paid but aren’t yet ready to admit it.

If the situation doesn’t improve in the near future, Putin’s politics will be very loudly condemned by the people – maybe even in the upcoming spring or summer. That is why the parliamentary elections were rescheduled for September instead of December.

The formal reason was to save money, which is fair, but actually they expect hatred towards authorities to be extremely high in December. Hence, it is better to have elections in September, while people are still relaxed after the summer holidays.

When can Crimea become de facto Ukrainian again?

As soon as the Donbas issue is resolved, Crimea will be the next stage. You can’t solve it all at once. It would’ve been possible if Russia capitulated, but this won’t happen.

Apparently, after fulfillment of Minsk-2, part of the sanctions will be lifted. You should give a piece of candy for each good deed. But part of the important sanctions, including the personal ones, will remain until the Crimean issue is fully resolved.

But Crimea is more difficult than Donbas. People do not want to come back to Ukraine while Ukrainian politicians threaten to deprive all Russia’s supporters of Ukrainian citizenship. Fair enough, that makes Crimean residents refuse to go back to Ukraine even more. How can you deprive someone of citizenship? It happened during Soviet times, but even Putin doesn’t do this.

What strategy should Kyiv have towards Crimea?

Was there any revenge when Elsass-Lothringen [Alsace-Lorraine] was reunited with France after World War II? No, they were accepted as brothers. That’s why it is now an integral part of France. Same with Ukraine: there can’t be any Soviet-style manifestation of hatred, of national phobias. Ukrainians need to follow European examples, not Soviet ones.

Also, the fate of Crimea should be decided by its residents, even the ones who were deported by Soviets a couple of generations ago. Crimean Tatars in Central Asia should also get a voice.

After Minsk-2 is fulfilled, the West will most likely feel satisfied and gladly forget about Crimea. Will it have the political will to fight for restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity?

The initiative to bring Crimea back should come from Ukraine after the fulfillment of Minsk-2. Ukraine should offer some framework proposal to Europe, not to Russia.

After some time Crimea should become something that was called a “plebiscite territory” after World War I. It is a territory where a referendum is being prepared under the supervision of international organizations, most probably the UN.

All sides, including Russia, have to temporarily admit that Crimea is a part of Ukraine until the results of a referendum held under international control are tallied. There should be law enforcement units of the UN as well as bodies to prepare the referendum, and Russian and Ukrainian law enforcement units should be absent.

Ukraine will earn many points in the world if it steps forward with such an initiative, though not inside the country. The majority of Ukrainians will call the politician who proposes it a traitor. Ukrainians and Russians have the same Soviet heritage: they value the land more than the people.


Further Reading: Andrei Zubov’s on the roots of the Soviet mentality and the resurgence of Stalin in Russia.

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