The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Crimea was a holiday spot for sunbathing Russians. Then the war hit.

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For some Russians, occupied Crimea seemed as good a place as any to spend a lazy August vacation. The “Crimean Riviera” offered beaches along the Black Sea, relaxing dachas and luxurious beach resorts, even mountainous trails and historic ruins — all for a very reasonable price without leaving Russia’s self-declared borders.

A Russian passport would be welcomed on the peninsula. Crimea had been annexed from Ukraine in 2014 after pro-European protests in Kyiv, sparking years of escalating tension between the two neighboring countries. There, Russians wouldn’t be sneered at as they would in other European hot spots.

But if Russians went to Crimea to forget the fallout from the war in Ukraine, it wouldn’t last long.

A series of explosions at a Russian air base in occupied Crimea roiled areas of the city of Novofedorivka on Aug. 9. (Video: Storyful)

On Tuesday, at least three explosions rocked Crimea’s western coast. Early footage from the scene showed the confused reactions on the sand at Novofedorivka beach. Swimmers and bathers stood bewildered by abandoned cabanas as plumes of thick black smoke rose from a nearby Saki air base. Soon, social media videos showed roads out of Crimea clogged with holidaymakers cutting their vacations short.

Moscow said it was just an ammunition explosion, not an attack, and Kyiv offered no immediate claim of responsibility. But still, there was little doubt: The war in Ukraine had come to Crimea. The conflict has now hit a “gray zone” of sovereignty between Russia and Ukraine that in fact goes back far further than 2014, into the depths of regional history and nationalist myth.

Crimea airfield blast was work of Ukrainian special forces, official says

Exactly what occurred at the Saki air base is not yet clear. Russian accounts of minimal damage appear to contradict video evidence. The Ukrainian air force said in a statement that nine military planes were destroyed at the base, which if accurate would be the biggest loss in a single day for the Russian air force since the start of the war six months ago.

But there has been no direct claim of responsibility. A Ukrainian government official told The Washington Post’s Kyiv bureau chief Isabelle Khurshudyan on Wednesday that Ukrainian special forces had carried out the attack. Previously, a U.S. official told The Post that it appeared Ukrainian forces had carried out a strike using a weapon not provided by the United States.

The attack shows the strange place that Crimea, claimed by both sides, occupies in the Ukraine conflict. After news of explosions spread Tuesday, Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of state-funded broadcaster RT and a fierce supporter of the Kremlin, referred to the peninsula as a “red line” on Twitter. Later that evening, the Ukrainian president gave a nightly address focused on Crimea. “Crimea is Ukrainian, and we will never give it up,” Volodymyr Zelensky said.

Crimea is roughly the size of Maryland; it has a population of around 2 million people. Russia militarily moved into the peninsula in March 2014, seizing it from Ukraine. It formally annexed it just weeks later, following a widely disputed referendum that saw a reported 96.77 percent vote by Crimeans to join Russia.

Officially, it’s still a part of Ukraine in the eyes of the world — only a handful of countries have recognized Russian sovereignty over it — but there has been little doubt for the last eight years who has the power on the ground.

How Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 is shaping Biden’s actions today

Crimea is much more than a pretty holiday spot. The peninsula’s history is dramatic, intertwined with both modern Ukraine and Russia but also distinct, with lengthy periods of Mongol and Ottoman rule. Some of these past events are still bitter, including the Soviet-era mass deportation of a major ethnic group in the peninsula, the Muslim Crimean Tatars, to Central Asia.

Russia has long viewed Ukrainian control of Crimea as the result of a foolish historic mistake. In 1954, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred what was then the Crimean Oblast, a regional district, from Russia to Ukraine. The majority of Crimea still spoke Russian and under the Soviet Union, this sort of administrative difference was nominal.

But as communism collapsed, Crimea’s status as a gray area became an issue.

The reforming Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was at his vacation home in Crimea when the KGB launched a coup against him in 1991, a key moment in the end of the Soviet Union. When Ukraine held a referendum on independence from Russia later that year, 54 percent of Crimean voters favored breaking away — a majority, though still among the lowest to be found in Ukraine — and there were calls for independence from Ukraine in the peninsula’s parliament.

For both Kyiv and Moscow, Crimea was too valuable to lose completely. Ukraine held onto it after 1991, while Russia was allowed to keep the Russian naval fleet housed at Sevastopol — a crucial warm-water port in Crimea that would provide access to the Mediterranean all year round for Russia.

The peninsula’s strategic location would later prove vital for Russian troop movements into south Ukraine earlier this year, becoming a key logistics hub for Moscow’s war effort.

A successful Ukrainian attack in Crimea would be a significant escalation in the war. Patriotic Russians like RT’s Simonyan have been apoplectic after Tuesday’s blasts, while the mood among Ukrainians has been one of celebration perhaps only rivaled by the sinking of Russia’s Black Sea fleet flagship, the Moskva, in April.

By attacking far into territory that Russians assumed safe, Ukraine could change the calculus of the war by forcing Moscow to redeploy defenses. It is not clear how the air base could have been hit if this was indeed a deliberate attack. Ukrainian officials have hinted at the work of “partisans” acting as saboteurs behind Russian lines. Drones and missiles are possible, though Ukraine is not known to have any missiles that could reach 140 miles from the nearest front line.

The United States has not given Ukraine longer-range weapons, despite requests from Kyiv, largely due to fears that they could be used to strike within Russian borders — an escalation that worries Washington. Crimea, despite its disputed sovereignty, may not be exempt.

Russian travelers, meanwhile, are in a bind. Hotel room occupancy in Crimea was already down by a third year-on-year in June, despite slashed prices, Russian news outlet RBC reported earlier this summer. But for Russian tourists facing the risk of travel restrictions pushed by Zelensky and supported by some European states, holidaying in a gray zone next to a war may be one of few choices.

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