Vladimir Putin didn’t greet crowds in Crimea or power on a naval ship across a glittering Black Sea to celebrate the annexation of the peninsula this year. There have been some images of local, literal strongmen—bodybuilders—breaking records this week by dragging military planes across tarmacs and bench-pressing what looked like a truck chassis to show their patriotism, but the President of Russia himself marked the seventh anniversary of Crimea’s annexation with a video conference from his office. He then stepped out to a concert in Moscow to whip up a bit of pro-Russia fervor.
It was on his video link to Crimea when Putin was finally asked to respond to President Joe Biden calling him a killer in an interview Wednesday. The Russian President did not indicate offense, though others in the Russian government did in the strongest terms. Putin for his part said he wished Biden “good health” and then went on to say that when people criticize others, they’re generally talking about themselves. Next came a tirade against the United States and its people.
“They think that we’re the same as them, but we’re a different people. We have a different genetic code and cultural and moral values,” Putin said. “Regarding the American establishment, the ruling class, its identity was formed in circumstances that are well known,” Putin continued. “The colonization of the American continent by Europeans was tied with the extermination of the local peoples. It was a genocide, in modern terms, it was a blatant genocide of the Indian tribes.”
Biden threatened more sanctions against Russia this week after US intelligence concluded it was probable Putin himself directed a team to influence the 2020 presidential election by doing everything possible to damage the Biden campaign. Moscow has said it is not afraid of further sanctions.
There has been no indication that sanctions—whether for the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny or the annexation of Crimea—have forced the Kremlin to take certain actions or stop others, but James Nixey, a Russia expert at London’s Chatham House, says that is not the point.
“Sanctions shouldn’t be judged on whether or not they’ve forced Putin to change course because that is too high a threshold to judge sanctions by. The value of sanctions is to express displeasure and not just kowtow and acquiesce to every Russian transgression on the international stage.”
The Russian government has been dismissive of the pain caused by sanctions, but according to Anton Alekseev, a correspondent for Estonian state television who has recently produced a documentary about Crimea, the penalties do in fact bite and he saw evidence while there.
“Russia says you don’t feel the sanctions there,” he told a panel at Chatham House discussing the state of affairs in Crimea. “That’s not true. I felt the sanctions. Your bank cards don’t work. Taxi-hailing apps won’t work. You won’t see stores from the big, well-known chains. It is, in some ways, a grey zone.”
The consensus on the panel of Crimea experts was that the level of enthusiasm about joining Russia has substantially receded over these seven years on the peninsula where there was initially widespread support among the predominantly Russian population. Many were hoping for the “return of a mythologized past,” said New Yorker correspondent Joshua Yaffa who has written extensively about Crimea. He was referring to a sort of envisioned USSR 2.0 that never came to be.
“They have come down from the clouds to earth,” said Anton Alekseev of the inhabitants of Crimea. He added he’d been struck by the level of patriotism in the city of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s naval base when he visited in 2014. He said there was more pro-Russia sentiment than what you’d find in Moscow.
“But now people have suffered,” he said, referring to his findings on a trip last year. “Their land and real estate have been taken from them because the Russian military claimed it. There are many of these stories.” And, Alekseev noted, nobody can fight the claims in Crimea. It is all in the name of national security.
Russia, according to NATO, has been beefing up its military presence on the peninsula since the annexation. If this has dampened the locals’ view of Moscow, Muscovites may also be less gung-ho about Crimea whose multiple and needed infrastructure projects have been costly to the Russian taxpayer.
In the years immediately following annexation, there was a big patriotic boost across the entire country. Putin’s rating rose and people called it “the Crimea effect.” Crimea has long been not only strategically but romantically or emotionally important in the minds of Russians who have historically vacationed in the resorts of its micro-climate.
But other real-life issues, from economic problems to a pandemic to the poisoning of a high-profile opposition figure, many say, have trumped the glory of getting Crimea back. Critics say Putin needs another victory. Or at least, to claim one. Perhaps that is why at the end of the day, he challenged Biden to a sort of duel–a live broadcast debate, just the two of them–to continue, he said “the discussion.”