One morning in February 2014, the 2 million inhabitants of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that was Ukraine’s premier seaside destination, woke to find a new set of flags flying in their streets. Overnight, Russian special forces had taken over checkpoints on the sliver of land that connects this territory to the Ukrainian mainland, and seized government buildings in the cities.
The move was neither unexpected nor much decried in Crimea, where a majority of the population are ethnic Russians. Thin straggles of pro-Ukrainian protesters were outnumbered by huge hordes cheering for Vladimir Putin. Less than a month later, a referendum, widely criticized by the international community, polled overwhelming support for joining the Russian Federation, and the annexation was complete.
At first, Sergey Akimov, a stout 39-year-old with the kind of blue eyes that suggest sleepless nights, enthusiastically supported the change. In the weeks leading up to the takeover, as Kyiv’s control here crumbled, Akimov mobilized the local Cossacks, a centuries-old militia that has backed Russian separatism and aggressions right across the Caucasus. Under his leadership, they guarded army and police arsenals and patrolled the streets of Simferopol, Crimea’s administrative capital, in their surplus-store camouflage and distinctive boxy fur hats. They were dubbed Putin’s “little green men,” and when Russian troops arrived to complete the takeover, Akimov’s Cossacks were among the crowds welcoming them in Simferopol’s Lenin Square.
Five years on, however, Akimov is one of the staunchest opponents of Moscow’s rule. Amid economic stagnation and a mounting crackdown on political dissent, a sense of buyer’s remorse is creeping into Crimea, with Akimov’s about-face only one of the most visible examples. And as Moscow moves to formally absorb Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the territories it annexed from Georgia a decade ago, and to recognize Transnistria, another Kremlin-backed breakaway region wedged between Moldova and Ukraine, as a fully fledged state, the Crimean experience sounds a warning that realities of life under Russia may not be all that Putin promised.