President Vladimir Putin marks the fifth anniversary of Crimea's annexation in Simferopol on March 18, 2019.Yuri Kadobnov /Pool / Reuters

This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea—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.

Akimov, who describes himself as “a businessman,” has turned his efforts to lobbying for a second vote on Crimea’s future. In the original referendum, results showed that 95.5 percent of voters supported rule from Moscow, though at least 10 percent of the population boycotted the poll in protest at the takeover. Akimov told me he believes that should the referendum be run again, and run fairly, the split would now be about 50–50.  

“There will be a referendum, maybe in one year, or maybe in 100 years. But it will definitely happen,” he said.

An imminent rerun, which would depend on Russia’s acquiescence, is unlikely, however—and that delay in a vote could have profound consequences for the results of any future referendum.

According to some estimates, Crimea’s population has increased 25 percent since 2014, mostly due to an influx of military and state personnel from Russia who are, by definition, pro-Russian. In the same period, about 140,000 Crimeans, 9 percent of the 2014 population, have left the peninsula for the Ukrainian mainland. Many of them are members of the Muslim Tatar minority, who mostly opposed annexation and have since been targeted in a Russian clampdown. Should these trends continue, demography will decide Crimea’s future.

Nonetheless, Akimov is turning his hand from a paramilitary organization to political leadership in a last-ditch attempt to turn the tide. He has taken his Cossack militia into an alliance with the Communist Party of Russia for the upcoming Crimean parliamentary elections in September—an unlikely coalition, he conceded, given that the Communists support the annexation. A small lockup that used to house a museum of Cossack history is now the nerve center of his political operation. Pale patches on the smoke-tinted walls mark where the exhibits of Cossack costumes and posters once hung, and on Akimov’s desk are piles of Spark of Truth, the Communist Party’s newspaper, which features a sketch of Joseph Stalin on its masthead.

While it is highly improbable that Akimov can lead Crimea back out of Russia, Moscow has noted his change of heart. Akimov said he can no longer walk through the square where he cheered for the Kremlin’s Crimean takeover five years ago without being intercepted by Russian security agents. In 2016, he organized the first protest against Russian rule, for which he said he was detained for three days. He has been taken to court eight times since then, and warned not to meddle in Crimea’s politics. The day after we met, he called to say that he’d had yet another visit from the police.

“I have three cell phones and six SIM cards and I swap them all the time, because I know my line is tapped,” Akimov said.

The Cossack commander’s opposition to Russian rule over Crimea sometimes appears lonely. Days after grandiose Victory Day events in Moscow’s Red Square, held to mark the Russian victory over the Nazis in World War II, Crimea’s highways were still dotted with billboards for the local celebrations, showing a retro depiction of a Soviet soldier cradling a Kalashnikov and a bunch of flowers.

Akimov was unimpressed by the display, which he said summed up all the pitfalls and hypocrisies of Russian rule.

“Russia boasts about its missiles, but what does it offer for the normal people?” he asked.

Superficially, the peninsula is flourishing under Russian rule. Moscow has built a huge new airport here in Simferopol and tethered Crimea to the Russian mainland with a 1.4-mile suspension bridge over the Kerch Strait. McMansions are popping up everywhere. Crimea’s economy was the fastest-growing in Russia so far this year—at least according to data collated by the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank with close ties to the Kremlin. By 2022, on the institute’s projections, Moscow will have plowed $13 billion into the territory.

But the new wealth is not evenly spread. While Crimea’s construction and manufacturing sectors—the ones that benefit most from Moscow’s huge infrastructure investments—have expanded by 20 percent since last year, agriculture, retail, and services have grown far more modestly, by 3 percent. Outside the often-corrupt elite, private enterprise has collapsed; 90 percent of small businesses have folded since 2014.

“On the one hand, there has been enormous Russian investment: Moscow has spent way more in Crimea than the West has spent on Ukraine,” says Andrew Wilson, a Ukrainian-studies professor at University College London. “But there has been a lopsided result, and ordinary Crimeans are squeezed in the middle.”

The changeover from the Ukrainian hryvnia to the Russian ruble has sent prices rocketing for Crimean locals. Shops have replaced cheap Ukrainian goods with expensive Russian-made ones. At the same time, Western sanctions imposed on Russia for the annexation have slashed the number of foreign tourists in Crimea, stunting what was a growing sector and major source of income before 2014.

Akimov told me that the new businesses selling luxury goods are owned by people close to the authorities.

“We don’t make anything ourselves any more, not even our own shoes!” he said.

Yet patriotism and perception can still trump everything. Marita Mishina, a tour guide who once showed scores of foreign visitors around Crimea’s battlefields each summer, has seen her business almost wiped out as a result of the sanctions—yet she would not change a thing. Mishina, the wife of a former Soviet naval officer, is a Russian patriot who never even learned Ukrainian in all the years that Crimea belonged to Kyiv. Her hometown of Sevastopol, the most fervently pro-Moscow of any of the Crimean cities, has also seen the biggest Russian investments since annexation; its construction sector has swelled by 71 percent in the past year.

“We used to get 50 cruise ships a year docking in Sevastopol, with up to 3,000 people on each ship,” she told me. “We don’t see foreign tourists anymore. But Russian rule has been good for us. There have been lots of investments. It has only brought good things.”

Putin has also buoyed his reputation in Crimea with well-timed honed PR stunts, such as flying here in 2015 to switch the lights back on following a blackout caused by a Ukrainian blockade. It was he who cut the ribbon on the Kerch bridge. And in March, he led the celebrations for the fifth anniversary of the annexation by inaugurating two new power stations.

This sanctioned peninsula is more and more cut off from the outside world. Simferopol’s new airport markets itself as international, but can only receive flights from the Russian Federation. International bank cards and cellphones no longer work here. Yet Putin’s publicity still finds a receptive audience.

“You have to remember this—Putin is our first Russian president,” Mishina told me, as we wandered between the Soviet-era tanks that have been put on display at a memorial site just outside Sevastopol.

Back in his lockup turned office, Akimov watched Putin’s latest TV appearance. The Russian president played an ice hockey match broadcast across all channels. Akimov shook his head sadly.

“He plays hockey while the forests are burning,” he said, referring to the blazes that were tearing across several regions of the Russian Federation. “But people believe it. They can’t imagine what they would do without him.”

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