By all accounts, the bleak conditions in Crimea shocked Khrushchev. According to Dmitrii Polianskii, who served as head of the Communist Party in Crimea between 1953 and 1954, Khrushchev came to the conclusion that “Russia had paid little attention to Crimea’s development” and that “Ukraine could handle it more concertedly.”
Khrushchev and other Soviet authorities learned the hard way that Crimea is not an “island” or a “jewel,” as Russian metaphors would have it, a beautiful but self-sufficient swath of territory. Instead, to reach for another metaphor, Crimea is a flower whose blossom floats in the Black Sea and whose stem reaches deep into the Ukrainian steppe, into the territory around today’s frontline cities of Kherson, Melitopol’, and Mariupol’.
The Crimean Tatars used to refer to this steppeland as the Özü qırları or Özü çölleri, the “Dnipro fields.” The reference to the Dnipro (or Dnieper), Ukraine’s largest river, was not ornamental. The Crimean peninsula is largely arid and warm, lacking abundant fresh water of its own. For centuries it has thirsted for the Dnipro’s water and relied on resource flows from mainland Ukraine.
In February 1954, Khrushchev’s regime took action to rejoin the blossom to its stem, announcing the formal transfer of the Crimean oblast from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine. During the formal Politburo proceedings, Soviet Russian politician Mikhail Tarasov justified the transfer by describing Crimea in the way we should understand it today: as “a natural continuation of Ukraine’s southern steppe.”
Adzhubei called the transfer a “business transaction” directed toward Crimea’s economic development. It produced quick dividends. In 1957, Ukrainian authorities in Kyiv oversaw the launch of what had been decades earlier merely a Russian pipedream: the construction of the North Crimean Canal, which expedited flows from the Dnipro river near Kherson to irrigate the entire peninsula. Crimea’s economy, particularly its agricultural sector, improved dramatically. So did its tourism industry. High-rise sanatoria for the Soviet elite popped up along the southern coast, driving the image of a Soviet Shangri-La along the Black Sea.
Only in later years would Ukraine’s success in developing Crimea be denigrated and mythologized as Khrushchev’s “gift” of Crimea to Ukraine – or worse, as Khrushchev’s “mistake.” The transfer of Crimea to Ukraine was no mistake. It was a rescue.
Connecting the dots between Crimea’s geography, history and scarred demography helps explain some of the trajectories of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. It also illustrates the need for Ukraine’s absolute victory.
Putin’s 2014 annexation operation ended up disconnecting Crimea from resource flows from Ukraine, including the North Crimean Canal, which still supplied 85 percent of fresh water to the peninsula. His massive vanity bridge, stretching 12 miles over the Kerch Strait from the eastern edge of Crimea to mainland Russia, was completed in 2018 but could not come close to compensating for these losses. That’s why in February 2022 — on the very first day of the full-scale invasion — Putin’s forces used Crimea as a launchpad to tear into Ukraine’s Kherson oblast and seize control of this critical water and resource supply. The move was an implicit recognition of a fundamental reality: Crimea needs to be connected to the Ukrainian mainland to thrive or even survive.
Russia’s hold on Crimea is, therefore tenuous. Any proposed peace settlement that codifies its occupation in exchange for a cessation of hostilities would be a ticking time bomb. The truth is that Ukraine will never be stable and peaceful with a Russian-occupied Crimea, and a Russian-occupied Crimea will never be resource-secure without Ukraine.