Russia's Soul What Crimea Says about Putin's Future

President Vladimir Putin made himself immensely popular among Russians by annexing the Crimean Peninsula. But with the situation in eastern Ukraine volatile, it remains unclear how the move will ultimately be judged. A trip through Crimea provides some answers.

Just as the wait in a 12-kilometer (seven-mile) traffic jam starts to become unbearable, a young hippy and the Russian national anthem provide some relief. The heat is staggering, reaching up to 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit) inside the cars while the white disk of the sun hangs directly overhead at the Kerch Strait, which separates the Russian mainland from the Crimean peninsula.

The young woman in a halter-top jumps out of a Volkswagen stuffed with sleeping mats, backpacks and musical instruments. Another woman pulls out a flute and a bearded man produces a maraca. The woman begins to dance and curious onlookers quickly gather. One of them, a retiree from Moscow, has ridden his bicycle 1,800 kilometers "to finally see Crimea." A Porsche driver from St. Petersburg is standing next to him.

Then Alexei, the fourth musician, plays the national anthem on his guitar: "Russia -- our sacred homeland, Russia -- our beloved country." The wind carries bits of the lyrics down to the ferry docks at Port Kawkas. The strait is the bottleneck through which tourists must pass to reach Crimea, now that the war has made the route through eastern Ukraine impassable.

Alexei and his friends are part of a band from Krasnodar in southern Russia. But despite their sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll look, they prove to be supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin. "It's wonderful that the president has brought Crimea back to Russia," says Lena, the dancer.

The overwhelming majority of Russians view Crimea as an ancestral Russian territory and see Putin as their hero, ever since his special forces took Crimea in early March without firing a single deadly shot. One of the spectators, a woman from the Volga region, is wearing a T-shirt with Putin's portrait and the words: "The most polite of all people."

"Polite people" -- it is a term Russians use to describe the soldiers who seized Crimea as well as Putin, who annexed the peninsula in violation of international law. It is a move that has dramatically ratcheted up tensions between the West and Russia. Sanctions imposed by the US and Europe mean, among other things, that Russians will no longer be able to eat American chicken or French Camembert. But for the moment, Russians are still scoffing at the sanctions.

Bringing Crimea "into its home port after a long, difficult and exhausting journey," as Putin put it, helped boost the president's popularity ratings in Russia to above 80 percent. Nevertheless, if Putin stumbles because of the escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine, his strong position in Moscow could begin to unravel -- his fate could ultimately be decided by the peninsula and the consequences of its annexation.

In May, it seemed as if Putin might pull off a repeat of his Crimea coup in eastern Ukraine. The region is home to many Russians, living in cities like Luhansk and Donetsk, and they too feel drawn to Russia and reject the new leadership in Kiev. Like the Crimeans, they too held a referendum.

Loyal to Moscow

The poll, though, was chaotic and not particularly representative. In Donetsk, announced results indicated that 89 percent had voted to secede from Ukraine, in Luhansk the number was an astounding 96 percent. The actual result was likely much lower and Putin decided against an invasion at the time. Instead, he supplied the pro-Russian separatists with weapons and cadres loyal to Moscow.

A war between Ukrainian troops and the separatists has raged since. In recent days, pro-Russian fighters have been losing ground, and it seems to be only a matter of time before the Ukrainian military enters Donetsk. But can Putin allow this to happen? Hardly anyone in Russia would understand it if he did.

Moscow tipped its hand last week, hinting at the possible deployment of "peacekeeping troops" in eastern Ukraine and facilitating the replacement of the Moscow-born "premier" of the "People's Republic of Donetsk" with a Ukrainian -- paving the way for the separatists to formally request aid from the Kremlin. This week, the Russians have assembled an aid convoy, allegedly under the auspices of the Red Cross, to provide relief to civilians in eastern Ukraine. The convoy is set to arrive at the Ukrainian border on Wednesday afternoon and Kiev has said it will block the trucks from entering for now, amid widespread suspicion that it is nothing but a Trojan horse.

It is a dangerous game being played by Putin. The opportunities for an intensification of the conflict are many, yet he also knows that should Kiev regain control of eastern Ukraine, they could be encouraged to try to reverse the annexation of the Crimea.

Indeed, the peninsula could come to define his legacy. He hopes to turn it into an economic miracle, evidence that Russia is rich and Ukraine is poor, and that an authoritarian government is more effective than the democratically elected government in Kiev.

So far, though, the annexation has caused nothing but trouble. The peninsula is now largely isolated. By air, it can only be reached via Russian carriers while by road travelers must sit in the traffic jam at the Kerch Strait. The result is that tourists are staying away. Furthermore, Ukrainian banks there have been forced to close their branches and international cards only work at a small number of cash machines.

Still, the Crimean Peninsula is now Russian and Putin plans to fly there on Thursday for a well-orchestrated, extraordinary session of the Duma in Yalta to hammer home the point. The Crimea annexation, Kremlin officials insist, "is non-negotiable." But a trip across the Crimea shows that the prosperity and stability promised by Moscow are still a long way off.

At the Kerch Strait

Improving access, though, is priority number one, and it has fallen to Svyatoslav Brussakov to make it happen. As deputy mayor of Kerch, a city of 145,000 people, Brussakov is part of an expert commission assembled to prepare the construction of a €5 billion bridge across the strait.

It would be a monumental structure, says Brussakov. And the idea is not a new one: During World War II, Hitler envisioned the construction of a bridge at the site and even started the project, but it was left unfinished when the German retreat out of Russia began in 1943. Plans for a bridge were revived during the Soviet era, but they were never implemented due to horrendous costs and technical difficulties. Because of silt and porous rock, the massive supports would have to be driven 80 meters (262 feet) below the sea floor to reach bedrock. "But Putin will do it," says Brussakov. "When our president wants something, it happens." Putin wants to dedicate the bridge in 2018, which is also, coincidentally, the year of the next presidential election.

Brussakov raves about his city's future prospects. Kerch, he says, is one of Europe's oldest cities, with an 8th-century church near the waterfront promenade. For now, though, he is left hoping that tourists from Western Europe will return one day. The European Union's economic blockade has made the peninsula more of an island than ever before and cruise ships from Europe are no longer docking at Crimean ports. Last week, even the Russian low-cost carrier Dobrolet cancelled service to Crimea because the sanctions forbid European companies from servicing the airline's fleet.

As a precaution, Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov halted construction of an almost-finished cement factory outside Kerch. The new Russian leadership doesn't want an oligarch from Ukraine on the island, creating an opportunity for major Russian companies and oligarchs, which have already been involved in Crimea for a long time. Oil multinational Lukoil built a resort complex in Crimea, while financial and media magnate Alexander Lebedev built a luxury hotel in Alushta.

"Kerch used to be the wart on the ass of Crimea," says Brussakov. "But now the city is the gateway to a vacation paradise for the millions who come by car."

In the Artek Y outh Camp

As it did for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Kremlin is relying on loyal, longstanding allies to complete its new, major projects in Crimea. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak heads the group in charge of all projects in Artek. And there are reports in Moscow that Putin even called oligarch Roman Abramovich and asked him to invest in a vacation camp in Artek, 200 kilometers west of Kerch.

Artek is one of the great myths of the Soviet Union. Some 1.5 million children have passed through the camp since it was founded in 1925. Yuri Gagarin, the first person to travel to outer space, went there seven times to give talks. Former Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev visited the model facility, as did former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. East Germany modeled its Wilhelm Pieck Pioneer Republic on Werbellin Lake, built in 1950, on the Artek camp.

But funds were cut so drastically under Ukrainian rule that the camp was forced to close in November 2013. Putin now plans to build something bigger and better in its place.

Alexei Kasprzak, 34, has a smartphone in each of the front pockets of his jeans as he climbs onto a dilapidated 10-meter tower above the empty swimming pool at Artek to demonstrate what a challenge modernizing the site will be. Broken tiles litter the bottom of the swimming pool and cats roam through the ruins.

"It looks like Chernobyl," says Kasprzak, who was appointed manager of Artek two months ago, with its 400 buildings, 10 dining halls, hospital, 11 athletic fields, seven kilometers of idyllic shoreline and small port. The site is surrounded by blue bays, cliffs and cedar trees. "It's the size of Monaco," he says. "We have all the conditions to turn it into Russia's top vacation camp, perhaps even the best one in the world."

Artek was always more than a vacation spot. It was a symbol. That is one reason why Moscow decided to send Kasprzak there. Years ago, he was a member of the "President's Thousand," a group of young cadres in the giant eastern realm, a representative of modern, cosmopolitan Russia. He could just as well be running a company in New York, London or Madrid. For Kasprzak, the vacation camp's past is mainly a marketing opportunity, including the 20-meter statue of Lenin, which former President Mikhail Gorbachev dedicated on a hill above Artek in 1985.

"You are part of a great history," Vera Bondareva tells a group of young people from a bedroom community north of Moscow during their visit to the museum in Artek. Normally fixated by their iPads, the teenagers are paying rapt attention to the woman, who, at 65, is old enough to be their grandmother.

Bondareva is filled with enthusiasm as she talks about her own youth. In those days, she says, the train ride from her hometown of Gorky, now called Nizhny Novgorod, took a day and a half. It was the early 1970s, and the Communist Party had sent her to Artek to work as a leader of the pioneer youth groups there. She recalls falling asleep as she gazed out of the train window at a landscape of snow and ice. "I woke up in Crimea. It was January, but everything was green," she says.

Crimea has been a Russian vacation spot since Catherine the Great captured the peninsula from the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. In 1820, poet and nobleman Alexander Pushkin extoled the bay where Artek is located as a "beguiling picture, with luminous mountains and roofs that look like beehives from a distance." Revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky described the peninsula as an "exact copy of paradise" in 1928. Dissident and winner of the Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn viewed Crimea as "Russia's natural southern border."

Crimea is now eternally Russian once again, says Bondareva as she begins channeling the passion of her youth, railing against the Americans, "who incite revolutions in any country where they have an embassy but no vassal government." Ukraine should go ahead and join Europe and Conchita Wurst, she says. "But then the Europeans should pay for this broken country. Putin is paying for us, thank God."

Bondareva is enthusiastic about the new young director, as are most of the 1,400 employees at the Artek collective. By annexing Crimea, Putin is reuniting two poles that long supported his rule: those nostalgic for the Soviet era and the cosmopolitan modernizers. Bondareva represents the former group and Kasprzak the latter.

At the Sevastopol N aval Base

Sirens are sounding in an atomic bomb proof facility deep beneath the rock at the southern end of the city. In Balaklava Bay, it becomes clear what Putin's main goal was in annexing Crimea: Sevastopol provides Russia's navy access to the Black Sea.

The siren spectacle attracts hundreds of tourists to the military museum each day. Submarines were stationed at the base in the Soviet era and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, while serving as Russia's ambassador to NATO, proposed that the return to Balaklava "in response to the advance of the Western military alliance."

Rogozin's suggestion could now soon become reality. New, state-of-the-art submarines could be stationed at the base by early next year, says Moscow military expert Pavel Felgenhauer. If it happens, it means that missiles could quickly be aimed at cities in Western Europe.

At the exit from the military museum, there is a view of the villas and hotels owned by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and his family. He has been permitted to keep his real estate holdings, unlike current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose shipyard in Sevastopol is to be nationalized.

The excursion boats in the port of Sevastopol are only half full these days; the number of tourists throughout the island has dropped by 50 percent. The children of refugees from eastern Ukraine now stand on the waterfront promenade and do handstands for hours, hoping to earn a few rubles. There are posters everywhere advertising the parliamentary and city council elections in mid-September.

A Crimean Tatar on the promenade is railing against Putin. Like many others in her ethnic group, she fears a new wave of repression. Stalin had the Crimean Tatars deported because of their collaboration with the German Wehrmacht, and it was only under Gorbachev that the Tatars, a Muslim Turkic people, were allowed to return to the island.

President Putin already scored a minor victory on the city's main street, which is named after an admiral in the former czar's fleet. McDonald's, the American fast-food chain, has closed its local restaurant. It will soon be replaced by a different fast food restaurant called "Rusburger," or "Russian Burger."

Three students are sitting on a bench in front of the closed restaurant. "We think it's good that Crimea belongs to Russia," one of them says, "but Putin could have let us keep McDonald's."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.