Alexei Navalny knows where Russia begins and ends. At least he does now.

The world’s best known political prisoner -–and the Kremlin’s most effective critic – this week unveiled a sort of a social media manifesto.

In 15 short tweetable points, the anti-corruption campaigner and opposition leader blamed the Ukraine war on Vladimir Putin’s attempts to hold on to power “at any cost”.

Mr Navalny set out a vision for dismantling the current authoritarian presidential regime - and replacing it with a parliamentary democracy.

But as he did so Mr Navalny made what might sound sounds like an unremarkable clarification. He said the new Russia he envisions would have the borders of 1991, those created at the collapse of the USSR, not those printed in school atlases and shown on propaganda TV graphics.

Why was this big news? Because Mr Navalny has far from always been clear on giving back at least one slice of Ukraine Mr Putin seized.

Years ago the liberal, who has sometimes also been labelled a “nationalist”, was equivocal about Crimea.  The Russian-annexed Black Sea peninsula, he said back in 2014, was not a “sausage sandwich” to be handed back and forth between states.

So the words he somehow smuggled out of his prison cell this week set a new and more emphatically anti-imperialist tone for Russia’s beleaguered democrats.

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They also help to inform a subtle change of thinking about Crimea elsewhere. 

The world has this week been taking stock of the fight for Ukraine.

Friday, after all, marked a year since Mr Putin launched his “full-scale” invasion of the country and his failed but bloody attempt to grab its capital, Kyiv.

That was a dramatic, defining escalation of the war. But it was not its start. There is another anniversary, another significant date, today. 

It is nine years to the day since initially mysterious, unmarked Russian soldiers – the “polite people” as they were called – started seizing control of strategic assets in Crimea. At gunpoint, of course.

Putin’s war on Ukraine began on the Black Sea peninsula. Will it end there too? 

HeraldScotland: Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s most effective criticAlexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s most effective critic

For most of the last decade, and even the last 12 months, it has seemed like Ukraine would struggle to get its territory back. 

Now, military and diplomatic opinions are more divided on whether the peninsula and its two million or so people can be returned, either by force or negotiation. 

The vast majority of Ukrainians want their land back. A poll this week found 80 per cent of them would find a ceasefire deal unacceptable if it allowed any presence on the peninsula. This has been a consistent view over the last 12 months.

For many Ukrainians, getting back Crimea is not just a move to seize a square on a gaming board. It is also rescue mission: the Putin regime has ruthlessly cracked down on dissent on the peninsula, not least against its Tatar minority.

Russia first seized Crimea and then – after a staged referendum – annexed 
the peninsula. All this while supporting violent irredentist proxies in Donbas, eastern Ukraine. 

This was an era-defining event, the first time a European power had used its military to grab land from its neighbour since the Second World War.

Nine years ago “Western” governments did not do that much. There were sanctions, but nothing like the wholesale attempt to exclude Russia from trade that took place after the big invasion. 

The annexation of Crimea was not officially accepted in big Western capitals. Their maps kept showing Crimea as part of Ukraine. But, as Phillips O’Brien, of St Andrews University, explained, it was seen as something of “done deal”. For then, at least. 

Some of Mr Putin’s critics at home, such as the then at liberty Mr Navalny, thought the way Crimea was taken was wrong. 

But they too appeared ready to accept the peninsula as Russian.

This was far from an uncommon view in Russia and abroad, that Crimea was somehow different to the other areas since occupied or annexed by Mr Putin’s regime. 

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Why? Because, the theory went, Russians saw the territory as an iconic part of their motherland. And because a sizeable chunk of Crimeans felt the same way.

Mr Putin has ratcheted up rhetoric on Crimea, calling it a “Holy Land” for Russians and citing the blood sacrifice of his fellow countrymen in wars over 
the territory.

Do his people agree? It is almost impossible to gauge public opinion in an authoritarian regime. Would seizing Crimea have featured as a priority for ordinary Russians before Mr Putin came to power? No. Is it now? Well, there are certainly Russian nationalists who feel a real attachment to the place.

There is another problem for Russian rhetoric. It is harder for the Putin regime to portray Crimea as a special case – as an integral part of Russia – now that it has also formally annexed whole additional swathes of occupied southern and eastern Ukraine, some of which it does not even occupy.

HeraldScotland: Vladimir Putin addresses Ukraine war in Russian state of the union addressVladimir Putin addresses Ukraine war in Russian state of the union address (Image: PA)

The diamond in the north of the Black Sea is one of the crossroads of European history. It has seen empires, cultures and civilisations ebb and flow. Greeks and Byzantines, Tatars and Turks have all settled and ruled all or part of the peninsula over the centuries. 

It was not until 1783 that the Russian Empire, pushing south, annexed Crimea. Moscovites, under their expansionist empress Catherine The Great, had already been meddling in the area, then an independent Muslim Khanate.

Seventy or so years later the Russians defended the territory from the British, French and Turks. Another century after that the then Soviet Union first lost and then regained Crimea to the Nazis.

Dictator Iosef Stalin, in 1944, ordered the mass deportation of Tatars to Central Asia in cattle trucks. It was one of the great crimes against humanity of the 20th century. Only as the Communist regime began to unravel in the late 1980s did Tatars start, in dribs and drabs, to go home.

By then Crimea was an autonomous republic of  Soviet Ukraine, transferred from Russia as a gift to mark the two nations’ 1654 union. 

Census figures in 1989 showed 65.6% of Crimean residents identified as Russian and 26.7% as Ukrainian. Just under 2% said they were Tatars. By 2001 those figures had changed to 58.5% Russian, 24.4% Ukrainian and 12.1% Crimean Tatar. 

So did Crimeans want to rejoin Russia? Not necessarily. Back in 1991 there was a huge plebiscite on Ukrainian independence. Support for a sovereign Ukraine was overwhelming, almost everywhere. It was less emphatic in Crimea, but still a clear majority.

Some foreign leaders, notably American populist Donald Trump, have accepted a myth of Crimea as a Russian “holy land”. But, as is so often the case in Ukraine, it is wrong to assume anybody’s views based on the language they speak or their stated nationality (as opposed to citizenship).

This should make sense to a Scottish or British audience. After all, there are plenty of people in this country who identify as Scottish by nationality but who support the Union. And there are English-identifying Yessers.

Some Russians and Ukrainians have long appreciated these parallels. Which is why Scotland played a strange cameo role in Mr Putin’s seizure of Crimea.
Putin’s war on Ukraine began as Scotland prepared for our big vote on independence. 

Pro-Kremlin Crimeans had already been agitating for a Scottish-style referendum before Russian troops seized the peninsula.

But rhetoric about Scotland stepped up as the regime sought, under the shadow of an occupying military, to rubber-stamp its annexation. 

Regime favourites frequently equated their vote with ours. Crimeans, according to ridiculously unreliable results, voted by 97% to join the Russian Federation.

There is no way to accurately measure opinion on the occupied peninsula. But Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar voices have been oppressed. There was a building boom – now over – as people from what local media has taken to call “continental Russia” started to invest in property on the sunshine coast of the Black Sea.

Polling in the year before invasion and annexation suggested Crimeans were unhappy with how things were going in Ukraine, which was then ruled by a deeply unpopular and corrupt pro-Kremlin government, but largely felt warm towards Russia. A majority backed the peninsula’s status as an autonomous region and fewer than a quarter wanted a union with Mr Putin’s state.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has said the Russians might see Crimea as a “red line”. But his and other American and western rhetoric has subtly changed over the last year or so. 

Official spokesmen and women have clarified that they believe Ukraine has a right to retake its sovereign territory. Some military observers have put it differently: that the Ukrainians have a strategic imperative to do so. How come? Because Crimea would remain a forepost from which Russia could continue to threaten its neighbour.