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Crimea: The Alsace-Lorraine of the Black Sea


The Crimean Peninsula extends from Ukraine into the Black Sea, separated from Russia by the narrow and shallow Kerch Strait. (Map: CIA World Factbook)

The Crimean Peninsula extends from Ukraine into the Black Sea, separated from Russia by the narrow and shallow Kerch Strait. (Map: CIA World Factbook)

This past weekend, Russian marines in unmarked uniforms (or possibly, but less likely, private contractors paid by Russia) seized the airports of Crimea, allowing Russian planes to fly troops into that autonomous region of Ukraine while large-scale Russian military maneuvers to the north distracted the Ukrainian army. The quick and somewhat stealthy action permitted Russia to seize a strategically located and politically sensitive part of Ukraine with no resistance, while a newly installed pro-Russian regional government proclaimed itself in charge of all Ukrainian and police forces located on the peninsula. Yet the act had the potential to trigger an international crisis.

To most Americans, Crimea has little meaning. A few cognoscenti may associate it with the ill-fated “Charge of the Light Brigade” at Balaklava in 1854 (at least as conveyed by Lord Tennyson). A few others may identify it as the site of the famed Yalta conference of 1945, which is curiously blamed for the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe. Even fewer are aware that 20 years ago the United States, Britain, and Russia committed themselves to respecting Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and existing borders.

As a quick glance at a map will show, the diamond-shaped Crimean Peninsula protrudes from southern Ukraine into the Black Sea. If you look at it from the north, the bulk of the Ukrainian state lies between it and Russia; if you look eastward, however, Russia lies just across the shallow Kerch Strait, which ranges from just two miles to nine miles in width. According to the 2001 Ukrainian census (the next one is not scheduled until 2016), 58.5 percent of Crimea’s 2 million people were ethnic Russians; it is the only part of Ukraine in which self-identified Russians form a majority.* About 24 percent were Ukrainians, and some 12 percent were Crimean Tatars (more about them in a moment). A number of Crimea’s residents are dual citizens because (as in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where there are relatively few ethnic Russians) the Russian consulate has been handing out passports to all comers for years.

The Roots of Crimea

Crimea has a long history. It was colonized by the Greeks during the Hellenistic Age. (Aware of this history, 18th-century Russians consciously gave places in Crimea Greek names; the ending -opol, such as Sevastopol, is derived from -opolis.) The Greeks were followed by the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and colonizers from Venice and Genoa. The people who eventually became known as the Crimean Tatars arrived in the 13th century and established the Khanate of Crimea. That, in turn, was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire.

Catherine the Great, in her numerous wars against the Ottomans, extended the borders of the Russian Empire to the Black Sea, annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 1783. Her governor, Prince Grigory Potemkin, founded Russia’s Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol that same year.

Tatars and Russians

When Catherine annexed Crimea, the basic population consisted of Turkic Muslims known as Crimean Tatars.** Over the centuries, the Tatars came to be outnumbered by Russian settlers. The Ukrainian population has never been more than about a third of the size of the Russian population.
The area went through its share of turmoil. Crimea was the base for one of the white armies during the Russian civil war. It was occupied by German troops, who executed tens of thousands of civilians, during World War II. When the Red Army reoccupied it in 1944, Stalin accused the entire Crimean Tatar population of collaborating with the enemy. Like the Chechens, the Crimean Tatars were rounded up in toto and deported to Soviet Central Asia. Whereas the Chechens were allowed to return to Chechnya starting in the 1950s, the Crimean Tatars did not return to Crimea in large numbers until the closing days of the Soviet Union, and then especially after its collapse in 1991. By the time of the 2001 census, the Tatar population of Crimea had grown more than sixfold compared with the 1989 census. This history with Moscow explains why the Crimean Tatars remain loyal to Kiev today. It is noteworthy, however, that unlike the North Caucasus, there is no militant Islamist movement in Crimea.

Which Republic Shall It Be In?

After the Russian Revolution, Stalin divided the former Russian Empire into subunits based on ethnicity. (The process began under Lenin, but the responsibility for the task was assigned to Stalin even then.) In most cases, there were really no meaningful historical boundaries to guide the process. The Crimean Peninsula, although directly connected to the Ukrainian mainland, was initially assigned to the Russian republic. That changed in 1954 when Khrushchev, himself an ethnic Russian from Ukraine, reassigned it to Ukraine.

This unexpected gift was intended to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Russian annexation of the bulk of Ukraine. Bogdan Khmelnytsky, a Cossack hetman rebelling against Polish rule, had signed the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654 in order to assure Russian protection against the Poles. (In Russian history books, Khmelnytsky is viewed as a hero; to Ukrainian nationalists he is more of a villain.) The transfer of territory was depicted as symbolizing 300 years of Russian-Ukrainian friendship, yet as both republics were part of the centralized Soviet Union, no one expected it to have any meaningful impact. That, of course, changed in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved and the newly independent Ukraine inherited Crimea.

Center-Periphery Troubles

Ukrainian independence unleashed a host of issues. In particular, an ethnic-Russian secessionist movement emerged in Crimea. At the same time, Russia refused to turn over the Black Sea Fleet to the new Ukrainian navy, insisting instead that the fleet should remain part of the Russian navy and should remain stationed at his traditional base in Stavropol.

The new Ukraine agreed to Crimean autonomy, but the elected regional president became the focal point of the secessionist movement. After years of wrangling, the central government in Kiev revoked the region’s constitution in 1995 and replaced the elected president with a centrally appointed official. A new constitution with limited autonomy was then elaborated jointly. The secession issue subsided, although it did not completely vanish. (Nevertheless, Sergey Aksyonov, whose pro-Russian party won 4 percent of the vote in the most recent elections, in 2010, was declared prime minister of the Crimean government last week in the presence of armed men in unmarked uniforms.)

Two years later, in 1997, Moscow and Kiev agreed to divide the Black Sea Fleet between them, with Kiev’s share becoming the bulk of Ukrainian navy. Both the Black Sea Fleet and the Ukrainian navy would be headquartered in Stavropol for the time being. By 2017 Russia was to move the Black Sea Fleet to new facilities to be built in Novorossiisk, east of the Kerch Strait. That schedule changed, however, when Viktor Yanukovych was elected president. In 2010, in one of his first acts in office, Yanukovych signed an agreement extending the fleet’s lease for 25 years, until 2042, although the vote caused considerable turmoil in the Ukrainian parliament. In exchange Russia reduced the price of natural gas delivered to Ukraine. Russia has manipulated the price and supply of natural gas on numerous occasions to reward or punish successive Ukrainian governments.***

The Budapest Memorandum

One other issue of Russian-Ukrainian relations in the 1990s, which did not pertain directly to Crimea, has significance for today. At the time of the Soviet collapse, strategic nuclear weapons were deployed in three republics in addition to Russia: Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Ukraine stood to inherit the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. The main facility for building missiles was also located there. Russia and the United States took it upon themselves to convince the three to destroy their missiles and bombers, turn the nuclear warheads over to Russia, and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as nonnuclear powers. Of the three, Ukraine was the most reluctant to do so.

When Ukraine finally agreed in 1994, the United States, Russia, and Britain rewarded it by issuing the Budapest Memorandum, wherein they promised to respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and existing borders. With Russia’s recent move into Crimea, it has clearly violated the agreement. Some Ukrainians have asserted that the memorandum constitutes a guarantee of the country’s territorial integrity and thus the United States and Britain must come to its defense. That, however, is reading too much into a carefully worded document. The memorandum consists primarily of reaffirmations of longstanding legal principles. The signatories’ legal obligations extend no further than holding mutual consultations and bringing the issue up at the UN Security Council, both of which have already occurred. Even those actions are not obligatory unless Ukraine is attacked or threatened with nuclear weapons.

The Alsace-Lorraine of the Black Sea

In psychology, prospect theory tells us, among other things, that people quickly become attached to new acquisitions, but they do not assimilate losses nearly so readily. Thus, when something changes hands, two people, or two groups, may believe that it legitimately belongs to them at the same time. France annexed Alsace-Lorraine in the 17th and 18th centuries. When Germany seized it in 1871, it provoked an enduring hostility between two countries that could not be reconciled for years. (France took it back in 1918, Germany in 1940, France in 1944.)

Russia may have just done something similar by seizing by force a territory that has historic and ethnic ties to itself (as does all of Ukraine, to be sure), but which has been legally recognized as an integral part of the Ukrainian state. It is possible that Russian president Vladimir Putin merely wants to use it as a bargaining chip, but it is not probable. More likely, Russia will hang on to it as it has South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with or without formal annexation. Barring unforeseen and unlikely circumstances, the West will not go to war to get it back for Ukraine, and there are few things short of war that the outside world can offer or threaten that would be more important to Russia than Crimea. (That actually says less about Crimea’s importance to Russia than about the lack of options available to the West and the West’s lack of concrete interest in the issue.) In seizing Crimea, Putin has probably earned the permanent hostility of the Ukrainian state, which had been willing to cooperate with Russia at least half of the time until now.

*Eastern Ukraine (to the north of Crimea) is predominantly Russian-speaking, but many of the residents there identify themselves as Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Only about 17 percent of the overall population of Ukraine is ethnic Russian.

**There are also Tatars on the Volga River, centered on the city of Kazan. These days, however, Crimean Tatars are considered a separate category from Volga Tatars.

***The previous year Yanukovych and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko were the main contenders in the presidential election. The Russians, preferring to see Yanukovych win, held out for a high price in negotiations with Tymoshenko for a multiyear gas deal. The following year, after Yanukovych had won, they cut the price in exchange for the extension of the Sevastopol lease. Meanwhile, Tymoshenko was arrested, convicted, and sent to a labor camp essentially on the charge of negotiating a bad deal. After Yanukovych fled Ukraine, the parliament “decriminalized” her actions and she was released.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.