The Crimean Peninsula has seen much pain and certainly war in its history. As is the case with much of Russia’s past, the acquisition of territory had as much to do with empire building as with security.
Throughout history, Russia has faced invasion and industrial scale killing, most notably by the Mongols, and later by the Nazis. It may explain part of the recent actions by President Putin and why he has received so much support from the Russian people.
Until the late 18th century, Crimean Tatars maintained a massive slave trade with the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East, exporting about 2 million slaves from Russia and the Ukraine between the 16th and 18th centuries.
In 1769, the last major Tartar raid, which took place during the Russo-Ottoman War (1768-1774), resulted in 20,000 Russians and Ukrainians brought to the slave markets in Istanbul and other markets of human trade in the Middle East.
In 1774 the Russians occupied the Crimea and in 1801 the region became officially part of Russia. From 1853 to 1856, Great Britain, France, and Italy invaded the region during the Crimean War, underscoring Russia’s vulnerability to seaborne as well as land invasions.
During the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazi armies captured most of the Crimean Peninsula, including Sevastopol (Russia’s only all-year round warm water port) during which a large number of Tartars and other Muslim minorities in the Caucasus assisted the Germans.
For this, Stalin deported most of the Tartars and Chechens to Central Asia, and it was not until after Stalin’s death in 1953 that they were slowly allowed to return. Evidently, no love is lost between the Russians and their Muslim minorities.
On 19 February 1954, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union issued a decree transferring the Crimea from Soviet Russia to the Soviet Ukraine. The transfer of the Crimea to the Ukraine was a “symbolic gesture,” marking the 300th anniversary of Ukraine becoming part of the Russian Empire.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Crimea eventually became an autonomous region of the new Ukrainian state in exchange for Ukraine giving up their nuclear weapons to Russia and agreeing to a long-term lease that gave the Russian fleet access to the port of Sevastopol.
All these arrangements and territorial adjustments were interim at best, and relations between Russia and the Ukraine underwent periods of strain. For one thing, the new relationships between Russia and the former Soviet Republics took place during a period in which Russia was negotiating from a position of weakness.
The Soviet empire had come crashing down, transforming the Soviet Union from a super power to, at best, a weak middle power – its nuclear arsenal, air forces, missile armies, and fleets rusting.
During the Yugoslav crisis in the 1990s, Russia was powerless to prevent the NATO air attack against Serbia, a traditional Russian ally, and later had to stand by as NATO expanded into the Baltic states, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.
At one point, Georgia, the home of Joseph Stalin, nearly slipped away from Moscow’s control, which would have created another humiliating submission for the newly formed Russian Republic.
Standing in downtown Moscow and looking out to the world, Russia is practically landlocked and hemmed in from all sides. For a country that has faced invasion from the Mongols, Napoleon’s France, a coalition of Britain, France, and Italy, and the German invasion of 1941-1944 (which cost the Russians over twenty-seven million lives) security is a primary factor as much as image.
The geographic location of Ukraine makes that country a critical part of Russia’s security and economy. Russia supplies 40% of Europe’s oil and gas, all of which passes through the Ukraine.
If Ukraine had joined the EU and later NATO – as was the case with Poland, the Baltic states, and Czechoslovakia – it would have brought NATO’s medium range missiles within immediate striking distance of Russia. Furthermore, the Crimea, along with its vital port of Sevastopol, would have been lost to Russia and conceivably become a NATO naval base in the future.
Turkey, a member of NATO, remains in control of the Straits and thus the access in and out of the Black Sea; losing access to Sevastopol would have meant that Western Russia would be landlocked for a good part of the year.
Under these circumstances it is not surprising that President Putin took back the Crimea. It is an aggressive move and one that threatens to destabilize Ukraine – but then so were the actions of the EU to try and woo a critical part of Russia’s sphere of influence into its fold.
There is no doubt that the Crimea is now lost to the Ukraine, the question that remains is how much further will Putin go? The international community has reacted with predictable outrage at Russia’s aggression with the exception of some symbolic gestures, but little else.
President Obama has expressed the indignation felt by most of the world at the Russian takeover of the Crimea, but it is a measured response and moderate.
Certainly it is evident to the American President that Russian security is a major factor motivating Putin to react as he has thus far and it is possible that the US could accept as a fait acompli at this most recent action but that will depend on how far Putin is willing to go.
If Putin is prepared now to show restraint and accept a compromise with respect to the Ukraine’s potential relationship with the EU, he might just manage to hold on to the Crimea with minimal consequences. On the other hand, if the Russian president moves against the Ukraine proper and attempts to recast it as a Russian puppet state then there will be a much wider crisis with dire consequences.
André Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver