The unfolding crisis in Ukraine and the Crimea has deep roots in history. The current situation began in November of 2013 when former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned a proposed economic treaty with the European Union (EU) and instead choose to pursue stronger relations with neighboring Russia. This decision led to protests throughout Ukraine that culminated last week with Yanukovych fleeing the country and a pro-Western interim government taking his place. Russia responded by deploying several thousand troops into the Crimean Peninsula, effectively occupying that portion of Ukraine. The international community has condemned the Russian action and affirmed the sovereignty of Ukraine. This is not the first time Russia has occupied this region however and it has long been the focus of dispute between the two countries.
The Crimea is a strategically significant region within Ukraine. It came under the control of the Russian Empire in 1783 during the reign of Catherine the Great. The justification then was similar to the reasoning being used by Vladimir Putin today. Catherine declared that she was protecting ethnic Russians in the region from the Ottoman Empire, much as Putin is claiming to protect Russians from Ukrainian nationalists today.
The acquisition of the Crimea by Russia gave them access to the Black Sea. The Russians would establish a naval base at Sevastopol that would become home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. This base and the associated fleet was a major factor in a subsequent war with the Ottoman Empire that Russia would win, as well as in the Crimean War itself that would take place in 1853. Sevastopol remained a significant Russian military base throughout the Soviet era and is still today. Russia currently leases the base from Ukraine. This is just one important phase of the history of the current crisis in Ukraine and the Crimea.
After the Bolshevik Revolution toppled the imperial government and established the Soviet Union, the Crimea was briefly an “independent” state within the Soviet Union. It retained this independent status until the conclusion of World War II when it was reincorporated into Russia itself. This may appear insignificant on the surface, as there was little administrative difference due to the authoritarian nature of the Soviet government. It does establish a precedent for Crimean autonomy however, a concept which persists to this day.
The Crimea remained a part of Russia until it was returned to the Ukraine in 1954 by then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev had an attachment to Ukraine as he worked as a coal miner there during his youth and spent his early political career in the Ukrainian system. As with the former “independence” of the Crimea, this too may appear insignificant. Regardless of whether the Crimea was technically a part of Russia or Ukraine, it was administered by the Soviet government in Moscow. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine found itself in possession of this highly significant region.
The Crimea has had a rather unique status in the post-Soviet era. It remained formally a part of Ukraine but has enjoyed a high level of regional autonomy. It has its own legislative body and constitution and after the collapse of the Yanukovych government, it named its own prime minister. It still contains a high percentage of ethnic Russians, and as mentioned previously, is still home to the strategically important naval base of Sevastopol. The presence of a large Russian military force in the region is not a new situation either recently or historically.
The outcome of the crisis in Ukraine and the Crimea remains to be determined. The international community is mostly opposed to the recent Russian aggression, but options to address the situation remain limited. There are many factors at work in Ukraine. The history behind the Ukraine crisis in the Crimea is just one of those factors.
By Christopher V. Spencer