Vladmir Putin, Russia’s current President and former Prime Minister, has referred to the break-up of the Soviet Union as “the biggest geopolitical disaster of the century.” Given the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, current Russian sentiment appears to be synonymous with expansionism to the western world. This outlook, however, is only one version of the current crisis. Russia sees Crimea as an integral part of their history, as well as its future.
Crimea is currently home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and over one million Russians, who represent 58% of Crimea’s population. Despite current political borders, Crimea has a long history of ownership. While it has been part of Ukraine since 1991, and before that the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (a part of the Soviet Union) since 1954, the Crimean peninsula has been home to a number of different cultures over the past millennium.
The Tauri are considered the original inhabitants of Southern Crimea. These people lived in the area well before Common Era and were pirates of the Black Sea. They were famous throughout the Mediterranean for sacrificing shipwrecked strangers to their Virgin Goddess, and their way of life influenced plays by Euripedes and J.W von Goethe.
Following the Tauri, there were the Cimmerians. The Cimmerians lived in the area until roughly 7th century BCE when they were forced out by the Scythians from the North. After the Scythians were centuries of back and forth occupation by various powers until finally the Golden Horde, which was made up of Turks and aristocratic Mongols, occupied the area starting in the mid 13th century. They were succeeded in the mid 15th century by the Crimean Khanate. A Muslim people called the Tatars, known today as the Crimean Tatars, inhabited Crimea for a number of centuries under a Khanate (rulers of areas that were successors to Genghis Khan). The Crimean Khanate occupied the area until 1768 when Catherine the Great claimed Crimea as Russian territory during the Russo-Turkish war. Crimea was officially annexed by Russia in 1783.
The Crimean Tatar’s currently make up 12% of Crimea’s population. Thus the question of whether the Tatar’s right to inhabit Crimea is equivalent to whether other ethnic groups who have come to inhabit an area through war are entitled to be there. The history of the United States includes displacing the original indigenous peoples who occupied the continent, as does the history of many other established countries. In the United States, only 2% of the population as of 2012 is American Indians and Alaska Natives. Before the arrival of Christopher Colombus in 1492, there were only indigenous peoples. The right to inhabit the land is thus as political and philosophical in America as it is in Crimea.
Crimea is important to Russia for a number of varying reasons. Firstly, re-establishing previous borders is a strategic statement to the world. Russia currently leases the land for their Black Sea Fleet from Ukraine, however, this agreement is at the mercy of Ukrainian leadership. Secondly, since Russia claims that Ukraine’s political sphere is autonomous to Russia, it sees Ukrainian ascension to NATO as a real threat to the politics of Eastern Europe. NATO may represent a defense collective, but it also is reflective of an underlying Westernized belief system. The United States alone has between 700 to 1000 military bases throughout the world. Russia’s fear of an increased NATO presence in Europe has put pressure on Russia to advertise its position as a world power, both for the sake of history and the future.
An exclusive interview held with Vladmir Putin on June 3, by RT News reveals that Putin, who is supported by 80% of the Russian people, truly feels that Russia has attempted a transparent and democratic process regarding Crimea. When asked for proof that Russian troops intervened in Crimea, Putin simply stated “Proof? Why don’t they show it?”
The Black Sea Fleet, which will have thirty new ships by 2020, has been active since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 1783. It represents a strategic access point to the Black Sea, and by extension the Balkans, Mediterranean Sea, and Middle East. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C states that Crimea’s importance to Russia is based on its geophysical location and represents one of the best areas for a Black Sea naval base. CSIS also makes the argument that a Crimea in turmoil makes Ukraine a less attractive country for integration into NATO.
While tensions continue to rise with both NATO and Russian troops practicing war games in Eastern Europe, the conflict in Ukraine has yet to be resolved.