The Crimean Crisis – Part I
Turkish Ottoman Empire fought heavily in Crimea against Czarist Russia (in 1783); Britain disastrously attacked Russia through Crimea (in 1854); The White Russian forces’ final surrender to the Red Army in Russian Civil war happened in Crimea; In World War II, bitter wars were fought in the Crimean mountains; It was the site of Josef Stalin’s country house and also the place, where the crucial 1945 conference was held to decide on the boundaries of postwar Europe. Now, another storm has gathered over this place by Putin’s re-incorporation of Crimea back into Russia. Why there has been such huffing and puffing over Crimea throughout Russian history? The answer is simple: access to the Mediterranean Sea (a geographic gateway to Western Europe).
From the early AD’s ‘Crimea’ has been invaded and successively occupied by many rulers (Scythians, Bulgars, Khazars, Byzantine Empire, Mongols and many others). As I have mentioned, Crimea has witnessed many bloody battles and ethnic cleansings after it was annexed by expansionist Tsarist Russia. In 1954, Nikita Khruschev issued a decree transferring Crimea to Ukraine, as a token of appreciation to for being part of Soviet Union. Soviet’s large Black Sea fleet was docked at Crimean sea port (in ice-free port city of Sevastopol). It is Soviet’s and now Russia’s main naval base and also a strategic window into the Mediterranean. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimea became a part of the independent Ukraine. However, Crimea was declared as an autonomous region (meaning it has its own Prime Minister and President, subjected under Ukrainian law). Even after the collapse of Soviet Union, Russian Federation had an agreement with Ukraine that allows it to legally dock its fleet in the Sevastopol.
Crimea has a population of nearly 2 million and its picturesque coastal cities and resort towns attracts many tourists. Originally, the Tartar population was higher in Crimea. Now, they are a minority (12%), along with Ukrainians (24%). The majority of people in Crimea are Ethnic Russians. Putin, in his speeches often said that it’s a tragedy that millions of Ethnic Russians are no longer living in their home country (Russian Federation). However, the real political reasons of Putin over Crimean issue may differ.
In 1997, Ukraine signed a treaty agreeing to lease majority of its bases in Sevastopol to the Russian Black Sea Fleet until 2017. In April 2010, Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych signed the ‘Khariv Pact’, extending the Russian lease of naval facilities in Crimea beyond 2017 (to 2042). An additional 5 years renewal option was also provided in exchange for a multiyear discounted contract (provides Ukraine with Russian natural gas). Ukrainian Parliament members of the opposite party were against this renewal options and extension. Extending the leases is not a big problem, because the Ukrainian government doesn’t have any means to kick Russia out of Crimean ports. It has no choice. And, President Yanukovych has always remained loyal to Putin, being happy to rule under the Russian thumb.
In 2013, Yanukovych rejected admittance of Ukraine into the European Union (EU). Heavy lobbying was made by Russian government, which is said to have proposed private offers to leading Ukrainian political figures and industrialists for talking against EU accession (Putin pledged billions in aid to Ukraine). This rejection blew the cover off the already-volatile situation that has been simmering for years. Wave of protestations began in the late November of 2013, which demanded closer European integration (protests called as ‘Euromaidan’). Ukraine was split between two groups (Western and Eastern faction). One wants to remain closer to Europe, while the others want to have ties with Russia. Slowly the peaceful protests turned into violent riots and things turned bloody when police started using live ammunition on the protestors.
Up to this point, Crimea doesn’t come into the play. When a law of languages was introduced into this burning crisis, Russia and Crimea used it to its betterment.