The simple reason why empires have killed each other over this location for so long is geography. In ancient times, and today, water ports have had extreme economic and military importance. Since sea navigation has always proven to be the fastest form of transportation, land masses with natural access to oceans and rivers have played a huge role in trade. One has to look no further than a map to see where all great civilizations have started. They all consisted of access to rivers and the coast. Access to waterways means access to trade, which in turn means access to wealth and power. Crimea is surrounded by water. Furthermore, this body of water is in the middle of two continents with short passage to a third: Africa. Get the picture now?
According to the Kyiv Post, after accepting the Crimean referendum Putin said that "to understand why the choice was made that way, one needs to know the history of Crimea and Russia.” Since this location has proven so vital, Crimea has a long recorded history going as far back in time as Ancient Greece. Over the course of 2000 years, it has belonged to the Cimmerians, Greeks, Romans, Scythians, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Khazars, Byzantines, Kievan Rus, Kipchaks, Golden Horde Tatars, Mongols, Ottoman Turks, Venetians, Genoas, Crimean Khanate, Ottoman Empire, Russian Empire, Soviet Union, Ukraine, and now, surprise surprise, Russian Federation. When looking at the bigger historical perspective, it is of little surprise indeed that a larger neighbor such as the Russian Federation has made a move against a weaker and vulnerable one for this strip of rock. In fact if this did not occur, it would have been an exception to the rule or a historical anomaly. However, to ensure my readers that this is not the first chapter of a 10 volume encyclopedia, I will concentrate our understanding on the latest actors in this play that never ends.
Russia’s Pursuit of Warm Water Ports and Western Antagonism (18th-19th Centuries)
Much like Ukraine today, a fragile government experiencing decline was in control of the Crimean Peninsula in the 18th century—the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, Russia was on the rise under Peter the Great (1682-1721) and then Catherine the Great (1762-1796). Czar Peter Romanov was a capable leader who expanded his empire’s frontiers and was struggling to modernize Russia’s military, economy, and bureaucracy. In order for Peter to succeed, he knew he had to overcome Russia’s greatest weakness, warm water port access for sea trade. Russia gradually expanded southward to get to the Black Sea; however, to do this Ukrainians, Cossacks, and Turks had to be dealt with. Although Peter was able to acquire the Azov Sea, the real credit goes to Catherine, who finished the job via her successes in the Russo-Turkish Wars. The unfortunate peoples occupying land near the Black Sea were eventually subdued through a series of conflicts and the Crimean Khanate was formally annexed into the Russian Empire in 1783.
In spite of these successes and the fact that Russia was nearly the largest land empire of Europe, the title of world superpower still belonged to Great Britain with its domination of international trade and vast naval fleet. Alarmed by the potential future shift of power by a Russian sea presence in the Mediterranean, Great Britain had Russia make diplomatic assurances that it was satisfied with its possession of Crimea and would not make any further expansions south at the decaying Ottoman Empire’s expense.
By the mid 1800s, Czar Nicolas I was aware of the strategic advantages of acquiring the Bosphorus Strait, the gateway into the Mediterranean from the Black Sea, but it would not be the Russians who instigated the Crimean War (1852-54).
Strangely familiar to today’s tug-of-war in the region, Russia’s justification for intervening in Ottoman affairs was concern for the religious rights of Orthodox Christians living in the Ottoman Empire and Russia’s claim as rightful “protector” of these people living in Ottoman territory. With the Ottoman Empire in gradual decline, this strategically positioned Russia to pick up the pieces when the opportunity presented itself.
Now, contrary to what you may have heard about the Crimean War, the main agitator in this conflict was not Great Britain nor Russia, but France. The French Emperor Napoleon III was in desperate need of a victory to assert his political strength and prominence at home. To do this, he too turned to the easy target of exploiting Ottoman decline; however, made a strategic error. Napoleon III tried to negotiate with the Ottoman Sultan for “protector” status of the rights of Ottoman Christians. When the Sultan refused, Napoleon sent warships into the Black Sea as a show of force that made him reconsider. This may seem insignificant on the surface, but to understand the politics of the time, Napoleon was able to reinvent himself as the savior of the Catholic faith and secured France as the prominent buzzard circling the “sick man of Europe.” However, this was an obvious offense to Russia and the French Emperor was unprepared to deal with the fallout. For one, the once Orthodox Greeks would by default become under protection of the Catholic Church. The blatant disregard for cultural and religious values of Orthodox Serbs, Greeks, and others in the Empire made the plan doomed from the start. Outraged by the French, Nicholas’s first move was to take the Dnieterian port city on the Black Sea, currently the modern city of Transnistria, Moldova. Next, France moved its fleet into the Bosphorus to prevent any further intrusions into Ottoman territory. Once the first shots were fired, Great Britain too intervened to ensure Russian containment as a land empire. In the aftermath of the conflict, Russia suffered a humiliating defeat and lost many territories back to Ottoman hands, but was allowed to keep the vital port city of Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula.
Cultural Genocide: The Russification of Crimea and Ukraine
From the 1860s onward, the Russian Czars began an aggressive campaign of Russifying its strategic regions that were won in the previous century. Strategic port cities throughout Russia such as Paldiski, Transnistria, Crimea, and Vladivostok were settled by ethnic Russians to ensure permanent control and future allegiance. In 1876, the Ems Ukaz Act restricted printing of books and other literature in Ukrainian. Minorities, in particular Ukrainians, were educated in Russian and denied their cultural heritage in history classrooms. Instead, their Kievian Rus origins were emphasized. Such programs as these were meant to destroy any cultural identities minorities might have throughout the empire to make them more Russian. In later years under the Soviet Union, this process accelerated under more aggressive programs. Greek literature in the Crimea was destroyed and schools were forbidden from teaching in any language other than Russian. In 1944, Stalin forcefully expelled the remaining Tatars, Greeks, Armenians, and Bulgarians from Crimea to central Asia or gulags where many were killed by starvation and decease. From that year forward, ethnic Russians became the predominate majority in Crimea.
Ethnic Genocide: The Ukrainian Holocaust
In the early 1930s, Ukrainian nationalist movements were an annoyance to the Soviet Union and considered a threat. In 1932-33, Joseph Stalin orchestrated a man made famine in the Soviet Socialist State of Ukraine, known to the Ukrainians as Holodomor. In one of the worst events in human history, Ukrainians under collectivization were forced to meet impossible quotas, restricted from access to outside help, had foodstuffs confiscated from their households, and were restricted from moving elsewhere. These conditions all classified the famine as man-made; therefore it can be defined as genocide. Unlike the Jewish Holocaust, it would take international observers till the late 1980s and 90s to formally recognize it. To this day, it is an accusation Russia staunchly denies. Some scholars dispute that the famine was premeditated and contribute it to the overall consequences of Stalin’s collective farming policies. Since little to no documentation can prove the mass starvations were deliberately intented, most of the evidence comes from surviving eyewitnesses and Soviet bureaucrats in the region such as Stanislav Kulchytsky who wrote the reports in the region. According to Kulchytsky, he was “ordered by the Soviet government to falsify his reports and portray the events as a natural disaster.“ Since no documentation exists and the Soviet Union was well known for its inaccurate data, it is estimated that between 1.8 to 12 million Ukrainians died.
1954 Transfer of Crimea to Ukraine
In 1954, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev initiated many public works projects throughout the USSR to develop Russian infrastructure. One such project was the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Dnieber River. The dam would provide energy to the surrounding Soviet republics and be a symbol of modernization; however, for Khrushchev the dam’s construction was a bureaucratic nightmare. According to Khrushchev’s surviving son, Sergei Khrushchev, the borders of Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine were redrawn to include Crimea in order to create administrative uniformity and speed up the construction of the dam. Much to the regret of later generations of Russians, the Crimean peninsula was to remain a part of Ukraine up to the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as the 20 years that followed.
Russian Cultural Ties to Crimea
The loss of Crimea was a huge blow to Russian nationalism. The naval base at Sevastopol was the pride of the Russian navy. Historically, the Russian people trace their ethnic as well as religious roots from the Kievian Rus Empire. The Belarussians, Ukrainians, and Russians all trace their cultural heritage from this 11th century kingdom. Today there is a famous Orthodox church in Sevastopol to mark the location of where Vladimir the Great converted to Christianity, making the entire kingdom Orthodox Christian. Sevastopol is also famous for its role in the Great Patriotic War where it was granted the status of Hero City for its refusal to surrender to Nazi forces in the face or overwhelming odds.
In modern times, in spite of the transfer of Crimea to the Ukraine, the population of Crimea remained predominately Russian in ethnicity and language. After the fall of the Soviet Union and independence of Ukraine, many Russians were outraged that such a key strategic region was lost. Many Russian bureaucrats disputed Ukraine’s claim to the region under the grounds that the 1954 transfer was unconstitutional under Soviet law. In order to ease tensions, Ukraine formed many agreements with Russia that included the lease of Sevastopol to the Russian Naval base and the allowance of 50,000 troops on the peninsula.
Today’s Western Agitation and Russian Referendum
During and shortly after the Maiden Revolution in Ukraine February 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the United States and the West assurances that he would not send troops into Ukraine and would respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. However, much like Czar Nicholas I’s promises to Great Britain prior to the Crimean War, Putin would break this promise in the interest of “protecting” the ethnic Russians in Crimea. An additional parallel to the Crimean War, in spite of western views, Russia was not the first agitator then or now. Thanks to secret documents published by the whistle blower website known as Wikileaks, the Maiden Revolution had financial assistance from western backed interests such as prominent EU bankers and George Soros. Another leak was an audio recording of a NATO official admitting responsibility for the sniper murders in Kiev’s Independence Square in February. Prior to 2014, Putin was sensing an aggressive behavior on the part of NATO with its increased membership of former Soviet States such as Estonia, Latvia, to name a few, and NATO’s push for a missile defense shield which was claimed to be aimed at Iran. Added together, Putin must have seen a loss of a pro-Russian government in Ukraine as an inevitable loss of Crimea and Sevastopol to NATO forever. Connecting these dots and seeing the lack of respect to international law by the West in the early 2000s, it is of little surprise that Putin would behave as he did. Putin had nothing to lose by militarily occupying Crimea and everything to lose if he remained a spectator.
What You Need To Know
The Crimean Peninsula is very strategic militarily and economically. Throughout the long historic struggle over Ukraine and Crimea, neither the West nor Russia has a moral high ground in this. Although Russia has historical roots to Crimea and Russian majority, most of this was accomplished artificially through cultural and ethnic genocide, or Russification. Putin’s justification for militarily occupying Crimea to ensure successful annexation into Russia is a rip-off of Czar Nicholas I’s strategy to make a move against Ottoman Turkey. Russia’s genocidal acquisition of land differs little with the United States’ pacification of the western frontier and annexation of Hawaii for its vital naval base at Pearl Harbor at the expense of the native Hawaiians. Although Russia has always had its eyes on Crimea as the grand prize, Western powers have historically intervened in its affairs to blockade it from reaching the Mediterranean. With all the disinformation coming from the Russian and American news agencies, there is third choice in this information war. Instead of choosing a side, think of it as a simple but sad mathematical equation. Large powers always bully small ones. Big powers only fear other big powers, not international law. British and American foreign policy has always been to keep Russia contained. The only question left is if Putin will be successfully contained from acquiring other strategic regions such as Paldiski, Estonia or Transnistria, Moldova.
Epilogue: What’s Next For Ukraine and the World?
Let us not forget that originally the Maiden revolution was the result of common people upset over a government that refused to represent them and a news media that refused to represent the truth. It is the same struggle taking place in Turkey, Brazil, Venezuela, Greece, Spain, Bahrain, Thailand, China, Russia, United States, and elsewhere around the world. It is the only real struggle of any relevance to us. The only agreement between the oligarchs of East and West in this crisis is shared necessity to divert global audiences away from this fact and foment nationalism to narrow our debate, critical thinking, and objectivity. It is the REAL war against us that has no useful narrative in any media outlet. Given the situation currently, the crisis will only be resolved when there is a clear winner. It is highly unlikely that Ukraine will be left alone as a loose federation and traditional “buffer zone.” Neither Russia nor NATO can trust the other side not to covertly intervene in Ukrainian politics. If Russia wishes to make a move, it must escalate violence and destabilize Eastern Ukraine quickly before the May elections give Kiev more legitimacy. Likewise, the United States will not accept any more referendums granting Russia more land because it will only make the West look weaker. In a perfect world, the original principles of the Maiden Revolution would succeed in Ukraine and the people would be free to determine their own future and trade with whomever they wish. The obvious lies and propaganda pouring out of Russia and the West would backfire and result in a further expansion of hope from Kiev to Moscow and around the world. This day will only arrive when we know our history.