This is not the first time Crimea has a been in the cross-hairs of conflicts. Why is tiny Crimea yet again a global hotspot? Three words – location, location, location. The Crimean (Tauric) Peninsula lies off the north shore of the vast Black Sea. It is bordered by, and connected to, the Ukraine in the north by a skinny 5km wide isthmus (Perekop Isthmus). The Russian Federation lies to the east across an equally skinny strait (Arabat Strait). Just beyond the Black Sea to the south lies Turkey, and to the west Romania and Bulgaria. So Crimea is more less where X Marks the Spot.
Over the centuries, this diamond shaped peninsula of half plains, half mountains, has been fought over by the greatest empires of both modern AND ancient times. Originally an outpost of the Greek Empire, you can still find the columns of Greek ruins near the modern capital of Sevastopol. It was conquered and ruled by the ancient Bosphoran Kingdom in 513 B.C., but was routinely threatened by the Huns and Mongols over the centuries. The mighty Roman Empire took control in 15 B.C. at the time Caesar Augustus was Emperor. When the Roman Empire finally collapsed in 476 A.D., Crimea remained part of the Eastern or Byzantine Empire, centered in Constantinople. It would remain there for the next 500 years.
Because of its key maritime location on the crossroads of three continents, it was always sought after.
Kievan Rus, the Slavic precursor to the Russian Empire, recognized its strategic location and invaded from the north in 988. This was during the reign of the legendary St. Vladimir I, who united the Slavic states under Christianity. Three centuries later in 1238, the Tatar Mongols famous Golden Horde invaded from the east and snatched up Crimea next. When the Tartars switched to Islam, they began to align themselves with the growing Ottoman/Turkish Empire, just across the Black Sea to the south.
Byzantine Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The Crimea, still controlled by Muslim Tatars, became one of its vassal states. The Ottoman Empire, ruled by a succession of Sultan dynasties, then grew to encompass much of the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkan states. Crimea remained under Turkish control for the next 300 years. That is, until the age of the Russian Tzars came about. Then Crimea found itself more or less at ground zero once again.
Tzar Peter the Great modernized the Russian Empire, turning it into a force to be reckoned with. From then on, the Russian and Ottoman Empires fought a series of fierce Russo-Turkish Wars for control of the Black Sea. There were twelve wars in all, stretching for 200 years from 1676 to 1878. The treaty of one of those wars briefly established, for the first time, an independent Crimean Tatar state in 1774. It was short lived however (only 9 years) until the Russian Empire, now ruled by Catherine the Great, annexed it in 1783. After 2 centuries of wars, Crimea finally fell under Russian control.
One of those 12 conflicts is known as The Crimean War, from 1853-1856, when the battleground was on the peninsula itself. Angered by Russian encroachment into Romania; Turkish, French and British troops declared war on Russia. After several naval battles, the allies landed at Sevastopol and laid siege to the fortified city for an entire year. The Russians finally were forced to sign a treaty.
Everything changed again of course when two 20th century pivotal events occurred, back-to-back. World War I erupted in 1914 with the entire globe taking sides: Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Turkey against Britain, France, the US, and Russia. Then in 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution began in Russia. It ended in the death of both Tzar Nicholas and the Russian Empire, and the emergence of Vladimir Lenin and the new Communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (Soviet Union).
After the war, Crimea became a part of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. Then came World War II! During WWII, the Nazis invaded Ukraine and Crimea, and took Sevastopol in 1942. Two years later, the Soviet Red Army repulsed the Nazis and took back the port and peninsula. After the war, Communist Premier Josef Stalin was particularly cruel to the ethnic Crimean Tatars. Calling them Nazi sympathizers, he sent over 200,000 to forced labor in Siberian gulags.
In 1954, on the 300th anniversary of Russian rule over the Ukraine (Treaty of Pereyaslav), Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (a Ukrainian by birth) transferred Crimea from Russia to the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic as a gift. After the death of Josef Stalin, many ethnic Muslim Tatars were finally able to return back to their Crimean homeland, now occupied mainly by Russians.
The brings us to more modern times. Soviet Communism and the USSR spectacularly fell to pieces in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Ukraine became an independent nation, which included Crimea, as a semi-autonomous republic. Ukraine signed an agreement with the new Russian Federation, dividing the Black Sea Fleet between the two of them, and allowing Russian ships to remain stationed in the port of Sevastopol for 20 more years.
So everything was settled now, Da? Nyet. Fast forward to our present decade.
Having long been a part of Russia, the majority of Crimeans are ethnic Russians and Tatars, not Ukrainians. In 2010, Ukraine narrowly elected a pro-Russia President, Viktor Yanukovych. After 4 years and a collapsing economy, the unpopular President was facing impeachment, and fled the capital Kiev to Moscow. A violent rebellion had erupted in the streets after he implemented a number of pro-Russia moves: to scuttle joining the European Union and prolong the Sevastopol lease for another 30 years.
The next month, during the chaos in Kiev, Crimea’s parliament declared its independence from Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed Russian troops to Crimea, claiming they were sent there at parliament’s request to protect ethnic Russians and Russian assets. The Crimean people appeared to approve. A disputed popular referendum was held where over 90% supposedly voted for reunification with Russia. In March 2014, Putin signed a law formally annexing Crimea into Russia.
The entire world blinked and … did little. Heavy economic sanctions were levied against Russia by the west. Ukraine withdrew its troops from Crimea. In the eyes of the United Nations, United States, NATO and European Union, Russia is still an occupying power and Crimea remains a part of the Ukraine. As you can imagine, tensions between Ukraine and Russia have remained VERY tense ever since. This brings us to today and the current Tit-for-Tat troop build-ups we watch erupting on either side of the Ukraine-Russia border.
So, as you can see, because of its location, tiny Crimea has a history lasting millennia of being sought, conquered and ruled by a number of empires and nations. Its small population, originally nomadic Tatars, were diluted over the centuries with Romans, Turks, Ukrainians and Russians. Who has rights to Crimea today? The people, you say? Which people? Hence, you see the latest dilemma facing the world today, with Crimea once again in the crosshairs.