With the victory of the Maidan movement in Ukraine and fall of President Viktor Yanukovich, many questions about the future of Ukraine are swirling. The most important and potentially disastrous question involves Crimea. Pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators in Crimea clashed on Wednesday as Putin ordered military exercises across the border and the Crimean parliament ruled out debating a split from Kiev.
Crimea, a majority-Russian-speaking peninsula in the south of Ukraine on the Black Sea coast, could become the next flashpoint in the Ukrainian crisis. History is a big part of the problem.
Crimea was conquered by the Russian tsar Catherine the Great in 1783 from the Crimean Tatar Khanate, a state descended from the Mongol Empire and for centuries affiliated with the Ottoman Empire. Crimea was settled primarily by Russian nobles and serfs in the succeeding century.
Joseph Stalin deported the entire Tatar population of Crimea to Central Asia during World War II in one of his fits of paranoia. Crimea had little historical connection with Ukraine until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred the peninsula from the Russian Socialist republic to the Ukrainian Socialist republic in 1954, in honor of the three-hundredth anniversary of the annexation of the Eastern half of Ukraine by the Russian tsar Aleksei in 1654.
Nikita Khrushchev and most of the world thought this was meaningless because both republics were part of the Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Crimea became part of the independent Ukrainian state.
Russian elites have never really accepted Crimea as a valid part of Ukraine. Many Russians own or rent summer dachas on the peninsula. The Russian Navy maintains an important base at Sevastopol. Read more…
Eric Lohr is Professor of Russian History, and Anya Schmemann is an Assistant Dean at American University.
Published in the National Interest on 27 February: http://nationalinterest.org