It is important to understand the history of Crimean peninsula if we want to understand the current context as to what is happening as far as Ukrainian crisis is concerned !
With its strategic position dominating the Black Sea and its unstable ethnic mix, it’s not surprising that the Crimea is often called a tinderbox. It has long been central to Russia’s sense of itself as a great naval power — even during the past two decades when the peninsula has formally belonged to Ukraine, a separate country.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, arguments over the division of the Black Sea Fleet between Russia and the fledgling Ukrainian state were seen as likely to spark a war.
The Russians kept their ships at Sevastopol,a port in Crimea. Russian sailors and retired naval families enjoyed the sunshine and kept the base as a down-at-heel Soviet theme park. Ukraine was too poor, too corrupt and too disorganised to change the status quo.
Last month’s unexpected Ukrainian revolution and Vladimir Putin’s swift response crushed the old certainties. What is clear is that Mr Putin’s coup de force will strike a chord among many Russians, who have never reconciled themselves to the loss of a territory so intimately entwined with their history.
It was here that Saint Vladimir was baptised in 988, thus binding the early Russian state to Christianity. During the Crimean War of the 1850s, when Britain and France were keen to protect the Ottoman Empire from Russia’s growing power, the port of Sevastopol was besieged for 11 months until the garrison surrendered. In the Second World War, the port held out against Hitler’s troops and aircraft for 247 days, long enough to impose a critical delay in the Nazi advance on Stalingrad. For that defence, Sevastopol was honoured with the Soviet title of “hero city”
Today the population is almost 60 per cent Russian — the only part of Ukraine with a Russian majority. Twenty-four per cent are Ukrainian and 12 per cent Crimean Tatars, descendants of a once powerful Muslim khanate who were expelled by Stalin for collaboration with the Germans and then allowed to return under Mikhail Gorbachev.
To this day politics is coloured by the battles of the Second World War and the rival Russian and Ukrainian narratives. For many Russians, Ukrainian nationalism is fatally infected by the legacy of Stepan Bandera, who declared an independent Ukraine after the Nazi invasion in 1941 and co-ordinated Ukrainian support for the Wehrmacht against the Red Army. That is why Russian propaganda describes the protesters who forced out President Yanukovych as “fascists” and “Nazis”.
None of this would have any consequence today but for a bizarre act by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who “gave” the Crimea, previously part of Russia, to Ukraine in 1954 — a meaningless gesture at the time, since both republics were part of the USSR. Khrushchev, who began his working life in the coal fields of Eastern Ukraine, was eventually toppled for his many hare-brained schemes.
But who could have imagined that his thoughtless signature on a piece of paper would give Moscow, 60 years later, the chance to start a new war in the Crimea?
· 1783: Russia annexed Crimea.
· 1853: The Crimean War began, lasting three years. Russia lost to an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, France, Britain and Sardinia. Crimea remained part of Russia.
· 1917: Crimea briefly became a sovereign state before becoming a base for the White Army of anti-Bolshevik forces in the Russian War.
· 1921: The peninsula, now called the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, became part of the Soviet Union.
· 1942: Nazi Germany took control of Crimea.
· 1944: Joesph Stalin forcibly deported all Muslim Tatars, a group of 300,000 who had lived on the peninsula for centuries, due to members’ alleged cooperation with Germany during World War II. Many returned to Crimea in the 1980s and 1990s.
· 1945: After World War II, the autonomous Soviet republic was dissolved and Crimea became a province of the Soviet Union called the Crimean Oblast.
· 1954: Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred the Crimean Oblast to Ukraine. It’soften reported that it was a gesture of goodwill from Khrushchev, who had Ukrainian roots.
· 1991: The Soviet Union collapsed. Many expected President Boris Yeltsin, the new president of the Russian Federation, to take Crimea for Russia. But he didn’t bring it upduring negotiations with Ukraine.
· 1997: Ukraine and Russia signed a treaty that allowed Russia to keep its fleet in Sevastopol. The agreement’s since been extended, so the fleet is set to remain there until at least 2042.