A little history lesson about Ukraine and Crimea may help put recent developments into better perspective. What emerges is a very clear understanding of why both Russia and Ukraine feel that they each have historical precedent to support their positions: Russia believes Ukraine is part of Russia, while Ukraine (or at least parts of Ukraine) believes it to be independent with a brighter future in Europe. Both can lay claim to Crimea. Given such a long and convoluted history, one should not expect a quick and easy solution to tensions in that region.
The Crimean peninsula has been the center of many past conflicts, repeatedly colonized and occupied over the centuries. The Russian Empire annexed Crimea in 1783, after numerous wars with the Ottoman Empire. The Crimean War of 1853-56 (which some historians regard as the first truly world war) saw France, Britain, and the Ottomans pitted against Russia. While most of the fighting was on the peninsula, the Crimean War was an attempt to push back against perceived Russian hegemony in Europe. Crimea was devastated, but remained part of Russia.
After the 1917 Russian revolution, Crimea became part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the largest in the USSR. In 1944, Stalin deported the entire Crimean Tatar population to Siberia and Central Asia as punishment for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. In 1954, a controversial move by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (himself an ethnic Ukrainian) transferred Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, carving it out of the larger Russian territory.
Ukraine has had a long and prosperous history of its own. Kiev was at one time (in the Middle Ages) the largest city-state in Europe, situated on several important trade routes. Much of what is now Ukraine came under the control of Poland and Lithuania, but then became part of the Russian empire after the partition of Poland in 1793. Ukraine declared independence in 1918 after the Russian revolution. In 1921, however, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was established after the nation was conquered by the Russian Red Army. Ukraine was subject to many reprisals and hardships under Stalin.
When the USSR crumbled, Ukraine became a sovereign nation in 1991. There was much debate then about the fate of Crimea. When all was said and done, Crimea was granted special status as a so-called Autonomous Republic within Ukraine. This gives it a larger say over local issues, but it remains governed by Ukraine. Today, ethnic Russians make up nearly 60% of the Crimean population, with ethnic Ukrainians (25%) and Tatars (12%) the other major groups. The exiled Tatars began returning to Crimea after the fall of the USSR. Ethnic Russians in Crimea reportedly want a return to the constitution of 1992, under which Crimea briefly had its own president and independent foreign policy. Clearly, Ukraine will not be at all sympathetic to this.
Adding to the conflict is the status of Sevastopol. This is not only the largest Crimean city, but it also has special strategic and military significance dating back centuries. In 1948, Sevastopol was separated from the surrounding region of Crimea and made directly subordinate to Moscow. This was amended in 1978, when Sevastopol was put back under Ukraine’s jurisdiction. In the 1990s, the status of Sevastopol again became the subject of debate between Russia and Ukraine following the breakup of the USSR. Following protracted negotiations, the city and the surrounding territories was granted a special “state significance” status that kept it under Ukrainian rule.
However, the city’s Russian majority and many Russian politicians still consider Sevastopol to be a part of Russia. It is no wonder then that recent pro-Russian protest movements were centered in this city. Sevastopol serves to this day as an important Russian naval base under a 20-year lease first signed back in 1997. Then-President Yanukovych signed an agreement with then-President Medvedev in 2010 to extend the lease (as part of the natural gas deal) another 25 years to 2042, with an option to extend again to 2047.