While I do not profess to be a historian, there is a history running through the current drama on the Crimean peninsula. Just this morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin defended Russia’s move to annex Crimea, saying that the rights of ethnic Russians have been abused by the Ukrainian government. Crimea and Sevastopol are now part of the Russian Federation, according to a statement issued by the Kremlin.
Putin has essentially told the world, “get used to it. Crimea has always been a part of Russia and we are making it a reality.” Putin strongly censured the West, whose actions are “absolutely in favor of their own interests—black today, white tomorrow.”
Putin compared recent events in Crimea to Kosovo’s independence bid from Serbia, which the West supported. He claimed that the entire operation was legal and democratic, even saying that the Russian troops in Crimea were not there illegally, because of a treaty Russia has with the Ukraine that allows up to 25,000 Russian troops at its Black Sea base in Crimea.
Crimea, and Then What?
Crimea has been torn between East and West since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and this is reflected in a cultural and linguistic divide. Russian is widely spoken in parts of the east and south. In some areas, including the Crimean peninsula, it is the main language. In western regions – closer to Europe – Ukrainian is the main language and many of the people identify with Central Europe.
In a televised address to a Russian audience, Putin said that the weekend referendum in Crimea, a public vote where 97% voted to join Russia, “was an extremely convincing figure.” The U.S. and Europe continue to maintain that the election was illegal and have refused to recognize it.
The United States and the European Union have so far announced asset freezes and other sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials involved in the crisis in Crimea, which was part of Russia from the 18th century until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954.
Putin also lamented the break-up of the USSR, claiming that events happened so quickly that people did not have time to really process what was going on. Some experts have speculated that Putin’s ultimate ambition is to protect ethnic Russians across the former Soviet empire.
“Putin is prepared to keep on pushing,” Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, recently told the Associated Press. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he moves into other points into eastern Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian government and many Western powers agree with Hill, convinced that this is just the first step in what will amount to Russia attempting a military takeover of additional territories.
Still stinging from the presence of Russian troops in his country, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arsenly Yatsenyuk said, “I still believe that there is only one solution of this crisis, a peaceful one. But we offer peace, and Russia offers war.”
Putin will not find it easy to take over Crimea. Crimea is entirely integrated into Ukraine’s mainland economy and infrastructure (90% of its water, 80% of its electricity, and about 65% of its oil and gas. About 70% of Crimea’s budget comes directly from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
Today’s events make it clear that Russia moves as it wants, with very little regard for the pressure the U.S. and the European union are trying to exert.