Everything You Need to Know About Crimea

Its history, geography, and caught-in-the-middle situation with Ukraine and Russia.

Sunbathers lay out on the rugged beach of Yalta in Crimea in 2003.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Feb. 28, 2014, 6:26 a.m.

In just a mat­ter of weeks in Ukraine, civil un­rest turned in­to bloody clashes with po­lice, pro­test­ers seized the cap­it­al and sent the pres­id­ent flee­ing to Rus­sia, and a newly formed in­ter­im gov­ern­ment faces mil­it­ary force from Rus­sia.

The on­go­ing struggle rep­res­ents a polit­ic­al and cul­tur­al di­vide between Ukraine’s east­ern re­gion, which main­tains close ties with Rus­sia, and its cent­ral and west­ern re­gions, which con­sider them­selves a part of Europe free of Mo­scow’s con­trol. This week, the battle spilled over in­to Crimea, Ukraine’s only Rus­si­an-ma­jor­ity re­gion.

Things are mov­ing fast. The latest de­vel­op­ment came Tues­day when Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry de­nounced Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin’s jus­ti­fic­a­tion for send­ing troops to Crimea. Ukraine has mo­bil­ized its mil­it­ary re­serv­ists in re­ponse to the threat.

The United States and oth­er na­tions are threat­en­ing eco­nom­ic sanc­tions against Rus­sia, but the chances of Putin back­ing down are slim.

Here’s what you need to know about Crimea as the situ­ation un­folds.

What is Crimea?

Crimea is a re­gion of Ukraine on the north­ern coast of the Black Sea. It is con­nec­ted to Ukraine to the north, and to Rus­sia to the east. The pen­in­sula is about the size of Mas­sachu­setts, but with one-third of its pop­u­la­tion, with about 2 mil­lion people, ac­cord­ing to the 2001 Ukrain­i­an census (which ap­pears to be the latest data).

People hold plac­ards read­ing “Crimea is Ukraine” dur­ing a rally in front of the Ukrain­i­an par­lia­ment in Kiev on Thursday. (YUR­IY DY­ACHY­SHYN/AFP/Getty Im­ages)

Nearly 60 per­cent of its res­id­ents are Rus­si­ans, fol­lowed by Ukrain­i­ans (24 per­cent), Crimean Tatars, a Turkic group nat­ive to Crimea (12 per­cent), and Be­larus­i­ans (1 per­cent.) Al­though Ukrain­i­an is the of­fi­cial state lan­guage, most cit­izens speak Rus­si­an.

Crimea is an autonom­ous re­pub­lic with a con­sti­tu­tion that fol­lows Ukrain­i­an law. It is gov­erned by a pres­id­en­tial rep­res­ent­at­ive, a prime min­is­ter, and a 100-seat par­lia­ment.

Crimea’s biggest in­dus­tries are tour­ism and ag­ri­cul­ture. Its di­verse land­scape boasts moun­tain ranges, grass­lands, caves, vine­yards, fruit orch­ards, and sunny beaches. Like So­chi, the host of the Winter Olympics, south­ern Crimea has a hu­mid sub­trop­ic­al cli­mate, and hun­dreds flock to its beaches dur­ing sum­mers whose tem­per­at­ure av­er­age 82 de­grees Fahren­heit. Na­tion­al Geo­graph­ic named it one of its must-see places for 2013 for its “briny health re­sorts,” mud baths, and slices of Cold War his­tory, like a once-secret nuc­le­ar-blast-proof sub­mar­ine base.

Crimea is about a two-hour flight (or a nearly 17-hour drive) from Mo­scow, which lies north of the pen­in­sula. Here is how you pro­nounce Crimea, and here it is on a map.

A wo­man poses in cos­tume for a pho­to­graph with her son and daugh­ter on the beach of Yalta in Au­gust 2003 in Crimea. (Oleg Nikish­in/Getty Im­ages)

Why am I hear­ing about it in the news?

As ten­sions rise between Ukraine’s in­ter­im gov­ern­ment and Mo­scow this week, thou­sands of pro-Rus­sia and pro-Ukraine pro­test­ers clashed in front of the par­lia­ment build­ing in Sim­fero­pol, the cap­it­al city of Crimea. Fol­low­ing the ouster of Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych, who sur­faced in Mo­scow on Thursday, armed mil­it­ants seized gov­ern­ment build­ings in Sim­fero­pol, and crowds swarmed the streets chant­ing “Rus­sia, Rus­sia.”

On Fri­day, Rus­sia Today pub­lished video foot­age of the crowd, wav­ing Rus­si­an flags, gathered in front of Crimea’s par­lia­ment build­ing. The situ­ation es­cal­ated that same day when mil­it­ants in­vaded and seized two Crimean air­port. Ukrain­i­an lead­ers say the men were Rus­si­ans, sent by Mo­scow.

The U.S. be­lieves the uniden­ti­fied troops that rushed in­to Crimea this week are Rus­si­an. Their pres­ence sug­gests that the battle between Mo­scow and Kiev for Crimea is just be­gin­ning.

So the people of Crimea are sid­ing with Rus­sia here?

Well, not every­one. Crimean Tatars also ral­lied in the cap­it­al this week, but in sup­port of the pro-European op­pos­i­tion. In 1944, un­der Joseph Stal­in, the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of the Muslim Tatars was de­por­ted from Crimea to cent­ral Asia. This eth­nic cleans­ing, Stal­in’s gov­ern­ment al­leged, was pun­ish­ment for their col­lab­or­a­tion with Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion forces. Tatars began re­turn­ing to the pen­in­sula after the So­viet Uni­on’s col­lapse in 1991, and their pop­u­la­tion is grow­ing each year.

Eth­nic clashes, or ter­rit­ori­al clashes for that mat­ter, are not new in Crimea, however.

Wait, what do you mean? What happened there be­fore?

His­tor­ic­ally, Crimea has been a battle­ground for con­flict­ing in­terests — be they polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, or ter­rit­ori­al — between Kiev and Mo­scow. When re­la­tions strain between Rus­sia and Ukraine, “ten­sion is likely to be felt most acutely in Crimea,” The New York Times ex­plains. Anti-Ukraine demon­stra­tions by Rus­si­an res­id­ents were held there as re­cently as 2009.

Crimea has had a long his­tory of be­ing conquered and con­trolled by out­siders: the Vene­tians and the Gen­ov­ese in the 13th cen­tury; the Ot­to­man Em­pire between the 15th and 18th cen­tur­ies; the Rus­si­an Em­pire from the 18th to 20th cen­tur­ies; Ger­many dur­ing World War II; and then the Rus­si­ans again for the rest of the last cen­tury. In 1922, Crimea be­came part of the So­viet Uni­on.

Dur­ing WWII, the pen­in­sula was the site of sev­er­al bloody battles as the Ger­mans, sty­mied by its moun­tains, tried to reach the So­viet main­land. In 1945, Al­lied forces met in the Crimean re­sort city of Yalta to di­vide up Europe. That same year, thou­sands of Greeks and Bul­gari­ans, along with the Tatar pop­u­la­tion, were sent to cent­ral Asia and Ser­bia.

In 1954, the So­vi­ets put Crimea un­der the Ukrain­i­an bloc’s con­trol. When the So­viet Uni­on fell apart, Crimea re­mained a part of the newly in­de­pend­ent Ukraine. Crimea sought in­de­pend­ence from Ukraine shortly after, but was un­suc­cess­ful.

A young wo­man sells cold drinks and wa­ter on the shore of the Black Sea in Sevastopol, Crimea, in 2003. (Oleg Nikish­in/Getty Im­ages)

Wasn’t there a war, too?

Yes, the Crimean War. In 1853, con­flict arose between Rus­sia and sev­er­al world powers, in­clud­ing the Ot­to­man Em­pire, Great Bri­tain, France, and Sardin­ia, over con­trol of ter­rit­ory in the Middle East. The war, waged mostly on the pen­in­sula, is most re­membered for the Brit­ish-won Battle of Balaclava, which was me­mori­al­ized in Al­fred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Bri­gade.” The war ended three years later with the Treaty of Par­is, and Rus­sia gave up the land it fought for to Tur­key.

So what’s Rus­sia do­ing about the cur­rent situ­ation?

Dur­ing this week’s protests on the pen­in­sula, Crimea le­gis­lat­ors called for chan­ging re­la­tions with Ukraine, spark­ing se­ces­sion fears in Rus­sia. The par­lia­ment of Crimea, which leans pro-Rus­sia, has an­nounced a ref­er­en­dum on ex­pand­ing the re­gion’s autonomy from Ukraine in May.

In re­sponse, Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin has moved to se­cure Crimea from the Ukrain­i­an op­pos­i­tion’s con­trol. Crimea houses part of the Black Sea fleet, a large unit of the Rus­si­an navy, something Mo­scow is keen on pro­tect­ing from pro­test­ers.

As the op­pos­i­tion names the min­is­ters it hopes to ap­point to its new gov­ern­ment, Putin has put 150,000 Rus­si­an troops on alert along the Ukrain­i­an bor­der, the first real show of strength since con­flict began brew­ing a few months ago. Rus­si­an troops have also blocked a Ukrain­i­an mil­it­ary air­port in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol.

Pro-Rus­sia pro­test­ers gath­er in front of the Crimean par­lia­ment build­ing in Sim­fero­pol on Thursday. (Va­siliy BATAN­OV/AFP/Getty Im­ages)

And what about Ukraine?

Ya­nukovych said in a Fri­day press con­fer­ence that he was not over­thrown, but he went on the run to pro­tect his life. “I in­tend to con­tin­ue the fight for the fu­ture of Ukraine against those who, with fear and with ter­ror, are at­tempt­ing to re­place the power,” he said, speak­ing Rus­si­an, not Ukrain­i­an.

The Ukrain­i­an op­pos­i­tion, mean­while, has is­sued an ar­rest war­rant for Ya­nukovych, and has re­ques­ted his ex­tra­di­tion from Rus­sia. It has also warned Rus­sia against its “mil­it­ary ag­gres­sion.” Ukraine main­tains po­lice forces in Crimea, but it’s un­clear how much au­thor­ity Ukraine’s act­ing in­teri­or min­is­ter has over them. The rising con­flict there could also dis­tract Ukraine’s new lead­ers from build­ing their new gov­ern­ment and re­pair­ing the na­tion.

And every­one else?

The European Uni­on has prom­ised sup­port for a new Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment, but ad­vised its new lead­ers not to break trad­ing and cul­tur­al ties with Rus­sia. NATO has urged lead­ers on all sides to reach agree­ments on con­sti­tu­tion­al re­form in Ukraine.

Across the pond, the United States no longer re­cog­nizes Ya­nukovych as pres­id­ent. The White House has urged Rus­sia to stay out of Ukraine (and by ex­ten­sion, Crimea) and in­stead help sta­bil­ize the coun­try, which is tee­ter­ing on bank­ruptcy.

So, what now?

We, along with the rest of the world, have to wait and see.

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