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.
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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