Why Does Russia Want Crimea? The Crimean Issue Beyond The Headlines

British cavalry charged against Russian forces at the

Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War






Potemkin called Crimea ‘the wart on Russia’s nose’, and it still itches.Were a civil war to break out in Ukraine, it would most likely begin in Crimea (Anna ReidBorderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine 2000, p.187).

In a speech addressed to the Russian parliament on March 18, 2014, Vladimir Putin stated:

It was impossible to imagine that Ukraine and Russia could not be together. That they could be in separate states. But that is what happened. What seemed impossible, unfortunately occurred. The USSR broke up. The events happened so fast that few citizens understood the full-scale of the trauma of the events and their consequences … 

The (Crimean) issue has a vital importance, a historic importance for all of us … In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia. This commitment, based on truth and justice, was firm, was passed from generation to generation (note).

What is behind Putin’s arguments? Is he right? Why are the ties between Russia and Crimea so strong?

Russia, Ukraine and the West

Between 1990 and 1991, the Soviet Union experienced a deep crisis. President Gorbačëv lost his grip on the government and Boris Jel’tsin gradually seized power. He paved the way for the demise of the old regime and the birth of the Russian Federation. The attitude of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) during this crisis became an important indicator of the decline of the Union (Serhy Yekelchyk: Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation 2007, p. 190-191).

Simferopol, capital of Crimea

On the evening of August 24, 1991, the Supreme Rada of the UPR declared its independence from the Soviet Union with 346 votes in favour, 1 against and 3 abstentions (Yekelchyk 2007, p. 191). In December 1, 1991, a referendum to confirm independence as well as presidential elections were held simultaneously. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians (90.3%) voted in favour of independence, and Leonid Kravčuk was elected as president of the new state (ibid., pp. 191, 194). In the former Soviet bloc, Poland was the first foreign country to recognise Ukraine’s independence, while Canada was the first Western state to do so.

In December 1991, the leaders of the main Slavic republics of the Soviet Union, Boris Jel’tsin, Leonid Kravčuk, and Stanislaŭ Šuškevič (Belarus) had a secret meeting in Brežnev’s old hunting resort in Belarus. The outcome of this historic summit was the decision to dissolve the Soviet Union and to establish a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Although most former Soviet Republics joined this association, it remained a loose and weak organisation with no actual international weight. At the end of 1991, Gorbačëv resigned as president of the USSR, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist (ibid., p. 192).

Although Jel’tsin’s Russia had actively pursued the quick demise of the Soviet Union, the sudden collapse of Russia’s sphere of influence along with the country’s abrupt economic decline turned out to be a major psychological shock for the Russian people and elites. Soon after the end of the USSR, Moscow began trying to reassert its influence and contain a NATO expansion in the region. Ukraine became the hot spot of this new but veiled power struggle.

Many Russian politicians were not even sure that allowing Ukrainian independence had been a good decision. The Kremlin’s attempt to establish the CIS was designed to curb the dissolution of the Russian sphere of influence, but without success. Ukraine led the group of states which resisted Moscow’s charm offensive, and in this respect, it became an active anti-Russian factor in Eastern Europe.

Historic sites in Crimea (source)

Kiev-Moscow relations were tense. Most especially, the issues of Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet (established by Catherine the Great in 1771) were an endless source of bitterness (ibid., p. 195). In 1991 and 1992, many Russian politicians claimed that Ukrainian control of Crimea was illegal. In 1954, Nikita Chruščëv had ceded Crimea to Ukraine as a token of the two peoples’ eternal friendship (ibid.), and some of Crimea’s ethnic Russian sarcastically say that he must have been drunk (Reid 2000, p. 173).

Although Crimea had voted for Ukrainian independence by a slight majority of around 54%, anti-Kiev and pro-Moscow sentiments were strong and were to surge in the following years. In fact, the recent referendum for independence and the planned annexation of Crimea by Russia do not come out of nowhere.

As Anna Reid explains, when the Soviet Union collapsed, many of the Russian-speaking population of Crimea remained loyal to Moscow. In Sevastopol’, most officers of the local naval base “went over to Russia, refusing to swear new oaths of loyalty to Ukraine and running up the tsarist St Andrew’s Cross over the battleships rusting in the oily harbour. They also hung on to the fleet’s fine neoclassical headquarters, shoving the disgruntled Ukrainians off to dilapidated barracks in the suburbs” (Reid 2000, p. 171).

“Most officers think of themselves as citizens of Crimea and of Russia,” said an ethnic Russian. “As for me, I grew up in Crimea, but Russia is my Motherland.” (ibid., p. 172).

Many people in Crimea think the same way. When Gorbačëv held a referendum in March 1991 in order to save the Soviet Union, 88% of Crimeans voted in favour. Although a few months later the aforementioned 54% voted for Ukrainian independence, the mood soon swung back to a pro-Russian stance. In the early 1990s, the Crimean parliament passed constitutions which were de facto declarations of independence from Kiev. At the same time, the Russian parliament voted to declare the 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine unconstitutional (Reid 2000, p. 173; Yekelchyk 2007, p. 195).

In 1994, the pro-Russian populist Jurij Meškov became president of Crimea. He openly argued for the return of Crimea to Russia. During his tenure, he held an illegal referendum in favour of dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship, and he put Crimea on to Moscow time (Reid 2000, p. 173). All these crises were subsequently defused by Kiev through mediation and various forms of pressure, but they proved that the Ukrainian hold on Crimea was unstable.

The issue of Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet were painful to all those Russian and post-Soviet nationalists who felt that their country was declining and it had no power to protect itself against foreign bullying. The sudden loss of Crimea, which Russia had defended against Western powers during the Crimean War and during World War II with the sacrifice of Russian blood, inflamed the spirit of Russian patriots. During Jel’tsin’s weak presidency, Russia’s prestige in the world sank considerably, and in 1992 he had no choice but to agree on a three-year-long joint Russian-Ukrainian control over the Black Sea Fleet (Yekelchyk 2007, p. 195).

Before Vladimir Putin emerged as Jel’tsin’s successor, Russian politicians had called for a return of Crimea to the ‘motherland’. For instance, Aleksandr Lebed, the former chief of the Soviet army in Moldova who was for some time considered a bidder for the Russian presidency, and Jurij Lužkov, the populist mayor of Moscow, claimed that Sevastopol’ belonged to Russia. Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, the Russian parliament twice denounced Chruščëv’s transfer of Crimea to Ukraine, and in 1993 it passed a resolution declaring that Sevastopol’ is Russian territory (Reid 2000, p. 188).

The Crimean issue was intensified by Kiev’s nationalist policies of Ukranisation and by its ambiguous strategy of setting the West and Russia against each other. In fact, the Ukrainian government, similarly to what happened in former Soviet countries, discovered nationalism as the only ideology that could fill the vacuum left by the demise of Communism. The Ukrainian language and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were favoured over the Russian language and Moscow Patriarchate. This policy alienated the Russian-speaking people of Crimea. The conflict between the Ukrainian-speaking and the Russian-speaking part of the country have been compared by some scholars to the ethnic divide in former Yugoslavia, and the possibility of a break-away of Crimea has been a matter of debate in recent years (Kasianov / There [edit.]: A Laboratory of Transnational History: Ukraine and Recent Ukrianian Historiography 2009, p. 273).

Moreover, Kiev angered Moscow by ‘flirting’ with the West. Despite maintaining relatively close ties to Russia, especially in the economic field (most notably the lucrative gas business), the Ukrainian government also sought to establish increasingly strong ties with the United States and NATO. The Kravčuk government described the ‘return to Europe’ as an alternative to the Kiev-Moscow axis, and his successor, Leonid Kuchma, even entered a cooperation agreement with NATO in 1995. In 1997 he signed a “Charter on a Distinctive Partnership”.

At the same time, the United States discovered Ukraine’s geopolitical importance. As Zbigniew Brzezinski put it: “It cannot be stressed strongly enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” (Yekelchyk 2007, p. 196). In recent years, many Ukrainians voiced their desire to join the EU, thus angering Moscow even more (note).

The division and polarisation of Ukrainian society on the issue of whether the country belongs to the East or the West is therefore an issue that derives from an unclear and contradictory post-Cold War geopolitical settlement, from old national and ethnic questions, and the growing rivalry between the United States and Russia.

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