Russia and Ukraine – a complex situation
13 Mar 2014|

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville. Russia's historical connection with the Crimean peninsula is much stronger than that of Ukraine.

As Sunday’s referendum in Crimea approaches, there seems little doubt that the peninsula’s majority Russian-speaking population will vote for a return to rule by Moscow instead of Kiev. However, it seems unlikely that the result will be accepted by the Ukraine or much of the world community.

It’s extraordinary that such a huge amount of nonsense has been written and spoken about Crimea and then parroted by no lesser figures than the US President, the US Secretary of State and the British Prime Minister—among others, including senior members of our own government. All demonstrate a surprising ignorance of history, which is only likely to harden the position of Russia’s President Putin.

The historical reality is that the Crimean peninsula became part of the Russian Empire late in the 18th century. As far as can be determined, Crimea hasn’t historically been part of the Ukraine except for a few decades during the 10th century when Kievan Rus’ first emerged—from that time on it has been the territory of various conquerors, including the Mongols and the Ottomans.

Students of history might recall that France, Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire actually fought a war with Russia in the Crimea between 1853 and 1856. This involved events including the Charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Sevastopol and the emergence of personalities such as Florence Nightingale.

In 1954, in an unexplained and slightly bizarre development, the new First Secretary of the USSR communist party—Nikita Khrushchev—decided to transfer Crimea to the Ukraine, which of course was also part of the Soviet Union. Prior to that, during the period 1921 until 1954, Crimea had been a separate autonomous region within the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. During the civil war that broke out in the aftermath of the 1917 October Revolution, the peninsula was progressively occupied by more than half a dozen different warring factions.

So, to say to Russia ‘hands off the Ukraine’ is one thing. To say ‘hands off Crimea’ is another matter entirely. By some readings of the situation, it was illegal under Soviet law for Khrushchev to have made the unilateral 1954 transfer in the first place. It’s impossible to determine why he took that decision because the USSR was behind the Iron Curtain then, only just coming out of the complete paranoia and secrecy of the final years of Josef Stalin’s dictatorship. Suggestions that he did so simply because he liked the Ukraine for personal reasons and had spent a lot of his professional life there seem odd. But no less strange than comments by his relatives that he took the decision because it was to do with the administration of hydroelectric projects in the region, or that it was connected with a Cossack 300th year anniversary.

While the USSR existed, this probably didn’t matter so much because, even though Crimea was administered by the Ukraine rather than Russia, it was still under the effective control of Moscow. That situation changed in 1991 with the complete collapse of the old Soviet Union and so at that point it became part of the newly independent Ukraine, though even in these changed circumstances Russia continued to lease the major naval base of Sevastopol. Or to put it another way, only in 1991 was Crimea removed from Moscow’s historical political grasp.

At least no one seriously disputes that the majority of present day inhabitants of the Crimea Peninsula consider themselves to be Russian, not Ukrainian. Since 1991 the status of Crimea has been the subject of ongoing squabbles connected to matters such as the future of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and the rights of the minority Tartar population. However, until quite recently Moscow had accepted the legitimacy of the 1954 deal—though that wasn’t necessarily the view of a majority of the people living there. The situation has now become even more complicated, with the parliament of the Crimean region appealing to Moscow for assistance.

This background probably explains why European leaders— generally intelligent and well read— are much more circumspect about what’s going on than those further removed from reality. And more cynically, it’s European countries that will suffer the most economically if the situation goes from bad to worse. After all, if Russia responds to sanctions against it met by turning off the energy tap, then there’s going to be widespread suffering.

Given the complex histories referred to above, some sort of neat solution that satisfies everyone looks to be impossible. It seems likely that Crimea will be returned to Russia, which could prompt some mild economic responses from the EU and United States. The Ukraine will retain its independence—but with the clear message that Moscow has limits to what it will allow.

Kym Bergmann is the editor of Asia Pacific Defence Reporter and Defence Review Asia. A longer version of this story will appear in the next DRA. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.