The Atlas shows Crimea as a peninsula on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, but lines on a map do nothing to explain the complex makeup of a region that has been dominated by Russia for nearly 200 years but is now politically autonomous within Ukraine.
In politics, autonomy has limits. In 1995, Ukraine abolished the position of Crimean President after a pro-Russian Crimean separatist won the job in a landslide election. Now, Crimea has just a Prime Minister and a presidential representative, and both are appointed by Kiev. It’s a move right out of the Soviet playbook.
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According to a 2001 census of 2.3 million people, ethnic Russians make up 58% of Crimea, followed by 24% ethnic Ukrainians and 12% Muslim Crimean Tatars who were once the majority in Ukraine before Stalin claimed they helped the Nazi’s in World War two and deported them.
It is not surprising, then, that Crimea, as a center of pro-Russian sentiment, voted overwhelmingly for pro-Russian Presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych in 2010. His overthrow in Kiev is seen in Crimea as a coup by pro-Western and nationalist Ukrainians and an opportunity for separatists to make their case to leave Ukraine in favor of Russia. Today a banner that reads “Crimea is Russia” hangs above the region’s parliament building.
Ironically, in 1994 Russia agreed Crimea is a legal part of Ukraine and agreed to uphold the territorial integrity of Ukraine as a whole, a memorandum spelling it out was signed by Russia as well as the US, UK and France.
But memorandums are just pieces of paper. Russia has its Black Sea Fleet based at a major naval base in Sevastopol in Crimea -- it’s been there for well over 200 years and, memorandum or not, Moscow will take whatever action it wants.
According to the naval base lease, Russia is not permitted to operate its military outside the base’s perimeter, not even military vehicles or equipment without permission from Ukraine. Now that Crimea has become a flashpoint in a battle between East and West it appears that promise has been ditched.
Military units have seized the airport in Simferopol, Crimea’s regional capital, but there is no confirmation that the troops are Russian. Observers say they are too well organized to be a rag-tag band of separatists. But it raises the bigger question of a full force Russian invasion of Crimea and ergo Ukraine.
Could it happen? Yes, but it seems very unlikely.
Some comparisons are being made to the Russian attack on Georgia in 2008. Back then, Georgian troops had moved into an enclave of separatists in South Ossetia and Moscow responded with full force, brutally repelling Georgian soldiers.
But Ukraine is a very different prospect. It is bigger, more divided and any invasion would likely disintegrate into a long and bitter civil war. Russian president Vladimir Putin knows this but it doesn’t stop him from taking aggressive steps and putting the West on notice that Russia is prepared to protect its assets and its Russian speaking supporters.
As leaders from the East and West beat their chests, Ukraine is heading quickly toward bankruptcy. Russia is wary of Western money coming to the rescue because it could push the Ukrainian government closer to the European Union and away from Moscow.
It could be too late for Russia -- the legacy of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Russian administration may have Ukraine already looking for a seat at the table in Brussels.