Spotlight on Crimea

It's complicated.

With the victory of the Maidan movement in Ukraine and fall of President Viktor Yanukovich, many questions about the future of Ukraine are swirling. The most important and potentially disastrous question involves Crimea. Pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators in Crimea clashed on Wednesday as Putin ordered military exercises across the border and the Crimean parliament ruled out debating a split from Kiev.

Crimea, a majority-Russian-speaking peninsula in the south of Ukraine on the Black Sea coast, could become the next flashpoint in the Ukrainian crisis. History is a big part of the problem.

Crimea was conquered by the Russian tsar Catherine the Great in 1783 from the Crimean Tatar Khanate, a state descended from the Mongol Empire and for centuries affiliated with the Ottoman Empire. Crimea was settled primarily by Russian nobles and serfs in the succeeding century.

Joseph Stalin deported the entire Tatar population of Crimea to Central Asia during World War II in one of his fits of paranoia. Crimea had little historical connection with Ukraine until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred the peninsula from the Russian Socialist republic to the Ukrainian Socialist republic in 1954, in honor of the three-hundredth anniversary of the annexation of the Eastern half of Ukraine by the Russian tsar Aleksei in 1654.

Nikita Khrushchev and most of the world thought this was meaningless because both republics were part of the Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Crimea became part of the independent Ukrainian state.

Russian elites have never really accepted Crimea as a valid part of Ukraine. Many Russians own or rent summer dachas on the peninsula. The Russian Navy maintains an important base at Sevastopol.

Only twenty-two years ago, the Russian vice president Aleksandr Rutskoi and Vladimir Putin’s mentor, St. Petersburg mayor Anatolii Sobchak, gave speeches demanding the reversal of the 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine. Populist Russian mayor Yuri Luzhkov continued this tradition, delivering provocative speeches in and around Sevastopol into the 2000s.

The new Ukrainian state has swung from adept maneuvering and flexible deals with the Tatars in the region (about 12% of the population) and with the Russian-speaking local population in the 1990s, to a counterproductive attempt to assert central authority over the province after the Orange Revolution under the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko.

The Crimean population (59% Russian, 24% Ukrainian, 12% Tatar) is not viscerally hostile toward Ukraine. As in the Ukrainian East, most people there want responsible government, an end to the spiraling corruption of the Yanukovich era, and constructive relations with both Europe and Russia. However, there is a deep-seated mistrust of the Ukrainian nationalists. The Crimean legislature has repeatedly voted overwhelmingly to denounce the Maidan.

Perhaps even more than Russian attitudes, the real litmus test for Crimea will be the policies of the new government in Kiev. Any attempt to impose direct rule from the center or to impose cultural policies from above will spur conflict and open the door to Russian meddling.

What makes the situation particularly scary is the recent precedent in South Ossetia, where Russia distributed Russian passports to citizens of Georgia. Then, when the Georgian president tried to reimpose central control over the breakaway region by force, Russia sent its army in to break that region and the separate region of Abkhazia away from Georgia, declaring both to be independent new countries (but de facto incorporating them into the Russian sphere of influence in a quasi-independent status heavily dependent upon Russian military and financial support).

Most Abkhazians and South Ossetians have been far from pleased with the result, and disaffected Crimean Russians should be careful what they wish for in the coming weeks. Declaring independence or seeking to join Russia could have seriously negative consequences for the peninsula.

And while Russian leader Vladimir Putin reaped some temporary domestic polling popularity as a result of the operations in Georgia, he also lost a lot of credibility and respect on the global stage.

Ukraine is incomparably larger and potentially much more dangerous than Georgia. There is a serious Ukrainian army, but even more importantly, Ukraine owes Russia a lot of money. Chaos and default are not in Russia’s interests. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which Russia ventures into a conflict in Ukraine comparable to Georgia in 2008.

That said, passions are currently running very high and the unlikely has proven possible time and again in Ukraine. The world needs to watch closely and make clear to the new Ukrainian leaders that governing will require compromise. And the world needs to make clear to Russian leaders that there can be no compromise on the question of intervention within its neighbor’s sovereign borders.

Eric Lohr is Professor of Russian History, and Anya Schmemann is an Assistant Dean at American University.

Image: Flickr/FutureAtlas.com. CC BY 2.0.