If you’re watching Ukraine right now, pay special attention to Crimea

So I’ve been trying to get myself knowledgeable enough about what’s happening in Ukraine to write about it, and events are just blowing past me while lots of people who already know quite a bit about the region are writing excellent, thoughtful pieces breaking the whole situation down. Please seek them out and read them. I’m about a third of the way through something about the benefits and perils of viewing current events through a historical lens that comes out of some of the analysis I’ve been reading about Ukraine, but I’ve actually had some more urgent priorities the last couple of days so I’m not very far into it. Luckily it’s not dependent on the state of affairs RIGHT AT THIS SPLIT SECOND, so it can wait a bit. This post is actually more sensitive to the current situation, which at the moment is changing, oh, roughly every five minutes or so.

Yesterday it looked like embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had reached an accord with the leaders of the Euromaidan protesters who had occupied Kiev and had been violently clashing with police there and in several other parts of the country for the better part of a week. The deal called for early presidential elections, a reinstatement of Ukraine’s 2004 Constitution, and the formation of a new “government of national trust.”

As it turned out, though, Yanukovych’s attempt to put down the protests by force had caused the level of resentment among the protesters to rise to the point where their leaders were no longer really able to channel the movement, and so the protesters simply rejected the deal and the authority of those “leaders” to have negotiated it in the first place. Where early elections and the restoration of the 2004 Constitution would probably have pacified the protesters a month ago, or even a week ago, in the aftermath of violence like this:

ukraine 1 ukraine 2

Both of these via Agence France Presse

nothing short of Yanukovuch’s resignation was going to end the crisis, and Yanukovych wasn’t about to resign. The crowds remained, and Yanukovych seems to have panicked a little. He fled Kiev and is said to be in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv (possibly after attempting to fly to Russia and being stopped), where support for him and his pro-Russia orientation is much higher than it is in Kiev and the western part of the country. Protesters swarmed into government buildings in Kiev (including Yanukovych’s absurdly opulent estate) and the Ukrainian Parliament (under a speaker, it must be noted, who was newly “appointed” by the protesters) voted to remove Yanukovych from office. Yanukovych, as you might expect, rejected his removal and is vowing to keep fighting, possibly joined by local leaders from the eastern part of the country (that link is to RT.com, which is sometimes pretty good but has a habit of playing up the Russian side of stories like this, so be aware).

It seems likely that the focus of the action in Ukraine is going to shift away from Kiev and toward the eastern part of the country where support for Yanukovych may still be strong, and support for Euromaidan is certainly much weaker. In my opinion, though, relatively uninformed as it is, the place to watch is Crimea. There’s been a fair amount of superficial “white guys have names like Lenny, whereas black guys have names like Carl”-style analysis about the divisions between east and west Ukraine. The east, so the story goes, is home to more Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians who tend to support closer ties with Russia, and the western part of the country, filled with mostly Ukrainian speakers and perhaps with a stronger sense of Ukrainian nationalism, gravitates toward Europe much more than it does toward Russia, and that split explains why the Euromaidan protests happened. The problem with this kind of analysis is that those divisions are insufficient by themselves to have caused the protest movement, and really oversimplify the causes and extent of the public opposition to Yanukovych. Euromaidan’s roots are in the weakness of the Ukrainian economy and Yanukovych’s ham-fisted efforts to outlaw, then violently suppress, the protests. If it were a simple east-west crackup over ethno-linguistic divisions, then we wouldn’t be seeing protests against Yanukovych in eastern Ukrainian, Russophile cities like Donetsk.

However, the divisions–linguistic, ethnic, and in political orientation–between the eastern and western parts of Ukraine do exist, and if anything they are exacerbated in Crimea, a peninsula in the southern part of the country that juts into the Black Sea.

Crimea (via)
Crimea (via)

Crimea is actually not an oblast (province) of Ukraine, but is instead an autonomous republic with its own constitution, parliament, and government headed by a prime minister-like office called the “Chairman of the Council of Ministers.” Whereas even in the Russo-phile eastern part of Ukraine, ethnic Russians are outnumbered in most regions by ethnic Ukrainians (many or most of whom, admittedly, are Russian-speaking) or are, at most, a slim plurality, in Crimea Russians outnumber Ukrainians by 2-to-1 or more. The reason for that is that Crimea was considered part of Russia for almost two centuries, from its annexation by the Russian Empire in the late 18th century to a 1954 Soviet decree that turned administrative control of Crimea over from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Presumably in 1954 the Soviets weren’t thinking about what would happen when their house of cards would eventually fall apart, but when they did it was immediately unclear whether Crimea would stay with the newly independent Ukraine or return to Russian hands. The establishment of the Crimean Republic was a sort of compromise that allowed Crimea to remain part of Ukraine but to have autonomy from Kiev, and the Ukrainian government allowed Russia to keep its Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol, so everybody’s interests in Crimea were protected.

Prior to its absorption into the Russian Empire, Crimea was ruled by the Crimean Khanate, founded in 1441 by a descendant of Genghis Khan. This khanate was one of the successors to the Golden Horde, the Mongolian empire that controlled much of what is now Russia and Ukraine in the 13th and 14th centuries, and during its time as part of those two khanates the population of Crimea became mostly Turkic-Mongolian, the people known today as the Tatars. Eventually the Crimean khans became vassals to the Ottomans until the rapidly growing Russian Empire seized it in 1783 and Slavic peoples (Russians and Ukrainians) began pouring in. In 1897, Tatars were still a very slim plurality (about 36%) of the Crimean population, as compared to around 33% Russians and 12% Ukrainians, but by 1939 the peninsula was 50% Russian, 19% Tatar, and 14% Ukrainian. Then, in 1944, Stalin ordered a mass deportation of all Tatars out of Crimea, an act of brutality that displaced the Tatars and killed thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, in the process. They were only allowed to return just prior to the USSR’s collpase. Today the population is somewhere around (there hasn’t been a Ukrainian census since 2001) 55-60% Russian, 25% Ukrainian, and 15% Tatar.

With that ethnic breakdown, it’s no wonder that there’s a great deal of affinity for Russia in Crimea. Although a 2011 poll found that over 70% of Crimean residents see Ukraine, not Russia, as their “motherland,” that figure was up from only 32% as recently as 2008, and is still considerably lower than any other part of Ukraine. While the Euromaidan protesters have been struggling against Yanukovych in Kiev, a separatist movement has been forming in Crimea that may try to declare the peninsula’s independence from Ukraine and, perhaps, its return to union with Russia. This is what happened when a small Euromaidan demonstration tried to get started in the eastern Crimean city of Kerch:

It would be one thing if Crimea was just inclined to separate itself from Ukraine, but there’s also the increasingly large Tatar population to consider. Whether it’s because they are pro-Europe or just anti-Russian, many Crimean Tatars have demonstrated in support of the Euromaidan protesters in Kiev:

Complicating things even further is that Russia has a very compelling reason to want to keep Crimea in its orbit: the naval base at Sevastopol, which is jointly home to the Ukrainian navy and to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, both of which were formed out of the Soviet Black Sea fleet when that country collapsed. The loss of Sevastopol in particular has continued to be A Big Deal in Russia, with many prominent politicians calling for the city to simply return to Russian control. Ukraine agreed in 1997 to lease the part of the base to Russia for 20 years, and then in 2010 the Kharkiv Pact extended that lease until 2042 in exchange Russia selling its natural gas to Ukraine at a discount. When it came time to vote on the Kharkiv Pact in the Ukrainian Parliament, this is what happened:

Sevastopol is of major importance to the Russian navy, and while Vladimir Putin (who may be somewhat constrained in his ability to respond to what’s happening in Ukraine until the Olympic spotlight is taken off of him) may have many reasons for wanting to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit (national pride, historical and cultural affinities, ethnic similarities, fear of the EU expanding right up to Russia’s border, control of the gas pipeline from Russia into Europe, etc.), Sevastopol is probably the one thing in Ukraine that Putin would go to war to retain and, in fact, “Russian government officials” are already suggesting that a Georgia/South Ossetia-style intervention could be undertaken in Crimea if Ukraine continues to deteriorate. This possibility is also being picked up, and given a colorful spin, by Putin’s opponents:

Considering that Crimea was actually part of Russia from 1783 until 1954, whereas the history of Austria’s relationship with Prussia/Germany is considerably more complicated than that, I’m not sure the analogy to the Anschluss is all that helpful. But if there is one flashpoint for the next crisis in Ukraine, Crimea is probably it.


3 thoughts on “If you’re watching Ukraine right now, pay special attention to Crimea

  1. A very clear and well written article, thank you. Do you really think that Tymoshenko will take a more independent stance from Russia than Yanukovych? I get the impression that she’ll be quite pragmatic in her dealings with Putin.

    1. I don’t know very much about Tymoshenko, but I do know that she wants Ukraine to join the EU and even supports joining NATO. She opposed extending Russia’s lease at Sevastopol and also opposes making Russia a second national language. Unless she had some kind of epiphany while she was arrested, then assuming she runs and wins the presidency I think it’s safe to say that she’ll try to chart a much more independent course for Ukraine.

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