A New Crimean War? A
look at the History of the Crimea
Developments in the Ukraine
crisis are escalating quickly, with the Russian military occupation of the
Crimea, and the threat of war between these two large Slavic nations. But what
of the Crimea? This peninsula that juts out into the Black Sea from
southern Ukraine is an area that has been contested for centuries by powerful
kingdoms, empires, and nations. For hundreds of years, the Crimea was one
of the last strongholds of militant Islam in Europe and one of the more
successful nations descended from the conquering armies of Genghis Khan and his
The Crimea is a somewhat
diamond-shaped peninsula with an excellent harbor at the city of Sevastopol,
and an excellent defensive point at the Isthmus of Perekop, the thin land
corridor that separates Crimea from the rest of Europe.
For centuries, the Crimea
exchanged hands between the ancient Greeks (who founded many of the coastal
cities), Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Venetians, Scythians, Huns, Persians,
Khazars, Mongols (also called Tartars or Tatars), Turks, Nazi Germans, and of
course, Russians and Ukrainians of today.
For the purposes of
understanding the current crisis in the Crimea, it is vital to know that the
last independent state in Crimea was the Khanate of Crimea, which existed from
1441 to the Russian conquest of the Crimea in 1783. The Crimean Tartars, who
were descended from the Mongol armies referred to as The Golden Horde,
inhabited and ruled in Crimea and much of Russia and Ukraine from the 1200s
onward. In the 1440s, the Tartars of the Crimea broke away from the
Golden Horde (which eventually lost control of Russia as well), and established
the independent Tartar state with a descendent of Genghis Khan as their new Khan
The Crimean Tartars were
Muslim, and, as was typical of relations between most Muslim states and most
Christian states at that time, waged almost constant war against the Slavic
peoples to the north of Crimea. The Tartars frequently raided into what is
now Ukraine and southern Russia, capturing thousands of Slavs to then sell as
slaves to the Turks and other Middle Eastern buyers.
Needless to say, the Czars of
Russia saw the Crimea as a threat, and also as an opportunity. The Crimea
is a semi-tropical environment, and Russia, especially during and after the
reign of Czar Peter the Great, sought warm-water ports for the Russian navy and
for commerce with the wider world. This made a Russian conquest of Crimea
a major goal of Russian military and foreign policy for centuries.
Through a series of wars with
the Turks and the Crimean Khanate (which at one point became a semi-autonomous
part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire), the Russians finally took over the Crimea
in 1783, and developed a major naval base at the city of Sevastopol.
Russia and Turkey continued
to fight wars, with one of them developing into the so-called Crimean War in the 1850s,
in which Britain and France game to the rescue of the Turks. These allied
forces invaded the Crimea in 1854. While Russia is considered to have
lost this war, and despite the efforts of the Tartar population in the Crimea
to also fight the Russians, the Crimea remained in Russian hands.
After Russian participation in
World War One ended due to the Russian Revolution, the Crimea was the scene of
massive battles between the Bolshevik Red Army and the "White Army"
of Generals Denikin and Wrangel.
With the victory of the Red Army in 1920, tens of thousands of the defeated
soldiers of the White Army were executed in Crimea. Soviet rule had begun
in Crimea.( See also Wars of the Soviet Union).
During World War Two, the
Germans took control of Crimea after a series of bloody battles with the
Soviets, until they were ejected by the Soviet Red Army in 1944. At this
point, the Soviets under Joseph Stalin began deporting most of the non-Russian
population of the Crimea to Soviet Central Asia. The deported populations
included hundreds of thousands of Muslim Tartars, on the pretext that they had
aided the Germans. Soviet records show that over 100,000 of the Tartars
died in the deportation and exile period due to the harshness of the conditions
and the brutality of the Soviet guards.
As a result of this
deportation, most of the remaining population were Russian and Ukrainian.
After the war, the Soviets encouraged massive settlement of their newly conquered
lands (also including former areas once populated by Poles and Germans in
eastern Europe), and many ethnic Russians settled in Crimea.
The Soviet Union was divided
into 16 separate "Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR)," such as the
Russian Soviet Republic (Russian SSR), the Ukrainian SSR, and so on.
While outwardly considered to be separate nations "choosing" to be
part of the Soviet Union (the full name of the Soviet Union was "Union of
Soviet Socialist Republics"), in reality, all parts of the Soviet Union
were under full control of the Communist Party headquartered in Moscow.
Thus, when the Crimea was legally transferred from being a part of the Russian
SSR to the control of the Ukrainian SSR, (largely for propaganda purposes), was
not considered of any real importance, since the entire country was controlled
by Moscow anyway. See also: Wars of Ukraine.
But, with a Crimean
population that had nearly three Russians for every Ukrainian, (especially
after the Tartar deportation), it did set up potential issues if the Soviet
Union ever broke up (as it did in 1991).
Following the breakup of the
Soviet Union in 1991, newly independent Ukraine struck a deal with Russia that
allowed Moscow to keep control of the massive naval base at Sevastopol.
This caused problems in 2008 when Ukraine protested Russian use of that base to
attack nearby Georgia in the Russia-Georgia War of 2008. And now, in
2014, the existence of that military base and the presence of large numbers of
ethnic Russians in Crimea has afforded Vladimir Putin, the current Russian
leader, excuses with which to effectively steal Crimea from Ukraine's control.
At this point, (March 2,
2014), it is too early to tell if this crisis will become a new Crimean War or
not. But the history of Crimea is one of war, blood, and conquest.
We shall see what happens...