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 Mongol hordes.
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 (King).
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…