Crimea Unravelled: a Deep Dive Into the History, Russian Occupation, and Ukraine

August 10, 2023
Unravelling Crimea's Past and Present: Russian Propaganda to Justify Its Actions.
Photo credit: Radio Liberty. Rally to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko in Simferopol, March 9, 2014.

Nestled on the northern coast of the Black Sea is a region steeped in an intricate web of history and cultures: Crimea. From ancient civilisations to imperial conquests, this peninsula has witnessed the rise and fall of empires. However, following Russia's controversial annexation of Crimea in 2014, the region was thrust back into the spotlight.

This investigative article aims to peel back the layers of Crimea's past and examine the reasons behind Russia's occupation.

A melting pot of civilisations

Dating back to antiquity, Crimea's history boasts a rich mosaic of civilisations. Ancient Greek colonies flourished along its shores, leaving behind architectural marvels and cultural artefacts that still echo through time. The Scythians, a nomadic warrior society, traversed the steppes, leaving behind burial mounds and fascinating artefacts that continue to be unearthed by modern archaeologists. Subsequent to the Greeks, the Byzantine Empire asserted its dominion over the peninsula, which was then followed by waves of invasions from the Mongols, Genoese merchants, and the Ottoman Turks.

Crimean Khanate and the Tatars

In the 15th century, the Crimean Khanate emerged as a formidable power, established by the remnants of the Golden Horde. Under the leadership of the Khans, the Tatars, who were descendants of the Mongols, played a pivotal role in shaping Crimea's identity. Thriving as a powerful centre for trade and diplomacy, the Crimean Khanate forged alliances with various European powers while simultaneously engaging in the lucrative slave trade with the Ottoman Empire.

The Russian annexation and imperial machinations

In 1783, the Russian Empire annexed Crimea under Catherine the Great, extending its dominion over the region. This act marked the beginning of a tumultuous relationship between Russia and the Crimean Tatars. The Tatars faced discrimination and deportation as the Russian authorities sought to establish an overwhelming Russian presence in the region.

The Soviet shuffle and transfer to Ukraine

In the 20th century, during the Soviet era, Crimea underwent yet another shift in political allegiance. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier, transferred Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The move was mostly symbolic, as both Russia and Ukraine were integral components of the larger Soviet Union. Little did anyone foresee the ramifications of this administrative decision, which would later play a pivotal role in the Crimea crisis.

2014 Crimea annexation

In 2014, the world watched with bated breath as Ukraine went through a dramatic political uprising, known as the Euromaidan revolution, resulting in the ousting of the then President Viktor Yanukovych. Seizing the moment, Russia covertly orchestrated a series of events that led to the annexation of Crimea. Russian troops, camouflaged as local militias, took control of key strategic points across the peninsula, while a contentious referendum was hastily organised.

Referendum farce and international outcry

The so-called "referendum," held under the prying eyes of Russian military presence, purportedly indicated that an overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted in favour of joining Russia. However, serious doubts were raised regarding the vote's legitimacy, as the timeline between announcement and execution was conspicuously short, leaving little room for a fair and impartial campaign. Additionally, international observers were denied access to monitor the proceedings, and the ethnic Tatar and Ukrainian communities largely boycotted the process, considering it a sham.

Reasons behind Russia's occupation and Russian propaganda

Taking into account the geopolitical, military interests and Crimea's strategic location, providing access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean is crucial for Russia's military and naval power projection. Home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, the city of Sevastopol, is a vital warm-water port for the Russian Navy.

Russia claimed it intervened "to protect the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea from the alleged Ukrainian nationalism," despite the fact that there was no substantial evidence of widespread discrimination against Russians in the region.

Citing the region's historical ties and centuries-long presence of Russians on the peninsula, Russia asserted a right to "correct historical injustice" and safeguard its compatriots.

In the run-up to and following the annexation, Russia launched a massive propaganda campaign to legitimise its actions. State-controlled media outlets disseminated misleading information, claiming that Crimeans were "being oppressed by the new Ukrainian government" and that the annexation represented a "reunification" with Russia. These narratives aimed to shape public opinion and manufacture a sense of consent, both at home and abroad.

The geopolitical chessboard

Russia justified the annexation by citing the need to protect its compatriots while also preserving historical and cultural ties with Crimea. Additionally, the strategic importance of Crimea's Black Sea ports, particularly Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, bolstered Moscow's case. However, many Western nations, along with Ukraine, condemned the annexation as an illegal violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, citing international law and treaties.

The human tragedy

Beyond the geopolitical intrigue, the annexation has had dire humanitarian consequences. Ukrainian loyalists faced persecution, with some being subjected to arrests, forced disappearances, and alleged torture by Russian forces and local collaborators.

The Crimean Tatars, who had only until recent repatriated to their native land, after years of exile during the Soviet era, experienced renewed oppression under Russian rule, thereby further exacerbating pre-existing historical wounds.

Crimea belongs to Ukraine: legal and historical aspects

The 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine occurred within the Soviet Union, making it an internal administrative decision. When the USSR dissolved in 1991, Crimea became an integral part of independent Ukraine, with internationally recognised borders.

In addition, Crimea's history and cultural ties with Ukraine stretch back centuries, with significant Ukrainian communities residing in the region. The Crimean Tatar population, an indigenous ethnic group, also has deep-rooted ties to the land.

Furthermore, the United Nations Charter and international law uphold the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia's annexation of Crimea violated these fundamental principles, and the international community widely condemned the action.

To conclude, Crimea's tumultuous history and the 2014 annexation have left a trail of unanswered questions, with the scars of the past and the uncertainty of the future continuing to haunt the region. As geopolitical tensions persist, the international community remains divided over Crimea's status, leaving the peninsula in a perpetual state of limbo.

While the global stage grapples with this intricate puzzle, the people of Crimea endure the consequences, trapped in a maelstrom of historical, political, and territorial complexities. Until a satisfactory resolution is reached, the fate of Crimea remains a tragic tale, lost in the labyrinth of history.

Alona Hryshko
Analyst at Internews Ukraine