The Crimea may be one of the most colonized, conquered, seized, traded and handed around landmasses of its size in Eurasia. The Crimea is a peninsula, jutting into the Black Sea, which is open to the sea lanes of the World and ice free year round. Greeks colonized the Crimea about 550 BC and the outlook, religion and culture of people there have since followed that influence, which has been successively overlain by many others. Then, the Romans showed up. Any Emperor worth his salt would know he needed the Crimea in order to dominate the critically important Black Sea, linking Europe, Asia and the Middle East. When the Eastern part of the Roman Empire became Byzantine, so did the Crimea.
Then Genghis Khan showed up with his Golden Horde in the 13th Century, resulting in a permanent Tatar ethnic minority whose traditions were decidedly not Greek in outlook. Under the Crimean Khanate, the Crimea became officially Muslim and fell under the control of the Ottoman Empire.
The European powers were never happy about Islamic Ottomans controlling important sea lanes like the Black Sea. Ottoman control of the Bosporus was bad enough. Added to that, control of the Crimean Peninsula amounted to making the Black Sea an Islamic lake. The Christian Empires were unified in their desire to see the Ottoman grip around the Black Sea pushed back. But they had trouble agreeing on who should control what. In the Eighteenth Century, Russia stepped in.
Follow me out into the tall grass for a brief history of Russia's peculiar interest in the Crimean Peninsula since the 18th Century, and a discussion of the significance of that history as context for Putin's internationally condemned military adventure.
During Catherine’s reign, the Russian Empire expanded southwards and westwards. The empress fought and won two wars against the Ottoman Empire (1768–74, 1787–91). Russia annexed the Crimea and consolidated its hold on the Black Sea coast, where new towns were founded. Catherine’s armies were led by such brilliant military commanders as Pyotr Rumyantsev and Alexander Suvorov.Catherine the Great's heirs did what they could to extend Russia's growing bear hug around the Black Sea coasts. But as Ottoman power waned, Queen Victoria's Britain and France eventually allied with the Ottomans to push back against Tsarist Russian expansion, resulting in the Crimean War, from 1853-1856.
Russia enjoyed several naval victories under Catherine II. In 1770, after sailing from the Baltic to the Mediterranean Sea, Count Alexei Orlov blocked and burnt the Turkish fleet in Çesme Bay. The new naval base of Sebastopole was founded in the Crimea in 1783. Under the command of Admiral Fyodor Ushakov, the Russian fleet won several major victories over the Turkish navy, establishing its control over the Black Sea.
The Crimean War cost Russia its Black Sea Fleet, a humiliating and costly setback. But, Russia did not lose control of the Crimean Peninsula nor of Catherine's port city of Sevastopol.
The 20th Century history of Crimea deserves its own diary, which Navy Vet Terp, thankfully, ably provided here. In summary, it is a story of Russian domination, growing Russian Naval power, ethnic cleansing and, in turn, Tsarist, Communist and now plutocratic dictators who arbitrarily traded the peninsula between Russian and Ukrainian administration.
Sevastopol, the home of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, has always been a Russian city and always had Tatar and Ukrainian minorities. The Crimean Peninsula, since Catherine II's time, has almost always been under Russian control. As Navy Vet Terp points out, Russian Communism was very hard on the Tatar minority, expelling them to more Muslim parts of the Soviet empire by the hundreds of thousands. The entire population of the peninsula is only about 2.5 million.
Sevastopol has a population of over 300,000 people and an outspoken Russophile as the recently elected Mayor. Putin is using the demands of these ethnic Russians to justify his military actions. People are marching in the streets declaring their allegiance to Russia.
Holding the Crimean Peninsula militarily offers little technical difficulty. Only two rail lines and two roads lead on and off of the landmass. By treaty the Russians already had a fleet and airbase at Sevastopol. Putin doesn't look to pay a high price in treasure for this caper. He waited until the Ukrainian government was at its most disordered and weakest point and then struck like lightning, imposing a reportedly bloodless occupation of the peninsula.
I am as ready as the next guy to clutch at my pearls over Putin's blatant disregard for international norms in his handling of this. But I don't favor the Ukraine nuking Russia over it, even if it still could, like some crazies out there are fantasizing about. I tip my hat to pasuburbdem1 who has also noted the importance of Russian history in the Crimea as context to understanding Putin's actions there in Would Putin be a FOOL Not to Invade Crimea. Even if he is breaking some rules, Putin is asserting Russian national interests on behalf of Russian speaking people in a territory that has been Russian going back as long in history as the U.S. itself.
This is undeniably a matter of historical interest and one can't help but wonder what will happen next. I don't think it will be armed conflict and I don't believe Russia will give the territory back. But how exactly that will all get worked out, I don't have a clue. Until then,
HE DID IT, TOO!