The Invasions of Crimea
The Invasions of Crimea
In November 2013, the political leadership of Crimea came out in support of the Yanukovych Presidency and Azarov’s government and expressed “concern” about the opposition’s actions threatening the political and economic stability of the country. Just a day after the EuroMaidan crackdown in Kyiv, on November 21, Crimea’s autonomous State Council, its local parliament, supported Yanukovych’s decision to suspend the signing of the EU Association Agreement and urged the population of the peninsula to “strengthen ties with Russia”.
In early December, the Crimean parliament and administration adopted a series of appeals to the Ukrainian leadership, demanding that order be restored in the country and a state of emergency be introduced. Separatism was expressly discussed by Crimean authorities. On December 3, the Presidium of the Crimea’s State Council suggested that the Ukrainian President consider Ukraine joining the Russian Customs Union. Pro-Russian organizations – particularly the Russian Bloc party, whose ranks included many FSB agents, called for the formation of autonomous self-defense units on the peninsula and, in particular, in Sevastopol to protect the city and in the “event of a coup d’etat” to secede from Ukraine. Sevastopol’s Coordinating Council had already called for the creation of a federal state of autonomous Malorossiya (“Russia Minor”) with a political orientation towards Russia.
For many years, the idea that Crimea is a Russian State and that the peninsula rightfully belongs to Russia was promoted to Crimea’s local population. What is the historical background, though, of the peninsula? Even the broad outlines of Crimea’s history are not commonly known locally, let alone Ukraine at large, as it was a subject that fell under USSR propaganda until 1991 and remained politically sensitive thereafter.
Crimea’s ethnic mix is historically a patchwork of people. The most ancient population of Crimea are the Cimmerians, who inhabited the northern Black Sea coast in the eighth through seventh centuries BC. After the invasion of the Huns (375 BC) and the fall of the Bosporan Kingdom, starting from the fourth through fifth centuries AD, the dominion of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire was gradually established. In subsequent centuries Crimea was seized by the Khazars and then the Armenians, who had formed a number of colonies during the twelfth through fifteenth centuries.
From 1239, Crimean territory conquered by the Mongol-Tatars (the “Kipchaks”) became part of the Golden Horde, and from the middle of the 15th century the Genoese were at war with the Christian-Orthodox principality of “Theodoro” (or “Gothia”) over the coastal lands of the southern Crimea, inhabited by Goths, Greeks, and Alans from Persia. At the same time, eastern-Crimean Tatars coexisted peacefully with the Genoese, trading with its coastal factories (a Genoese fortress controlled Sudak). During this period, many Circassians settled in eastern Crimea from the north Caucasus (today Russia, then Ottoman lands).
By now, the population of the Crimean peninsula consisted of a wide range of ethnicities: Kipchaks, Goths, Greeks, Alans, Armenians, and even Russians who settled in the cities. Slightly earlier, before the defeat of the Khazar Khaganate in the tenth century, there were the Qaraites, who practiced Judaism, some of whom, together with the Tatars, later moved to Lithuania. Their descendants continue to live in Lithuania and the Grodno region in Belarus.
The population inhabiting the so-called Crimean Yurt (Homeland) increasingly sought independence from the Khans of the Golden Horde, whose power began to weaken by the beginning of the fifteenth century. With the support of the Lithuanian principality and the local Crimean nobility, an independent Crimean Khanate was established in 1441, headed by its first khan Haji Giray I, who ruled the Crimea until 1466.196
From 1478 up to 1774 the territory of Crimea became a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans kept their garrisons and a bureaucratic apparatus in the Crimean Khanate. The Girey dynasty ruled the Khanate, and the power was transferred from one relative to another quite often, as a result of intrigues, murders and coups.
Having a certain independence within the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Khanate served as a buffer between the empire’s heartlands and the Grand Duchy of Moscow, conducting constant devastating raids on Russian lands and stealing slaves which were sold in the slave markets of the East. Claiming the Volga and Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea, Crimean Khans even dared to attack Moscow, burning it down in 1571 taking fifty thousand Russians as prisoners. In fact, until the times of Peter the Great (with some interruptions) Russia paid tribute to the Crimean Khans, who could rely on military support from the Ottoman Sultan.
Islam Girey III (1644-1654) coincided with the era of Hetman Bogdan Khmelnytsky and the incorporation of his Cossack territory in eastern Ukraine into Russia – the “real” Malorossiya (Russia Minor). Girey III rendered military assistance to Khmelnytsky’s Kozaks during in the War of Independence against Poland. Through him, Khmelnytsky conducted secret though fruitless negotiations on the Hetmanate becoming a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire instead of Russia.197
Crimea’s political direction turned on July 21, 1774, with the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji. Having lost a devastating war, the Crimean Khanate was released by the Ottoman Empire and became a protectorate of Catherine the Great, who installed Shagin Giray as Khan (1777-1782, 1782-1783). The Sultan paid her 4.5 million rubles and ceded the northern coast of the Black Sea (the north Caucasus), along with two important ports and more remote territories.
Crimeans did not warm to Russia’s protégé who tried to reorganize the administration of his Khanate on a Russian last. Even his brothers rebelled against him. Finding himself overthrown, Giray turned to Russia for help to regain his throne. Catherine the Great had been waiting for this moment and sent Prince Potemkin to suppress the uprising. Thereafter, she forced Giray to abdicate and annexed Crimea to Russia in set of moves that Putin would emulate 250 years later.198
In 1802, Crimea was subsumed under the newly formed Taurida Province of the Russian Empire, which included three mainland counties and five counties of the peninsula. This province existed until the end of the Russian Revolution and Ukraine’s Civil War in 1921. But earlier, as a result of the Crimean War of 1853-1856 against an alliance of France, Britain, Italy and the Ottoman Empire, Russia lost the right to keep a fleet on the Black Sea and have military arsenals on the Black Sea coast, though it managed to keep a number of Crimean cities, in particular Sevastopol.
After the February and October revolutions of 1917, Crimea was not part of the newly formed Ukrainian People’s Republic from the start. However, after Hetman Skoropadsky came to power in Ukraine and Ukraine was occupied by German troops, Crimea did fall under Ukraine, and under the Brest Treaty of 1918, Soviet Russia recognized Crimea as Ukrainian territory.199
The civil war meant there were numerous changes of “White” and “Red” governments in Crimea. Of the latter, both a Soviet Socialist Republic of Tavrida and a Crimean Soviet Socialist Republic were proclaimed. Even so, Crimea was the last territory held by the White Army under the command of General Baron Peter Wrangel. On the night of November 8, 1920, the commander defending Crimea, General Alexander Kutepov could not hold back the attack, and the Red Army broke through to the Crimea with heavy losses.200 After the seizure of the Crimean Peninsula, the Bolsheviks carried out mass arrests and shootings in Crimea. According to estimates of Soviet historians in the period from November 1920 to March 1921, from 52-56,000 people were executed. According to foreign historians it may have been twice that number.
In October, 1921, the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialistic Republic (CASSR) was formed as part of Soviet Russia (RSFSR).201 At the end of 1922 the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was proclaime, whose main republics were Soviet Russia and Soviet Ukraine. However, even after 1922 there were small territorial changes. Thus, the Ukrainian Donetsk Province included the Taganrog District. It only became part of Russia in 1925.
During World War II (“The Great Patriotic War”), new tragic events took place in the Crimea. In May-June 1944, the Crimean Tatars, Armenians, Bulgarians, and Greeks were compulsorily deported from Crimea by the Soviet government after accusations of collaboration with the Nazis. The autonomy of the Crimean Soviet Socialist Republic was abolished at the end of the war and almost all Tatar, Greek and Bulgarian settlements were given Russian names. In June 1946 Crimea became a province of Soviet Russia, with navy base Sevastopol a separate administrative unit.
1954, the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine
The transfer of Crimea from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine is surrounded by numerous and often contradictory legends. The reality is more prosaic. 1954 was the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s Cossack relations with Russia. The Communist Party and the Soviet government decided to mark the glorious anniversary by presenting Ukraine with a fraternal gift: the handing back of Crimea. It was an early example of “Substitution of Ideas”, i.e. separating historical facts from their relevance. In 1754 the Hetman’s counterpart was a Romanov Tsar, whose descendants the celebrants had assassinated – a fact not otherwise part of the festivities. The idea was Nikita Khrushchev’s, Secretary of the USSR (1953-1964) and a native of Ukraine, who as Communist Party leader of Ukraine (1944-1947) had first thought of it.
On January 25, 1954, the meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, chaired by Georgy Malenkov, duly approved the gift with following wording: “Taking into account the commonality of the economy, the territorial closeness and close economic and cultural ties between the Crimea region and the UkrSSR, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR decides to transfer the Crimea region from the RSFSR to the UkrSSR”.202
The reasons for the transfer of the Crimea to Ukraine were not just a celebration of legal casuistry. They were dictated by economic expediency. After the compulsory deportation of the indigenous peoples of Crimea in 1944 – Tatars, Greeks, Armenians and Bulgarians, who led a mostly agricultural way of life and were used to growing crops in Crimea’s arid steppe conditions – the settlers drawn from Russia’s interior had struggled. Their attempt to grow traditional potatoes and cabbage was not a success. They had no experience of farming in such hostile conditions, and they did not know how to take care of the fields and vineyards, nor were there many who were drawn to this frankly rather thankless labor.
Most Russians settled in Crimea in order to spend their retirement warming their bones in the Crimean sun. Accustomed mainly to complaining, the Soviet settlers wrote about the poor conditions, lack of housing and food as the region was becoming more and more desolate. In addition, during that period, the construction of the enormous (for that time) north Crimean water canal from the Kakhovsky water reservoir on the Dnipro river had started. It was more convenient to carry out the financing of such large-scale hydraulic works within the framework of one Soviet republic than have endless cross-border turf fights between bureaucrats of two republics.
In March 2014, Vladimir Putin engaged in some historical substitution of his own to justify annexation. He claimed that the sole initiator of the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine “was Khrushchev personally”, who was acting on “the desire to gain the support of the Ukrainian nomenklatura or to make up for his guilt for organizing mass repression in Ukraine in the 1930s.” In 1954 Khrushchev could not take such dictatorial decisions on his own. After Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 Khrushchev was embroiled in a power struggle with Malenkov, which he only won in 1955. Khrushchev could not have made that decision on his own. In any case, none of the decisions regarding the transfer of Crimea carry Khrushchev’s signature and nor did Putin aim to join a historical debate.203
In July 1990, after the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine, the latter withdrew from the USSR, together with Crimea, and there were no protests about it in Russia. The fact of the cession of the Crimea region was later confirmed by bilateral Russian-Ukrainian agreement of November 19, 1990, by which the parties renounced their territorial claims, and was fixed in treaties and agreements, witnessed by the governments of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
In February 1991, based on the results of the referendum, the Autonomous Soviet Socialistic Republic of Crimea (as part of Ukraine) was restored. After signing the Belovezh Accords to dissolve the USSR on December 8, 1991, a cautious Leonid Kravchuk, the first President of Ukraine, asked Yeltsin, just in case, “What shall we do about Crimea?” – “Well, take it!” replied Yeltsin. So Crimea was established as part of Ukraine through a referendum of its own population, and Russia affirmed that it was part of Ukraine at least three times: in 1954, in 1990, and in 1991.
There was some pushback among Russia’s Communist elite. After the end of the USSR on 26 December 1991, President Boris Yeltsin was held to account by a pro-Communist parliament, Russia’s Supreme Soviet (restyled “State Duma” after 12 December 1993 when the RSFSR itself became today’s “Russian Federation”). On May 1, 1992, Russia’s Supreme Soviet adopted resolution N 2809-1, which declared “null and void from the moment of adoption” the February 5, 1954, decree of the RSFSR’s Council of Minister’s that transferred Crimea to the UkrSSR. With hindsight, the 1991 Supreme Soviet found it to be “in violation of the Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the RSFSR and legislative procedure”. Even so, their resolution N 2809-1 clarified that this issue should be resolved through interstate negotiations between Russia and Ukraine with the participation of the Crimean Autonomous SSR and on the basis of the will of its resident population, a stance Russia’s deputies clarified a few days later in an appeal to their Ukrainian peers.204
The history of sovereignty in modern Crimea
On May 5, 1992, Crimea’s State Council proclaimed the Republic of Crimea, a sovereign state. The following day, its Constitution was adopted, which defined the Republic of Crimea as a democratic state, and Sevastopol as a city with special status from other cities but otherwise as an integral part of sovereign Crimea. On May 13, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada suspended the decision of Crimean State Council as contrary to the Constitution of Ukraine, and on May 21, Crimea’s State Council voluntarily withdrew its resolution of May 5.
The issue of Crimea’s sovereignty was thus temporarily resolved, although the alternative name – the Republic of Crimea – began to coexist along with the Crimean Autonomous SSR (CASSR).
In 1993, there was a renewed attempt to establish the Republic of Crimea with the creation of its own Presidency, assumed by a deputy of the “Russian Bloc” party. He reinstated the 1992 Constitution of May 6, 1992, by decree. In September 1994, the Verkhovna Rada renamed CASSR as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and on March 17, 1995, it repealed a number of laws passed by Crimea’s State Council and abolished its Presidency.205By way of compromise, a new constitution of the peninsula, adopted in 1995, established its autonomous status within Ukraine and delegated the right to Crimea’s State Council to adopt certain laws. In October 1998, a new version made Crimean autonomy fully compliant with the Ukrainian Constitution.
After the revolution in Kyiv and Yanukovych’s flight from the country, Putin surreptitiously invaded Ukraineand took Crimea. Russia already had troops stationed at its Crimean military bases, but it now entered the territory with additional operatives and held a referendum at gunpoint (from the “managed democracy” rulebook developed in the Russian Federation).206 According to counts tallied by Russian officials, 82 percent of voters supported both Crimea’s independence and its annexation to Russia. According to independent experts, however, no more than 50 percent of voters showed up for the referendum (in some regions of Sevastopol the figure was indeed as high as 80 percent) and fewer than 30 percent voted for annexation to Russia.
What was striking was the swiftness with which events unfolded. The referendum was held on March 16, the results were announced on March 17, and on March 18, the signing of documents about the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation took place in the Kremlin. Ordinarily, it would have been impossible to do all this so quickly (even the UkrSSR took eight days to accept the RSFSR’s gift), not to mention the fact that Russia, for example, did not hold a referendum on the admission of Crimea to the Russian Federation. The Russian government was clearly in a hurry to admit Crimea to the Russian Federation under the false flag of a “popular” vote before protests of the international community and Ukraine, which was in the throes of the May election of a new President.
Crimea’s clamor for “independence” and its subsequent “popular” agreement to relinquish that same “independence” by annexation to Russia was thought out, planned and detailed in advance. A giveaway sign of Putin’s hurry to occupy Crimea was the premature casting a medal “For the Return of Crimea,” the reverse side of which indicated the date of the operation: “February 20 to March 18, 2014”. On February 20, President Yanukovych was still in power in Ukraine. On that day that demonstrators in Kyiv were massacred that would bring down his regime in subsequent days. Putin pretended that his decision to enter Crimea came only on February 22, after the “overthrow of the legitimate President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych” (who fled precisely to Crimea, and from Crimea to Russia), covering up the plans of the invasion. A Crimean referendum was on no one’s lips on 20 February.
Sixty years later: Russia’s seizure of Crimea
In early 2014, the Crimea, of course, was in an unenviable position, looking like an open wallet. While Ukraine had few troops, Russia already had naval bases and a total of more than 4,600 military infrastructure facilities in Crimea, enabling it to lock down the peninsula. The presence of a huge number of villas and luxury mansions in this most famous resort of the former Soviet Union created an additional incentive for Russian oligarchs, officials, and army generals to swoop while the iron was hot. Numerous Crimean health retreats and resorts could be privatized by Putin’s clan or given to the Russian nomenklatura.
Under Crimea’s territory there were also huge deposits of oil – 10 oil fields with reserves of 47 million tons; gas – 27 gas fields with reserves of 165.3 billion cubic meters; 7 gas condensate fields with 18.2 million tons. In addition, there were 5 more gas fields and 3 gas condensate fields on the Black Sea shelf; 6 gas fields on Crimea’s Azov shelf. Ukraine’s government had estimated the potential revenue of shale gas on the Crimean shelf at $40 billion. There were other raw materials: iron ore, mineral salts, stone…
Even so, the economic benefits paled in significance to imperial, political and geopolitical ones. The occupation of Crimea by the Russian army in March 2014 was also the first stage of “Operation Novorossiya” in President Putin’s grand plan to recreate the Russian Empire.
Any serious strategic plan always consists of numerous steps. One such steps was to bring Ukraine under Russia’s dominion. Another was to do the same with Belarus. In both cases, they would leave the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons so that Russia had a proxy-nation from it could launch nuclear weapons, and bully others, while pretending that it had nothing to do with the decisions of a “sovereign” nation. It would mean that the population of these nations would bear the brunt of any nuclear retaliation, while removing Russia’s own territory as an immediate target. (Already a large part of this plan had fallen into place in 2022. On February 27, 2022, 65.2 percent of votes counted in Belarus were in favor of its dictator Lukashenko’s proposal to change the constitution so that it could station Russian nuclear weapons once again.) Next was the capture of the Baltic states.
There are other steps, ones which we can only guess at. For example, quite a few Russian officials started talking about Transnistria (a breakaway part of Moldova), which is impossible to get to except through Ukraine. Ukraine’s accession, under Putin’s original plan, could take place in stages or at one time. It was only a question of technology and military capabilities: Many factors were unclear: the level of resistance among Ukrainians, the level of outrage in the world, the scale of sanctions against Russia, the degree of readiness of Russian soldiers to kill Ukrainians, and the degree of readiness of Ukrainians to die for their country.
Unexpectedly for Putin, Ukraine itself, and the world, Ukrainian politicians surrendered Crimea without so much as a fight. In March 2014, it was not immediately clear whether this was good or bad, and what signal it sent to all parties involved in the conflict: the aggressor – Russia, on the one hand, and Europe and the United States, on the other. On one thing everyone agreed. They saw the bloodless surrender of Crimea as Ukraine’s weakness and as Ukraine’s tacit acceptance that Crimea was “an ancestral Russian land”.
However, this “signal” served the world and Putin poorly: the Russian President now had no doubt in his mind that the rest of Ukraine would surrender. On the heels of its unexpected success, the Russian government began organizing pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, demanding referendums at regional level on the annexation of the eastern Ukrainian regions to Russia. It was assumed that under the influence of the unrest in eastern Ukraine, Kyiv would agree to hold referendums in the eastern regions of the country; that Russia would recognize the results of the referendums if they were in favor of Russia, or would not recognize them if they were in favor of Ukraine. In either case, Russia could then introduce troops into Ukraine’s eastern regions under the pretext of protecting the rights of the Russian-speaking population, as had previously been done in Crimea. The Russian General Staff then planned to move its armies into southern Ukraine toward Odessa, advancing from Crimea and the east, cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea, reach Transnistria, and announce the creation of a new state that had never before existed on the map: Novorossiya.