The situation in Crimea is complex. Much of today’s complexity is rooted in history, so starting with a brief “history lesson” may help explain what is happening.
Disputes in Crimea are nothing new. Various Turkic peoples-the ancestors of the “Crimean Tatars” referred to in current news reports, established an independent state in Crimea in the early 1500s, shortly after the destruction of the Mongolian Golden Horde.
The Russian Empire had been seeking warm water ports since its inception. The Russian Empire seized Crimea for its Black Sea ports. In history, dates are important, so it is worth mentioning that on February 2, 1784, Catherine the Great established the Taurida Oblast, with its capital at Simferopol. Crimea developed a strong sense of independence, but also a strong affinity for Russia.
This sense of independence manifested itself during the Russian Revolution. In 1920, a White Russian (counterrevolutionary) army, led by General Pyotr Wrangel, opposed, but was ultimately defeated by, the Red (revolutionary) army, led by Genreal Nestor Makhno.
In 1921, the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was established as part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), which was, in turn, part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
In 1957, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet transferred Crimea from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Crimea became part of an independent Ukraine.
It is, therefore, not unreasonable to say that Crimea is historically part of Russia, andthat the transfer of Crimea to Ukrainian control is a fairly recent phenomenon. Particular attention should be paid to the name: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The model was one of many republics, typically corresponding to an ethnic group (e.g. Ukrainians, Azeris, Tadzhiks) united under the common ideology of Communism. It is worth noting that modern day Russia contains several autononmous republics. Some of them, such as Chechnya and South Ossetia, are well know. Others, such as Bashkortostan, Kalmykia, and Udmurtia, are not as well known.
Without advancing legalistic arguments, regional history and the structure of the former USSR more than supports a certain measure of self determination in Crimea and other regions. The significantly Russian population of Crimea argues strongly and convincingly for closer ties with Russia.
There are at least two sides to every story. Ukrainian nationalists claim that Crimea was part of Ukraine when the nation gained its independence. Ukrainian governments have always respected the presence of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea. As is well documented, many Ukrainians feel that their nation’s destiny is for all of Ukraine to shift away from Russia and towards Western Europe, with ultimate objectives including membership in both the European Union and NATO.
These objectives, for better or worse, do not comport with those of Russia. Russia has no interest in joining the European Union. Russian nationalism is very strong, so it should come as no surprise that President Putin took particular notice of the wishes of the Russian population in Crimea.
Even though, and with the benefit of history, some would say that the conflict was inevitable, its ultimate outcome remains less clear. An attempt by Russia to annex the entirety of Ukraine would not only be foolish in the extreme, but doing so is also contrary to current Russian objectives. Russia is seeking to establish a “Eurasian Union” of nations such as Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, as both a counterpart and counterpoint to the European Union. It is safe to say that Ukraine is divided with respect to its own destiny. For now, it would seem that Russia will retain control, in whatever form, of Crimea.
For the foreseeable future, there will be some instability in the region, but, in all fairness, Ukraine has seen contentious poltiics for some time. Europe remains largely dependent on Russian energy, and Russia remains more than happy to provide it.