This Week in History

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This Week in History
18 March 2014: Russia annexes Crimea

  Rosemary Kurian

On 18 March 2014, Russia officially annexed Crimea, marking the beginning of its current conflict with Ukraine.

The road towards referendum and annexation
At the 21st century beginning, Ukraine had witnessed the Orange Revolution supporting the anti-Russian faction within the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament. This led to the victory of the anti-Russian Viktor Yushchenko as President of Ukraine. In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych returned to power as the new President. In Crimea, the predominantly Russian population supported Yanukovych and his pro-Russian Party of Regions. His return to presidency was favourable to the Russian control in Crimea. He extended Russia’s lease on the Sevastopol Port till 2042, which allowed Russia to bring around 25,000 troops to Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea and a key port in the Black Sea. It also served as the headquarters of Ukraine’s Navy until 2014. In early 2014, after several months of protests, Yanukovych fled from Ukraine, following which several Russian troops with no determining insignia seized several government buildings, including that of the parliament. In March 2014, Russian troops were sent to Crimea, to protect the ethnic Russian population and subsequently Russia gained de facto control over Crimea. 

On 16 March 2014, a referendum was held in Crimea on whether the population would like to accede to Russia. In what was noted as an illegal referendum with predetermined results, the results favoured Russia with an overwhelming 97 per cent, which was not recognised by Ukraine and most of the West. On 18 March, Putin signed a treaty officially incorporating Crimea into Russia, which has largely failed to gain global legitimacy and recognition. Under international law, Russia was bestowed the designation of an “occupying power” due to its annexation of Crimea. 

Historic, geographic and demographic significance of Crimea
Crimea has had several occupants in history, starting from the Cimmerians, the Scynthians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Kipchaks, and the Tatars of the Golden Horde (under the Mongol empire).After successive wars between the Ottomans and the Russians for control over the Black Sea, Crimea was ceded to Russia in the creation of a Crimean Tatar state, which was later annexed into Russian territory in 1783. The Turk-Russian conflict persisted throughout the Crimean War (1853-56). The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim Turkic group that are indigenous to the region, of whom, both the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union were distrustful.

In 1917, after the Russian Revolution, the Crimean Tatars declared their land to be an independent republic, which was later reorganised as the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic under the USSR in 1921. Under Stalin’s rule and Russification tactics, the Tatars were suppressed and forced to relocate to Central Asia and Siberia. Only after the Soviet disintegration could they return to Crimea, which had become a part of the newly independent Ukraine. The last official census in Ukraine in 2001 noted that Crimea was composed of 60 per cent ethnic Russians, 24 per cent Ukrainians and 10 per cent Crimean Tatars as the most important ethnic groups. 

The Crimean peninsula is of great geostrategic significance, essential to dominate the Black Sea. Stretching from the south of Ukraine, Crimea is connected by land to Ukraine, located south of the Ukrainian Kherson region and west of the Russian Kuban region. The region is highly strategic in terms of trade and commercial purposes, and in addition, is rich in mineral and energy resources. The Black Sea is home to several offshore oil and gas resources, which were used by Ukraine to reduce Russian dependence especially on gas. Russia projects its dominance in the region’s waters through its Black Sea Fleet, a fleet of the Russia Navy with presence in the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov and the Mediterranean Sea, headquartered at Sevastopol. 

The Cold War period marked an uneasy equilibrium among Turkey, NATO, the US, and the USSR in the Black Sea region until the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, after which the geostrategic significance of the Sea was lost for the West, perhaps reinstated only through recent clashes with Ukraine.  

After the Russian annexation
The Russian claim over Crimea came to fruition amid political turmoil in Ukraine with pro-Europe and anti-government demonstrations in 2014, which was an opportunity to be seized for Putin. While Ukraine doesn’t recognise the Russian annexation, the latter has de facto control over the region, which acts as a military supply hub for Russian forces. Putin built roads, bridges and new power lines in the Crimean peninsula and promoted russification by pushing Russian culture, especially in the school system and newspapers. Between Russia and Ukraine, Crimea acts as a symbol of power, identity and sovereignty, which has been exercised extensively during the Russian invasion in Ukraine. Russia used it to stage the ground for the invasion, with its Black Sea Fleet stationed at Sevastopol to maintain its naval blockade to prevent trade at Ukrainian ports. The Crimean annexation had boosted Putin’s approval ratings to an overwhelming 88 per cent, with many basking in the glory of the erstwhile USSR. 

The Crimean annexation prompted increased separatist movements in the Donbass region, with Luhansk and Donetsk declaring allegiance to Russia, a precursor to the current war in Ukraine. To Russia, the actions in Ukraine since 2014 are the former’s efforts to prevent Ukraine’s ties with NATO or the EU, both of which Russia sees as threats to its sphere of influence. In 2018, Russia inaugurated the Kerch Strait bridge which created a direct access link from Russia to Crimea, and its 12 mile span makes it the longest bridge in Europe. While the west condemned the construction, to Russia, the bridge was a mark of power over Ukraine and increase in naval influence. Russian naval ships routinely blocked vessels’ access to Ukrainian ports through the Sea of Azov. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the bridge became a key supply route for weapons to Ukrainian regions with Russian influence. Ukraine has had two attempts at destroying parts of the bridge, in which it took great pride and a massive morale boost during the war. All efforts at resolution have been halted with the question of Crimea as both parties claim it, and like Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, said, the war began with Crimea, and it will end with Crimea. 

This Week in History is a new addition to our research publications, looking at the history, its importance, consequences/legacies, and relevance today. We hope this will add historic value to two of our flagship publications- Conflict Weekly and The World This Week. A shorter version of the above will be published in Conflict Weekly/The World This Week.

About the author
Rosemary Kurian is an undergraduate student at the St Joseph’s University, Bangalore. She is currently part of NIAS Area Studies team on Europe.

In the series:
14 March 1849: The Sikh Army surrenders to the British
12 March 1918: Lenin shifts the capital to Moscow
09 March 1776: Adam Smith publishes “The Wealth of Nations”
11 March 1985: Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
14 March 1879: Albert Einstein born in Germany

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