The Russian Annexation of Crimea

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

Crimea, a peninsula belonging to Ukraine, was annexed to Russia in 2014 amidst political tension and military intervention. There is a sharp divide among Ukrainians who want to be more like Western Europeans and those who want to be closer to Russia.

Opposing Viewpoints

The Crimean peninsula was annexed, becoming part of Russia in 2014. Many people were horrified by Russia's actions. The Ukrainian Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said Russia's actions were 'a robbery on an international scale.' Western governments condemned the annexing and instituted sanctions against Russia. However, in Russia, lawmakers wept with joy and President Vladimir Putin benefited from high approval ratings. How can these vastly differing viewpoints be explained?

Map of Ukraine with Crimea in the south.

Russian Control of Crimea and the Crimean Tatars

Russia has a long history in Crimea. In 1783, Crimea became part of Russia when Catherine the Great defeated the Ottoman Empire. At that time, Crimean Tatars were the main ethnic group of the area. Tatars are a Turkic ethnic group, most of whom converted to Islam by the time of Catherine's annexation of Crimea.

Even though the Tatars experienced discriminatory treatment in the Russian Empire, their treatment in the Soviet Union (which replaced the Russian Empire) was even worse. Between 1917 and 1933, half the Crimean Tatar population were either killed, died of starvation, or forced to leave Crimea. In 1944, the remaining population of Crimean Tatars were deported from their homeland to Central Asia by the Soviet government.

Though once a popular tourist destination, the Crimean economy has been harmed by its political upheaval.
Crimea picture

Beginning in 1967, some Crimean Tatars began returning to their homeland. The numbers of Tatars in Crimea are today dwarfed by its population of Ukrainians and especially Russians, many of whom moved to Crimea during Soviet days. In 1954, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea as a 'gift' from Russia (then part of Russia for 170 years) to Ukraine, a country to which he had significant ties. With Russia and Ukraine both belonging to the Soviet Union, the transfer of Crimea didn't make much difference at the time. However, it would make a lot of difference in 1991.

Crimea as Part of Ukraine

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukrainians voted to leave the Soviet Union and become independent. 54% of Crimea voted to leave the Soviet Union, a very low number compared to other parts of Ukraine. By comparison, 96% of the population voted to leave in one area near Kiev, the capital.

Ukrainians were equally divided in their transition to democracy and capitalism. Some Ukrainians wanted their country to become more like Western Europe, while others wanted their country to be more like Russia. In all countries, citizens disagree about how much the country should change or stay the same but this divide was especially strong in Ukraine.

The Euromaidan Protests

Memorial for people killed during the Euromaidan protests.
Euromaidan picture

In 2013, Viktor Yanukovych was the President of Ukraine. Like many Ukrainians, he wanted closer ties with Russia and refused to sign an European Union association agreement. Pro-EU protests against Yanukovych, called Euromaidan, started in November of 2013. By the middle of March 2014, over one hundred protesters had been killed, most at the hands of police, snipers, and special government forces. Yankukovych fled to Russia in February and a new government was installed.

The Annexation of Crimea

Many people in Crimea and eastern Ukraine were upset by the Euromaidan protests and the resulting change of government. While the Euromaidan protests were going on, many other Ukrainians protested in favor of Russia. On February 26, fights broke out between pro-Russian protesters and Crimean Tartars who were protesting in favor of the new Ukrainian government.

The next day, armed men took control of government buildings including the parliament. They were called 'little green men' because they wore green army uniforms. Even though the men wore unmarked uniforms, most experts agree that they were members of Russia's special forces. Although Putin initially denied Russian military presence in Crimea, he later confirmed the 'little green men' were Russian soldiers. Within a few weeks, Crimea was cut off from the rest of Ukraine.

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