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Members of the Russian armed forces stand guard around the Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalne.

Members of the Russian armed forces surround the Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalne.

Photograph by Bulent Doruk, Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Eve Conant

for National Geographic

Published March 4, 2014

Ukraine's fledgling government is warning that Russia's actions in Crimea—the strategic peninsula that juts into the Black Sea and is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet—is part of a historical tactic to gain control over former Soviet territory. "They are provoking us into an armed conflict," said interim president Oleksandr Turchynov. "Based on our intelligence, they're working on scenarios analogous to Abkhazia, in which they provoke conflict, and then they start to annex territory."

The "annexation" that the newly minted Ukrainian leader is referring to is that of the mountainous region of Abkhazia on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, just three miles south of Sochi. The region had been long simmering: A war in 1992-93 led to some 8,000 deaths and 240,000 displaced people, according to the International Crisis Group.  South Ossetia had also been a part of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, but after a conflict in the early 1990s, its status remained nebulous until it became the second Georgian territory to be effectively lost to Moscow. After its defeat to the Russians in a five-day war in 2008, Georgia declared the area "Russian-occupied territory."

Now it could be Ukraine's turn. Russians officials told the UN Security Council that ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych had written to Vladimir Putin that "Ukraine is on the brink of civil war" and needs Russian armed forces to keep the peace. What is unfolding in Crimea today, says Steven Pifer, a Brookings Institution expert and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine "is a military occupation. The Russians may not have decided what they will do next."

What many fear could happen next is further turmoil in geographic regions historically loyal to Moscow—that Crimea will be the spark for violence in Ukraine's eastern and historically Russian-leaning regions east of the Dnieper River. (See "How History, Geography Help Explain Ukraine's Political Crisis.")

Georgian families and soldiers await evacuation as Georgian troops fight separatist Abkhazians.
Photograph by AP
Georgian families and soldiers await evacuation as Georgian troops fight separatist Abkhazians.

Post-Soviet Frozen Conflicts

Or, if the events in Crimea are contained, the peninsula could join South Ossetia and Abhkazia and Nagorno Karabakh  to become yet another post-Soviet "frozen conflict" - areas where armed conflict has come to end but the political status of a region remains unresolved. (See "The Rebirth of Armenia.") After flexing its military might, Russia could gain effective control of a territory once belonging to a neighboring and sovereign state, and would manage to keep it indefinitely.

During the Soviet period, satellite states beginning to show signs of unrest and independence also met with swift Russian-led interventions, often—as in today's Ukraine—under the pretext of requests from embattled local allies: the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring and subsequent invasion along with Warsaw Pact troops of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Chechnya, the Russian republic that tried to wrest free of the Kremlin, also faced a formidable response from Moscow. It found itself mired in years of warfare resulting in an estimated 160,000 deaths and—after Vladimir Putin became president of Russia—was brought firmly back under Russian control.

Yet some regions suddenly freed from Moscow's reach didn't want the post-Soviet liberty. Trans-Dniester, a slip of land between the Dniester River and the eastern Moldovan border with Ukraine, remains unrecognized by any UN member state. But it is considered to be under the effective authority and influence of Russia after it broke free from Moldova in 1992 with the help of the Russian Army, conveniently stationed near its capital, Tiraspol.

Picture of a Chechen man shows his support for Chechen separatist fighters seated atop an armored personnel carrier.
Photograph by Misha Japaridze, AP
A Chechen man shows his support for Chechen separatist fighters seated atop an armored personnel carrier.

History and Geography Contribute to Crimean Conflict

Russian forces are also conveniently located in Crimea, where a largely Russian populace (59 percent; Crimea was a part of Russia until 1954)—has so far welcomed the Russian forces. Twelve percent of Crimea's population, however, is made up Crimean Tartars, who once ruled the peninsula. "The defeat of the Tartar Khanate, with its seat in Crimea, was a key moment in the expansion of the Russian Empire," says Keith Darden, associate professor at American University researching the roots of nationalist loyalties in the former Soviet Union and other countries. Formally annexed by Russia in 1783, "it led the settlement of a lot of Russians in the area." Those Crimean Tartars—a Muslim population that was deported by Joseph Stalin during World War II, but began to return in greater numbers in the 1990s—lean more heavily in support of the pro-Western and anti-Yanukovych protestors in Kiev.

The Crimean War of 1853-56, when Russia fought the Ottoman Empire and its European allies over control of Crimea, may have been the last time so many global powers had their eyes on the tiny peninsula, but the conditions are entirely different now.  "The Crimean War was about the great power diplomacy of the 19th century—it had nothing to do with the loyalties of the population, but everything in Ukraine now does," says Darden. "This time the great powers are constrained by what the people want."

Geography may also serve as a constraint. Maria Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, says that "geographically speaking" the peninsula has some interesting challenges. For example, in the north "it has a narrow strip of land that connects it to Ukraine. The peninsula itself is very dry, with almost no source of fresh water," and thus relies on mainland Ukraine for water. "Crimea cannot simply be severed from Ukraine." To its east, however, is the Strait of Kerch; the Russian prime minister has called for construction of a bridge connecting Crimea to the mainland.

Which thin geographical link will prevail as Crimea's main lifeline is unclear. In his 1979 novel The Island of Crimea, Soviet writer Vassily Aksyonov reimagined the peninsula as an actual island, a successful holdout of the Russian aristocracy after the Bolshevik revolution and civil war. "It was a fantasy, but somehow this island was able to build relations with both Soviet Russia and the Western world," says Lipman of Aksyonov's Crimean utopia. "He had great powers of imagination," she adds wryly.

theodore kubick
theodore kubick

The presence of both a Russian naval base and a very large number of Russian speakers would seem to make sense to putin in my view. But what would be the point of anything more? in my view I would expect him to be thinking either grab the entire country or no more than crimea. if the east becomes Russian or even becomes dominated by Russian troops than a voting presence is lost. better to dominate and control quietly.that in any event is how I would go about it. and frankly it is a land grab similar to say hitler who also expanded giving ethnicity as an excuse.

Dmitry Izotov
Dmitry Izotov

I'm Russian citizen.  For me it's clear that the real target is not to annex Crimea but to enable it's citizens  to vote for independence without pressure from kiev.  Nothing more. 

Russians wll never go to Ukraine to fight. We are very mixed, in many Russian families we have Ukranian roots and in Ukrainian families - Russian roots. 

First decisions of armed crowd, which took control in Kiev was to cancel existing rights of Ukrainian people  to use Russian language in  the regions.    It was catalisator of  "Putin's aggression". Crimea is 60% Russian-speaking and Russian-culture. It's became clear  that there is high risk of discrimination of Russians in Crimea, as peolple who took control in Kiev relay on fascist crowd, many of them are fanatics, who hate everything related to Russia. As these people controls new government in Kiev - nobody knows what to expect from them. These people easily broke all the agreements with their ex-president they took in front of EU ministers, so it's hard to deal with them. 

  I think that now it's problem for Russia, as it looks absolutely different from outside, it looks like real agression (although nobody was killed) and violation of UN laws.  

For the United States it's also nothing good. US demonstrates simplified approach to World's politics - painting the World to black and white colors (good and bad guys). US military industry needs more money  and more enemies around.

Using punishing sanctions US unable to harm Putin, US will harm Russian people and for Russian people it will be proof  that US is rather enemy than the friend. In future Putin will resign anyway (hopefuly), but people's  perception of US will stay for decades. 

Ukraine will suffer most of all. They will try to be with EU and US - but nobody wants them there, as it's a lot of spendings, a lot of problems (weak governement,  constitution changed by small group of people, armed crowd of fanatics who could easly change government again, non-controlled nationalists and fascists). On the other hand, Russia don't want (and can not) to continue to support Ukrainian economics anymore.

Joe Ratley
Joe Ratley

Comparing Crimea with Poland, Hungary, and distinct Eastern European countries is laughable. I'm no totalitarian leftist. Born/raised/again residing in Oklahoma, a son of a WWII vet, I do have a fondness for the Russians; we have some things in common with them -  we overthrew an oppressive king and together we beat Hitler. The imperialist/corporate-conglomerate elements who hold such sway over the American people tried to rob Russia of it's great wealth, and almost did. Yeltsin was a drunk traitor. Putin's shirtless preening doesn't rock my world, but he pushes back against the fascist global forces which keep even the American working and Middle Classes under their thumb. All these sob sisters lamenting the present state of the Ukraine are naive to think that there are not long-standing and considerable elements/forces in the CIA, Pentagon, and State Dept. who were the same clandestine armies of the night which destabilized post-Soviet Yugoslavia. Brilliant! What a success. So I lift a toast to the Russians, "May the hoped-for Slavic Civil War evaporate in the misty clouded little minds of Fauz Snooze, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Charles Krauthammer, aka "Count Chocula". It's impotent charades like these that keep the Military-Industrial Complex and the surveillance conglomerates robbing the American people with horribly greedy and bloated U.S. budget deficits. Our deficit is their assets. Wake up, like the Russians did in 1917. - a Woody Guthrie Okie Progressive 

Stuart M.
Stuart M.

This is an excellent article pointing out the usual tactic of Russia to punish wayward former members of its Soviet empire: foment or feign trouble between ethnic groups, then invade and occupy areas in order to maintain "peace." Until today the West has acquiesced to this arrangement by refusing to allow such dismembered countries to enter the EU or NATO. leaving them at the mercy of energy cutoffs and other intimidation by Russia.

The Ukraine is a difficult situation. There are Ukrainians who speak Ukrainian in the west of the country, ethnic Ukrainians who speak Russian in the east, pockets of predominantly ethnic Russians throughout the East and the Crimea is mainly ethnic Russian. The former pro-Russian leader Yanukovych who fled to Russia is an ethnic Russian/Polish/Belarusian. His base is in the Russian-speaking East where routine electoral fraud always ensured he was a contender for the top job. There is no reason to believe the electoral fraud by his political machine will end any time soon, especially if the Russians occupy eastern Ukraine. The East is the "filet" part of the Ukraine with most of its industry, resources and much fertile agricultural land. It is a very tempting occupation target for Russia.

The emergency session of the UN called by Russia to sound the alarm about "roudy revolutionaries" threatening ethnic Russians is laughable. There is absolutely no revolutionary activity in the eastern part of the Ukraine, all this activity was centered in Kiev and the western areas of the Ukraine.

What should our response in the West be? No sense fighting a nuclear war about it, but we should stop acquiescing to Russian intimidation. This would mean allowing the affected countries to become members of NATO and the EU and stationing NATO troops facing the Russian occupiers there. This was the situation in Europe for decades during the Cold War. These countries need a Marshall Plan to free them from dependence on Russian energy and improve their living standards. Russia must be forced to support their ill-gotten empire by themselves. This means no more energy purchases by Western Europe and the beginning of a new Cold War.

Maybe we will learn from this whole experience. When the Russian empire collapses again, we will not just let it flounder and become easy pickings for former Communists and robber barons. A Marshall Plan for Russia might have created a true democracy instead of the current criminal regime.      

Olha Hodlevska
Olha Hodlevska

@Dmitry Izotov

In fact, there is already military occupation of Crimea by Russian troops. How can people make free choice in such conditions?

There is continuous disinformation and apparent lie coming from the Russian media that there are infringements on citizens’ rights on the part of the new Ukrainian government. It’s not true. Yes, they did a mistake having raised the language question so soon (eventually they didn’t denounce that law). But there was an intention to make the law equal for all minorities, because originally it dealt only with the Russian language.

If there is no aggression, why do the Russian troops capture Ukrainian missile and anti-aircraft artillery today? Why are there so many armored personnel carriers on the eastern Ukrainian-Russian borders? Would you explain this “humanitarian mission” please?

Stop lying to the whole world! It’s a crime!

Stuart M.
Stuart M.

@Joe Ratley  

Wow, "The imperialist/corporate-conglomerate elements who hold such sway over the American people tried to rob Russia of it's great wealth, and almost did." What century are you living in?

Have you bothered to read a newspaper in the last twenty years? According to Forbes, 200 oligarchs control over 50% of the Russian economy. Most of them got it by plundering Russia's industry and natural resources after the fall of communism.

The current Putin regime ain't what Woody Guthrie was singing about, it most resembles Adolf Hitler's industrial-militarist fascism. You need to stop smelling the roses and look up, the world has changed dramatically since the 1980s.

From another person born and raised in Oklahoma.  

Dmitry Izotov
Dmitry Izotov

@Olha Hodlevska @Dmitry Izotov  

Ok. You said I'm lying but it'looks like you absolutely not aware whats happening in Crimea. 

That's good position - to start blame somebody without having any proofs (like US always do - let's remember about mass destruction weapon in Iraq, occupation of Tbilisi by Russian soldiers, tries to justify war in Syria ...)  All of this - is manipulation by people via media. Who is lyar?

Olha Hodlevska
Olha Hodlevska

@Dmitry Izotov @Olha Hodlevska

There are lots of videos from Crimea proving presence Russian soldiers and military vehicles on the Ukrainian territory. They don’t wear chevrons, but the tags on the vehicles are Russian, and the soldiers are being identified through social media right now. I think there are very few people in this world, who believe Putin’s schizophrenic declarations. It’s easy to blame the US for everything, although in this case Russian imperial ambitions in the post-soviet space are obvious. This is the reason of tensions in Eastern Europe, not the US. As the Chinese government suggested, it’s time to abandon that Cold-War rhetoric. I think, all Ukrainians would gladly support this, because we are tired. We fought for independence; Putin must leave us alone to deal with our recession, corruption and many other problems. Nobody has right to violate the state’s sovereignty in such a brutal way. I could remind you who is actually selling weapons to Syria, but I don’t want to support this debate here.


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