Right now, the peninsula of land that makes up Crimea is in a geopolitical limbo. Russian forces invaded it earlier this year, and its citizens voted in a controversial referendum to rejoin Russia and separate from Ukraine. The turmoil going down in Crimea is the result of years of political dysfunction, corruption, and a fundamental disagreement among Ukrainian citizens as to whether the nation should align itself more closely with Europe or Russia. At this point, most people who didn’t already have a degree in Baltic foreign policy are a little lost as to what’s going on. We’re here to help you catch up. Here are the key events that lead to Crimea becoming the battleground it is today.
1. An independent Ukraine
The Ukrainian People’s Republic was established in 1918 after the fall of the Russian Empire. It was a part of the Soviet Union until 1991, when 90 percent of the country’s residents voted for independence. Russia granted Ukraine sovereignty; Crimea was a part of that deal. (The Crimean peninsula is physically attached to Ukraine; it’s kind of like Ukraine’s Florida.) At that point, it went from being referred to as “the Ukraine” to simply “Ukraine” - a reflection of the fact that it was its own country and no longer just a territory of Russia.
David Galbreath is a Professor of International Security at the University of Bath in Bath, England. In the past, his research has focused on the Baltic region. In an email, he explained why Russia gave up Crimea in the first place - and why they’re so keen on getting it back.
“Crimea was traditionally part of Russia prior to 1954. The policy in the Russian Empire was to settle Russians in the south, as it was seen as a geopolitical important point. By the time of the 20th century, it was heavily Russian and had a close connection to Rostov on Don just across the border and the land bridge,” Galbreath wrote. “[Crimea] was already a part of Ukraine from 1954. Why it remained [part of Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union] is because of the negotiations around Ukraine giving up its nuclear arsenal and agreeing to a Black Sea Fleet. Ukraine got to keep Crimea.”
Even though Crimea was separate from Russia, a big chunk of Russia’s navy, called the Black Sea Fleet, were and still are housed in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol.
2. The Orange Revolution
ABOVE: Viktor Yushchenko wears an orange scarf to show his support for the Orange Revolution. CREDIT: Getty Images
Since it gained independence, Ukraine has been torn between wanting to rejoin Russia and wanting to be a part of the EU. There are three people who have been major players in Ukrainian government for the past decade: Viktor Yanukovych, Viktor Yushchenko, and Yulia Tymoshenko. Generally, Yanukovych is considered a Russian ally; Yushchenko and Tymoshenko are more sympathetic to the EU and Western sensibilities.
ABOVE: Viktor Yanukovych. CREDIT: Getty Images
Viktor Yanukovych won the 2004 presidential election. His opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, accused the winning party of voter intimidation and electoral fraud. Yushchenko called for citizens to demand an audit of the election. This spurred the Orange Revolution, during which thousands of citizens took to the streets to peacefully protest the election results.
3. The second 2004 elections
The country’s Supreme Court and international monitors ultimately declared that Yanukovych and his party had rigged the election. A runoff election was held in December 2004 and power was awarded to Yushchenko, with Tymoshenko as his prime minister. Yanukovich (the one who rigged the 2004 election) was briefly elected prime minister in 2006, but the next year, Tymoshenko won the election and became prime minister again.
4. The 2009 gas crisis
In 2009, a dispute over gas prices lead Russia to shut off all gas exports to Ukraine. Pipes that go through the Ukraine carry about 20 percent of Europe’s gas, so the EU suffered several gas shortages. By the next year, the country was suffering from an economic crisis.
Tymoshenko and Yanukovych ran against one another for president In 2010.
Prior to the final election, Yanukovych refused to have a public debate with Tymoshenko, stating that she could either take responsibility for everything that had happened while she was prime minister or “go back to the kitchen.”
ABOVE: Yulia Tymoshenko. CREDIT: Getty Images
Yanukovych won with 48% of the vote. In 2011, Tymoshenko was indicted on charges of abuse of power and sentenced to seven years in prison. Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch decried her sentence as a political ploy and said she was wrongly imprisoned on vague, trumped-up charges. The European Parliament put out a document in 2012 stating that Tymoshenko was a political prisoner and had been targeted because she was a key opposition leader to the Yanukovych administration.
5. Ukraine declines to become part of the EU
On November 21, 2013, President Yanukovych declared that he would not sign an agreement that would have strengthened the country’s ties to the EU. Ukrainians were shocked: Most of them wanted to be a part of the EU, and Yanukovych had been expected to sign the agreement without issue.
The next day, a hundred thousand protesters flooded Independence Square in Kiev, a location also known as Maidan. It was the same place where the Orange Revolution had begun on November 23 just nine years earlier.
Over the following two weeks, protesters built tent cities and barricades. They toppled and destroyed a statue of Vladimir Lenin. In December, riot police unsuccessfully attempted to clear demonstrators from the square. A week later, Putin offered the Yanukovych administration $15 billion to fight the insurgency.
On January 16, 2014, Yanukovych passed a slate of laws that effectively banned any kind of protest in Ukraine. Participating in protests, distributing “extremist” materials, blocking access to someone’s residence, and setting up tents without police approval are all actions now subject to prison sentences. A person can be found guilty in court without being present for the trial or sentencing. Protesters claimed the country had legalized dictatorship.
A month later, the protests had turned deadly after protesters started hurling projectiles at police officers. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and sound and gas grenades went back and forth in sub-zero weather. Seven protesters and six police officers died on February 17, and by the February 20, 42 people were dead and hundreds more were injured.
6. Yanukovich is removed from office
February 22 was a major turning point in Ukraine. The country’s Parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from office. He posted a speech to YouTube stating he would not resign. However, he had already fled the area. Journalists and other protesters invaded Yanukovych’s presidential mansion, where they tweeted photos of his personal zoo, sauna, classic car collection, and other taxpayer-funded perks the public had not been aware of.
That night, Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison and appeared in Maidan to give a speech praising Ukraine’s citizens for removing Yanukovych from office. Parliament named Oleksandr Turchynov the Interim President of Ukraine.
7. Crimean cities are invaded
Crimea is primarily Russian-speaking and most residents favor a Ukrainian alliance with Russia over the EU. On February 28, armed men seized the Crimean airport. On March 1, Putin got approval from his government to use military force to protect their assets in Crimea - oh, and the people who live there, too. Since then, Russian forces have been building up near the Ukrainian border.
So why did Russia want Crima in the first place? What’s so important about it to Putin? According to Galbreath, not much.
“[Crimea] was an important card to hold over Ukraine for a long time. Now that it has been taken away, that is no longer viable. So, Crimea is now less important to the Russians than it was prior to the annexation,” Galbreath wrote. “Ironic.”
8. Crimea votes to secede
On March 16, the Crimean region held a referendum to decide whether or not to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia. About 21,000 Russian troops were standing by to keep an eye on things during the vote. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 80-95 percent of the total population showed up to vote, and they overwhelmingly favored separating from Ukraine and becoming part of Russia again.
In a phone call, President Barack Obama told Putin that the results of the referendum “would never be recognized by the United States and the international community.” Putin says they followed all the rules of international laws and that the vote was legit.
SO WHAT NOW?
Since the referendum, multiple countries have threatened sanctions against Russia, and a few have actually done it. Russian forces have taken over almost every major city on the Crimean peninsula. Turchynov (the acting president of Ukraine) said last Monday that he would be withdrawing all Ukrainian troops from Crimea, citing the possibility of violent conflict.
Nobody knows exactly what will happen next. The United States government recently voted to send aid to Ukraine and sanction Russia. Ukraine and Crimea might just split up for good and go their own separate ways. Many people are suggesting this is a new Cold War - one that’s fought in presidential cabinets and newspapers instead of an actual battleground. The G8 conference, which was supposed to take place in Sochi in June, has been suspended as the superpowers decide on their next step.
Over the weekend, Crimeans moved their clocks two hours ahead to Moscow time. Seems like for now, the people of Crimea are happy to be part of Russia again.