To whom does Crimea be­long?

Hon­est His­tory. Episode 12 – Crimea an­nex­a­tion

Kyiv Post - - National - BY BERMET TALANT BERMET@KYIVPOST.COM A woman waits in front of Rus­sian solid­ers in un­marked uni­forms block­ing a base of the Ukrainian fron­tier guard unit in Balaklava on March 1, 2014. (AFP)

Ed­i­tor’s Note: This is the 12th story in the Kyiv Post’s Hon­est His­tory se­ries, which aims to de­bunk myths about Ukrainian his­tory. The se­ries is sup­ported by the Black Sea Trust, a project of the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund of the United States. Opin­ions ex­pressed do not nec­es­sar­ily rep­re­sent those of the Black Sea Trust, the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund or its part­ners. Two days af­ter the Krem­lin held a sham ref­er­en­dum at gun­point in Crimea on March 16, 2014, in an at­tempt to jus­tify the il­le­gal an­nex­a­tion of the Ukrainian penin­sula, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin ad­dressed his na­tion.

“In hearts and in minds of the peo­ple, Crimea has al­ways been and re­mains an in­te­gral part of Rus­sia,” he said, falsely claim­ing that Crimeans had unan­i­mously made a free choice to leave Ukraine and join Rus­sia.

Ukraine and its West­ern al­lies called the Crimean ref­er­en­dum il­le­git­i­mate be­cause it came only weeks af­ter Rus­sian troops in­vaded and oc­cu­pied the penin­sula, in­stalling pro-Krem­lin au­thor­i­ties at the point of a gun. The bal­lot of­fered two choices for Crimea — to join Rus­sia or to re­main a part of Ukraine but un­der the Crimean Con­sti­tu­tion of 1992, which meant more au­ton­omy and Rus­sian as the of­fi­cial lan­guage.

In the mean­time, Rus­sia glo­ri­fied the oc­cu­pa­tion as the re­claim­ing of Rus­sian land. The “re­uni­fi­ca­tion” cam­paign ran un­der the slo­gan “Krym nash” or “Crimea is ours.”

But who does Crimea re­ally be­long to — Rus­sia or Ukraine?

Crimea had in­deed for­merly been part of Im­pe­rial Rus­sia and then Soviet Rus­sia. How­ever, by or­der of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in 1954 Crimea was turned over to Ukraine, and it re­mained part of Ukrainian ter­ri­tory af­ter the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the Soviet Union — un­til Putin said he would “re­store his­toric jus­tice” in 2014.

In the civ­i­lized world, Rus­sia’s brazen in­va­sion and oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea is seen as the first at­tempt to re­draw borders by force since World War II.

In ad­di­tion, Rus­sia vi­o­lated a num­ber of in­ter­na­tional laws and agree­ments, such as the 1994 Bu­dapest Mem­o­ran­dum, the 1997 Treaty of Friend­ship be­tween Rus­sia and Ukraine, the 2003 Agree­ment on State Borders, and the Helsinki Ac­cords.

Dreams of an­tiq­uity

Putin’s ob­ses­sion with Crimea has roots in Rus­sian czar Cather­ine the Great’s ob­ses­sion with an­cient Greece.

In the 18th cen­tury, Cather­ine II nur­tured the idea of a new Ortho­dox Chris­tian state with its cap­i­tal in Con­stantino­ple, which would be ruled by her grand­son Con­stan­tine. The Rus­sian throne was in­tended for an­other grand­son of hers, Alexan­der. The boys were given Greek names on pur­pose.

“Rus­sia got its re­li­gion from the Greeks. Ortho­dox Chris­tian­ity came from Byzan­tium,” wrote Rus­sian his­to­rian An­drey Zorin in his se­ries of lec­tures “The Ori­gins of the Crimean Myth.”

But the Byzan­tine cap­i­tal Con­stantino­ple had been con­quered by the Mus­lim Ot­tomans in 1453 and re­named Is­tan­bul. In Cather­ine’s mind, she had to win back Greece from the Turks, thereby lib­er­at­ing the cra­dle of Ortho­dox Chris­tian­ity and of Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion — which was be­lieved to have been born in an­cient Greece.

The em­press first set her sights on the Crimean Khanate, a vas­sal state of the Ot­toman Em­pire stretch­ing across the Crimean penin­sula and the Black Sea coast. There, where the modern-day city of Sev­astopol now stands, there had been the Greek colony of Cher­son­e­sus, where Prince Volodymyr the Great, a Kyi­van Rus ruler, had been bap­tized in 988, herald­ing the Chris­tian­iza­tion of the for­merly pa­gan Kyi­van Rus.

Af­ter eight years of war, Rus­sia and Ot­toman Tur­key in 1774 fi­nally signed a peace treaty that for­mally de­clared Crimea an in­de­pen­dent state, af­ter three cen­turies un­der the Ot­tomans.

More­over, Rus­sia got con­trol over two key sea­ports in the Black Sea, Azov and Kerch, and be­came the de­clared pro­tec­tor of all Ortho­dox Chris­tians who lived in the Ot­toman Em­pire.

“Ini­tially, Cather­ine didn’t plan to an­nex the con­quered ter­ri­to­ries to Rus­sia. She wanted to ex­pand the em­pire’s in­flu­ence, not its borders,” wrote Zorin.

In­stead, it was Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary com­man­der and Cather­ine’s fa­vorite, Grig­ory Potemkin, who de­cided the fate of Crimea.

In the late au­tumn of 1782, he sent a hand­writ­ten note to the em­press in which he per­suaded her to an­nex the penin­sula. In his words, Crimea’s ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion gave Rus­sia unim­peded ac­cess to the Black Sea and se­cu­rity on its borders with Tur­key.

“If you don’t con­quer it now, there will be a time when every­thing we get for no cost now will be achieved at a high price,” he wrote. “You are obliged to ag­gran­dize the glory of Rus­sia.”

So in 1783, Crimea was an­nexed by Rus­sia with­out a sin­gle shot fired.

To fully es­tab­lish the myth of Rus­sia’s be­ing an off­shoot of Hel­lenic cul­ture, Turk­ish and Tatar ge­o­graph­i­cal names of cities on the penin­sula were changed to Greek-sound­ing ones.

Qırım be­came Tau­rida, Aqmescit be­came Sim­fer­opol, Kaffa — Feo­dosia, and Ke­zlev — Eu­pa­to­ria. And on the ru­ins of the an­cient Cher­son­e­sus, the Rus­sians built Sev­astopol.

Ex­cept for two cases, the new Greek names were in­vented, Zorin wrote.

Kelly O’Neill, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, hears echoes of the first Rus­sian an­nex­a­tion in the Krem­lin’s modern-day rhetoric, as Putin aims to make Rus­sia a great geopo­lit­i­cal power again. Ac­cord­ing to her, while the strate­gic value of Crimea is ob­vi­ous in mil­i­tary terms, the penin­sula also has an equally im­por­tant sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance to the Krem­lin.

“It is as much about Crimea it­self as it is about the pro­jec­tion of Rus­sian power well beyond the penin­sula,” O’Neill wrote in her 2014 es­say “From A His­tor­i­cal Per­spec­tive, This Is Why Crimea Mat­ters.”

Rus­sian world

At the meet­ing with G7 lead­ers in June, U. S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump re­port­edly said that Crimea is Rus­sian be­cause ev­ery­one who lives there speaks Rus­sian.

While that is false, eth­nic Rus­sians did com­prise over a half of Crimea’s pop­u­la­tion in 2014 when Rus­sia in­vaded the ter­ri­tory. Ukraini­ans, many of whom also spoke Rus­sian, were the sec­ond largest eth­nic group at around 20 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. The in­dige­nous peo­ple of Crimea — the Crimean Tatars, who prac­tice Is­lam and whose na­tive lan­guage has Tur­kic roots — made up only 11 per­cent of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion. Many of them speak Rus­sian too.

The ex­ten­sive Rus­si­fi­ca­tion of Crimea started af­ter World War II, and would not have been pos­si­ble had the penin­sula not been eth­ni­cally cleansed in 1944 on the or­ders of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The Crimean Tatars and other eth­nic mi­nori­ties were rounded up and de­ported to Cen­tral Asia, hav­ing been falsely ac­cused of col­lab­o­rat­ing en masse with the Nazis.

In fact, Stalin’s re­pres­sions paved the way for Rus­sia’s 2014 in­va­sion of Crimea.

To jus­tify the in­va­sion, Putin an­nounced that its trans­fer to Ukraine in 1954 was a vi­o­la­tion of Soviet laws. He based his ter­ri­to­rial claims on the pre­pos­ter­ous al­le­ga­tion that there was a threat to the eth­nic Rus­sians liv­ing in Crimea, who made up the ma­jor­ity of the penin­sula’s pop­u­la­tion. He said they faced forced as­sim­i­la­tion and were be­ing de­prived of their na­tive lan­guage by Ukrainian na­tion­al­ists, whom Krem­lin pro­pa­ganda por­trayed as “anti-Semite, Rus­so­phobe, neo-Nazi” thugs who had taken con­trol of the coun­try af­ter Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych was top­pled in the EuroMaidan Revo­lu­tion in 2014.

All these lies were used by Putin as a cover for the well-planned Rus­sian op­er­a­tion to in­vade and oc­cupy Crimea, which had ob­vi­ously been pre­pared well ahead of the EuroMaidan Revo­lu­tion, and which is part of Putin’s over­ar­ch­ing goal of ex­tend­ing Rus­sian con­trol and in­flu­ence in the “near abroad,” as the Krem­lin calls the coun­tries apart from Rus­sia that were once part of the Soviet Union.

For Putin, the col­lapse of the Soviet Union was a huge geopo­lit­i­cal tragedy, and his im­pe­rial am­bi­tions are con­cep­tu­al­ized by “Russkiy Mir” or “the Rus­sian World” — the idea of the unity of Rus­sian-speak­ing peo­ple in East­ern Europe, the Cau­ca­sus, Cen­tral Asia, and the Baltics.

In her 2016 book Beyond Crimea: The New Rus­sian Em­pire, Lithua­nian-Amer­i­can scholar Ag­nia Gri­gas de­scribed how Putin has used the so-called “com­pa­triot pro­tec­tion” to jus­tify his ter­ri­to­rial en­croach­ment in Moldova, Ge­or­gia, and Ukraine.

Just as Cather­ine the Great saw it as her mis­sion to pro­tect Ortho­dox Chris­tians liv­ing in the Ot­toman Em­pire, Putin sees it is his re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect “com­pa­tri­ots” — a broad term that in­cludes not only eth­nic Rus­sian mi­nori­ties in for­mer Soviet coun­tries but also Rus­sian lan­guage speak­ers and “those who feel in­sep­a­ra­bly con­nected to the Rus­sian world.”

Gri­gas wrote that for this, the Krem­lin uses a va­ri­ety of tools — from soft power and covert in­flu­ence, to pro­pa­ganda and is­su­ing Rus­sian pass­ports. An­other com­mon ma­nip­u­la­tion tool is to falsely claim there have been vi­o­la­tions of the hu­man rights of an eth­nic Rus­sian mi­nor­ity abroad, or dis­crim­i­na­tion against Rus­sian speak­ers.

But as demon­strated by the sub­se­quent Krem­lin mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in Ukraine’s east­ern Don­bas re­gion, in which over 10,300 Ukraini­ans have died, the big­gest dan­ger to Rus­sian speak­ers liv­ing out­side Mother Rus­sia is in fact the Krem­lin and its armies.

Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian ac­tivists take part in the rally of the Day of Crimean Re­sis­tance on Maidan Neza­lezh­nosti square in Kyiv on Feb. 26, 2017, mark­ing the fourth an­niver­sary of Rus­sia's in­va­sion and sub­se­quent an­nex­a­tion of Ukraine's Crimean Penin­sula. (Kostyan­tyn Ch­er­nichkin)

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