By Vincent J. Truglia
I find the obsession with Russia by most American political leaders irrational. One could make an argument, perhaps regarding possible Russian interference in the last US election as a pretext for sanctions, but that would ring hollow. We should all recognize that the US and most other countries around the world interfere as much as possible in each other’s elections. The US has been doing that for decades. Holier than thou pronouncements are disingenuous.
The origin of sanctions against Russia began in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea. The annexation was viewed by the West as unacceptable. However, as I wrote at the time, annexation by Russia was certainly understandable. There was no way Russia would ever, once again, give up control of the Crimea.
We Must Always Know History
The history of the Crimea is as messy as the history of much of the surrounding region. Fought over by a seemingly endless line of conquerors over the centuries, it’s probably best to simply narrow our focus to Crimean history from the 18th century to the present.
Crimea Annexed By Russia in 1784
Crimea had been part of the Ottoman Empire. However by the mid 1700s, Russian military might eventually conquered Crimea from the Ottomans. In 1784, Czarina Catherine the Great annexed the Crimea into the Russian Empire. The Crimea remained part of the Russian Empire until the Communist Revolution.
The Soviet Period
In the early years after the Revolution, Crimea suffered some of the bloodiest fighting of the Russian Civil War. Eventually, Soviet forces gained control and created the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, which lasted until 1945. As happened elsewhere in Eastern Europe, when the Nazis occupied the Crimea, it is objectively reported that many Crimean Tatars sided with the Nazis, and were accused of war crimes. At the end of World War II, as a so-called punishment, the Crimean Tatars were exiled from Crimea to central Asia, where they were forced to remain until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even before their exile, the Tatars were never near to being a majority of the population.
In 1945, Crimea became an oblast within the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic (RSSR). It remained part of the RSSR until 1954, when it was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Here is where the mystery begins.
The Mysterious Transfer
No one knows exactly why Crimea was transferred to the Ukraine in 1954. There are few records of any discussion surounding the issue, except to say that it was proposed by the Presidium of the USSR’s Supreme Soviet. Even this was only announced in a brief newspaper story published about a week after the decision. As a result, we can only speculate as to the real reasons behind this rather strange decision.
Some in Russia argue that the transfer was unconstitutional. However, with archival information available after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the transfer was legal, but honestly, legality would have meant little during the Soviet era
Here are the only two theories officially published in 1954, which the sparse official archives contain.
- The transfer was done to celebrate the 300th anniversary of a 1654 treaty recognizing the reunification of the Ukraine with Russia. For a variety of reasons, this is untenable. The details surrounding the treaty make that treaty of no relevance to the transfer. For instance, Crimea played no role in the treaty, because as you just read, Russia only conquered/annexed the Crimea 120 years after the signing of that treaty.
- The close territorial proximity of the Crimea to the Ukraine, similarities of their economies and the close cultural ties between the two.
Proximity is not a good enough explanation because although a small isthmus connects the Ukraine to Crimea, it is also extremely close to Russia. A 12-mile long rail/road bridge is now under construction, which will connect the Crimea to the Russian mainland. It’s expected to be completed by the end of 2018.
In addition, this theory makes no sense because by 1954, the population of Crimea was 75 percent Russian!
I believe the most likely explanation centers around Nikita Khrushchev’s political maneuverings in the immediate post-Stalin period. Except for a short interval, from the 1930s to 1949, Khrushchev was the head of the Communist Party of the Ukraine. He obviously would have a soft spot for the Ukraine. In 1953, Khrushchev became the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. However, his position was far from secure. He was still in competition with Soviet Prime Minister Georgii Malenkov.
His position was complicated by the fact that during the Ukrainian civil war, when the Soviet Union annexed large parts of the Western Ukraine, there was an extremely large numbers of casualties. Beria, another Communist Party leader at the time, had criticized the situation in the Western Ukraine. Criticizing events in the Western Ukraine was an indirect criticism of Khrushchev’s role there in the 1940s.
It is argued that Khrushchev wanted to placate Ukrainian elites for the problems suffered by them in the Western Ukraine. Transferring Crimea was one way to accomplish that. I could go on and on about all the potential political benefits Khrushchev would receive by transferring Crimea to the Ukraine. In the end, it appears that personal self-interest by Khrushchev probably best explains the unexplainable.
Post Soviet Period
From 1954 until 1991, Crimea was part of the Ukraine SSR. In 1991, Crimea supported Ukrainian independence both from the USSR and Russia by a small majority, which represented a relatively small percent of the local population.
Ukrainian independence created major problems for both the Ukraine and Russia. The annexation of large parts of the Western Ukraine had brought a large number of Ukrainian speakers into the Ukraine, most of whom were Roman Catholic. The Eastern Ukraine remained heavily Orthodox and Russian speaking. Both sides have basically been at each other’s throats for centuries. However, several developments in the first decade of this century brought things slowly to a boil.
Depending on who won any particular election in the Ukraine, the now independent country either veered towards the West or towards Russia. In 2006, the Ukrainians held joint military maneuvers with NATO forces, including US marines. This created an outrage both in the Eastern Ukraine, but also in Russia, because Russia’s main naval base is located in the Crimea at Sevastopol, where it has been based for over two centuries. The US marines quickly left.
In 2009, the Ukrainian government had the chutzpah to demand that the Russia fleet leave its Crimean base by 2017. There were then countless interim agreements between Russia and the Ukraine dealing with the nature of the Sevastopol naval base. The machinations by both sides are as complex as you could imagine. However, by 2014, events in the Ukraine reached a crisis point. Pro-Western, mainly Roman Catholic opposition factions unconstitutionally overthrew the legal pro-Russian government. I repeat — the overthrow was unconstitutional. One of the first things the new government did was to reduce Russian language legal rights. At the time, the Chief Rabbi of Kiev advised Ukrainian Jews to leave the country because of the anti-Semitic views of some of the new, senior government officials. It reminded many of what happened in the Ukraine during the Nazi period.
Crimea Is A Vital National Interest to Russia
Given the ongoing battle over the Russian fleet’s Crimean base, it was clearly a vital national interest for Russia to clarify the position of the fleet. Just imagine if the US was suddenly thrown out of our major military bases in Western Europe or East Asia.
Since Russians make up a large majority of the Crimean population, and given events in the Crimea and the Ukraine since the late 1990s, it was not surprising that an annexation plebiscite easily won support in Crimea. It is hard for me to believe that many Crimeans would have wanted to remain part of the Ukraine, which at the time was, and still is today, an economic and political basket case.
In the end, there is absolutely NO WAY RUSSIA WILL GIVE UP CRIMEA. If the goal of sanctions is to end the annexation of Crimea, they are simply a waste of time and a waste of political capital needed for other more important matters in US-Russia relations.
As always, Clear and Candid.