Its course is predictable. Russia‘s forces, or – more likely – their Crimean proxies, would carry out a coup to defend the interests of the Russian-speaking majority in the peninsula and hold a referendum to secure autonomy from Ukraine.
Perhaps Crimea would rejoin Russia, despite the objections of the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians. The pro-Russian movement might then spread into south-east Ukraine, whose industries are heavily dependent on Russia. Ukraine loses, Russia wins.
Crimea was bound to be the focus of the Russian backlash against the Ukrainian revolution. The Black Sea peninsula is the only part of Ukraine with a clear Russian majority. For more than 20 years, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, its rule by Kiev has been a major source of Russian resentment – inside and outside Crimea – and a major thorn in Ukraine’s relations with Russia.
The Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation – by which Russia rents its naval base at Sevastopol from the Ukrainian government – is so far-reaching in the rights it gives the Russians to exercise their military powers that it is seen by many in Ukraine to undermine the country’s independence. In 2008 the Ukrainians said they would not renew the lease when it expired in 2017. But they buckled under the pressure of a gas-price hike and, in 2010, extended the Russian navy’s lease until 2042. What will happen to it now is anybody’s guess.
From the Russian point of view, it is all the more annoying that Crimea was part of Russia until 1954. Exactly 60 years ago, on 27 February 1954, it was casually gifted to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev (after only 15 minutes of discussion in the Supreme Soviet Presidium), supposedly to mark the 300th anniversary of the 1654 treaty unifying Ukraine with Russia.
In those days of the “fraternity of peoples” in the USSR there were no real borders between the Soviet republics, whose territories were drawn up by largely artificial and even arbitrary means.
But the Soviet collapse brought real national feelings back. Russians in Ukraine felt they had been orphaned by the breaking of their ties to Moscow; they latched on to Crimea as a symbol of their nationalist resentments.
Crimea is vitally important to the Russians. According to medieval chronicles, it was in Khersonesos – the ancient Greek colonial city on the south-western coast of Crimea, just outside Sevastopol – that Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, was baptised in 988, thereby bringing Christianity to Kievan Rus’, the kingdom from which Russia derives its religious and national identity.
Ruled by the Turks and Tatar tribes for five hundred years, Crimea was annexed by the Russians in 1783. It was the fault line separating Russia from the Muslim world, the religious division on which the Russian empire grew.
Catherine the Great liked to call the peninsula by its Greek name, Taurida, in preference to Crimea (Krym), its Tatar name. She thought that it connected Russia to the Hellenic civilisation of Byzantium. She gave land to Russia’s nobles to build magnificent palaces along the mountainous southern coast, a coastline to rival the Amalfi in beauty; their classical buildings, Mediterranean gardens and vineyards were supposed to be the bearers of a new Christian civilisation in this previously heathen land.
The Tatar population was gradually forced out and replaced by Russian settlers and other Eastern Christians: Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians.
Ancient Tatar towns such as Bakhchiserai were downgraded, while new towns like Sevastopol were built entirely in the neoclassical style. Russian churches replaced mosques. And there was an intense focus on the discovery of ancient Christian archaeological remains, Byzantine ruins, ascetic cave-churches and monasteries, to make a claims for Crimea as a sacred site, the cradle of Russian Christianity.
In the 19th century, the Black Sea fleet was the key to Russia’s imperial might. From Sevastopol it bullied the Ottomans into submission to Russia – a policy that led to the Crimean war after Tsar Nicholas I overplayed his hand in defence of the sultan’s Orthodox subjects and the British and their French allies sent their troops to Crimea to destroy his naval base.
For 11 months, the Russian sailors held out in the siege of Sevastopol – a struggle immortalised by Leo Tolstoy’s Sebastopol Sketches – before finally abandoning the town to the vastly superior allied forces. Their heroic sacrifice became a powerful emotive symbol of Russian defiance in the nationalist imagination.
The Russian character of Sevastopol is still defined by this siege mentality.
Memories of the Crimean war continue to stir profound feelings of Russian pride and resentment towards the west. Although it ended in defeat, the war has always been presented by the Russians as a moral victory. Nicholas I is one of Putin’s heroes because he fought for Russia’s interests against all the Great Powers. His portrait hangs in the antechamber of the presidential office in the Kremlin.
If a new Crimean war is to be avoided, Putin must show more restraint than his Tsarist hero. Nationalist emotions must be calmed. There are political remedies for the deep divisions in Ukraine. If peace can hold until the elections on 25 May, a new Ukrainian government might do well to consider options for the country’s federalisation to grant Crimea more autonomy.
But with deposed president Viktor Yanukovych now saying that the elections are “unlawful” there is much uncertainty and, if he speaks with Russia’s backing, little hope that those divisions can be peacefully resolved.