11 Essential Questions About Crimea, Answered

by Linda Kinstler | March 7, 2014

photo credit: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

Where is Crimea?

The Crimean peninsula is the southernmost part of Ukraine, located on the northern coast of the Black Sea. "Crimea" refers to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which is part of Ukraine. Simferopol (the capital of Crimea), Sevastopol, and Kerch are the peninsula's three major cities. 

Who lives there?

About 2 million people live in Crimea according to the most recent census, compared with 45 million in all of Ukraine. Approximately 58 percent of Crimeans are ethnically Russian, 24 percent are Ukrainian, and 12 percent are Crimean Tatars

Why does Russia want it?

Russia has always considered Crimea its property. It was part of Russia for the better part of two centuries until Nikita Krushchev gifted the land to what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. When Ukraine declared independence from the USSR in 1991, Crimea became part of Ukraine despite its majority Russian population. Julia Ioffe has a helpful analogy to explain how Putin thinks of Crimea: "If you sold your house and the buyers accidentally got your car with it, too, you'd want it back, too," Ioffe writes. "Putin has been looking for a pretext to take back his car." This year's unrest in Ukraine gave him just that.

VITALY ARMAND/AFP/Getty Images

Does Crimea have its own government?

Yes. The Autonomous Crimean Republic has its own constitution and parliament, the Supreme Council of Crimea, which dates back to when Crimea was a soviet satellite state. The Supreme Council voted that Crimea should become part of Russia on Thursday, March 6. It was not the first time the Council declared independence from Ukraine: in 1992, after the fall of the USSR, the council voted to establish the independent "Republic of Crimea," and then as now the Ukrainian government refused to recognize the ruling. In 1998, a new Crimean consitution was adopted, which stipulated that Crimea would operate as an autonomous republic but would not have sovereignty. 

What’s going on there now?

The Ukrainian opposition toppled the government of President Viktor Yanukovych and now an interim government is in place. Russian troops are occupying Crimea and have been in a standoff with Ukrainian forces for the better part of a week. Russia has said that its military is in Ukraine to protect the human rights of Russian-speakers, who it claims are abused by the new government, and has denied that the unmarked soldiers are part of its army. The Crimean parliament voted to make Crimea a part of Russia, a decision that will be finalized in a referendum scheduled for March 16. The Russian Duma has said it will support the proposal, while the Ukrainian government says it is an illegal ruling. 

Is there or will there soon be a war in Crimea?

Yes, but it will be a non-shooting war. The Americans and Europeans will almost certainly not take any military action against Russia, although the U.S. has made a point of deploying additional forces to the Black Sea and Baltics. Nor will the Ukrainian military—so far, in days of standoffs between Russian and Ukrainian forces, only a few warning shots have been fired. This front page from the Kyiv Post says it all: 

Kyiv Post front page for Friday, March 7 issue. On news stands in #Kyiv tomorrow morning. #Ukraine #Crimea pic.twitter.com/56ASqZkWG9

— KyivPost (@KyivPost) March 6, 2014 

Who supports Putin’s invasion?

Putin. And many ethnically Russian Ukrainians who are fearful and resentful of the new Ukrainian government, which almost immediately tried to ban the use of Russian in official business in Ukraine. Language has long been a thorny issue in the country. When the parliament tried to make Russian one of Ukraine's official languages in 2012, for instance, riot police resorted to tear gas to quell crowds of protesters. Russian state media has depicted the Ukrainian opposition as an alliance of anti-Semites, fascists, and nationalists, which has influenced opinion within Russia as well as in former Soviet states. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad expressed support for the invasions, and the Kremlin said it was "in agreement" with Beijing on the issue. 

ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Who is against it?

The Kiev-based Ukrainian government and its supporters, and the Crimean Tatar community. Crimea is legally the property of Ukraine and does not have the requisite self-determination to decide to become part of Russia without Kiev's approval. Crimean Tatars do not want to become part of Russia because they have a long history of repression and abuse under Russian rule. The US and EU have both condemned the invasion. 

ASSOCIATED PRESS/Darko Vojinovic

What are the economic consequences?

Putin doesn't care much what the economic consequences of invading Crimea are. That's why he did not remove Russian troops after the ruble took a double-digit hit earlier this week, when Russia's richest businessmen lost a combined $44.4 billion in assets—only some of which they have begun to recoup. If Putin gets his way, Crimea will become part of Russia, as will the oil and natural gas resources off the Crimean coast. The country that stands to lose the most is Ukraine: with $20 billion in debt, it must rely on loans from the US, EU, and IMF to remain solvent. If Ukraine fails to pay its lenders it risks losing its supply of oil and natural gas and entering bankruptcy. 

Why doesn't Europe deal with this?

The E.U. is Russia's largest trading partner by a large margin, so European countries do not want to risk the health of their economies to intervene in Crimea. 75 percent of foreign investments in Russia come from the E.U. "The E.U. economy is so interconnected with Russia's, it means any economic sanctions will also hurt the E.U. That's the reason that countries like Germany and the Nertherlands are withholding support for sanctions and instead pushing for a diplomatic solution," TNR's Danny Vinik explains

Are we entering a second Cold War?

Maybe. Russia expert Dmitri Trenin thinks we are, and that "the post-Cold War may now be seen, in retrospect, as the inter-Cold War period."  Edward Snowden's defection to Russia certainly did not help US-Russia relations, which have been increasingly tense for several years. Russia's aggression in Crimea is one of its (many) attempt to assert its rightful place as a world power, a goal that is especially evident in Russian-controlled media broadcasts. But Russia's economic and cultural ties with Europe are strong, and provide a meaningful counterweight to any serious severing of diplomatic ties. Additionally, we no longer have the spectre of a nuclear arms race to drive antagonism between the two countries.  

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