Russia’s historic relations with Crimea

Nikita Lomagin
European University
St. Petersburg, Russia

The Crimea plays a very important role in Russian history and identity. Victory over Ottoman Empire in two wars (1768-74, 1788-1792) secured the territory north of the Black Sea as far west as the Dniester river, including the vital agricultural and mineral resources of southern Ukraine, an area that became known as New Russia. In the process, Russia annexed the Crimea in 1783. As long as the Crimea remained independent, Russia could have no navy in the Black Sea – the Sea of Azov freezes over from November to April and its exit was too shallow for large warships. Thus, Russia’s future as a naval power in the Black Sea depended on a settlement of the ‘Crimean question’.[i]

The Black Sea ports of Crimea provide quick access to the Eastern Mediterranean, Balkans and Middle East. The nearby Dnieper River is a major waterway and transportation route that crosses the European continent from north to south and ultimately links the Black Sea with the Baltic Sea.

Russia’s domination in the region ended by humiliating defeat in the Crimean War of 1853-56. This war was about the control of the two decisive points, the Turkish Straits and the Khyber Pass. The British government decided to claim control over the mouths of the Danube, the Dniepr, and the Don. In January 1853, it drew a line along the right bank of the Danube beyond which a Russian advance would be met with declaration of war, and it pledged to defend any Turkish port in the Black Sea against a Russian attack. Russia has fought alone against Turkey, France, and Great Britain.

The war turned into a series of far-flung naval operations unlikely to settle anything. Only in the Crimea did a large allied forces launch a major operation but the siege of Sevastopol lasted until September 1855. In December 1854, when the siege was tightening, the foreign secretary Lord Clarendon set forth another Britain’s goal – the demolition of Sevastopol and other Russian fortresses on the eastern coast of the Black Sea to shake Russia’s hold on the Caucasus, the elimination of Russia’s naval installations in that sea, the reduction of its navy to four ships, and a revision of the Straits Convention to allow Britain and France to maintain the same number of warships in the Black Sea. The Treaty of Paris, signed on March 30, 1856, moderated these radical demands by reasserting the old rule that British and French warships would not be allowed into the Black Sea in peacetime but it forced Russia to accept the neutralization of the Black Sea and retrocede to Turkey the mouth of Danube and part of Bessarabia, won from the Turks almost half a century earlier. Also, the friendship treaty between Turks and the two maritime powers guaranteed that in the event of the war the sultan would allow their warships to cross into the Black Sea to attack a defenseless Russia.

The Crimean defeat signified the end of Russia’s status as the supreme land power in Europe and made fundamental reforms unavoidable. The Paris settlement was a great humiliating geopolitical loss for Russia which created preconditions for taking revenge.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Crimea became an autonomous republic within the Russian SFSR in the Soviet Union. During the Second World War the peninsula was invaded by Nazi Germany and Romanian troops in summer 1941. Following the capture of Sevastopol after severe battles on 4 July 1942, Crimea was occupied until German and Romanian forces were expelled in an offensive by Soviet forces ending in May 1944. The Nazis murdered around 40,000 Crimean Jews.

During the Second World War, Crimea was downgraded to the Crimean Oblast and the entirety of one of its indigenous populations, the Crimean Tatars, were deported to Central Asia. In 1954, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR from the Russian SFSR. The year 1954 happened to mark the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, which was signed in 1654 by representatives of the Ukrainian Cossack Hetmanate and Tsar Alexis of Russia.

By 1991, the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, headquartered in Sevastopol, had 100,000 personnel and 835 ships. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was reestablished as an independent state, and most of the peninsula was reorganized as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and the city of Sevastopol retained its special status within Ukraine. In 1992-95, Russia supported Yuri Meshkov, the head of the Crimean provincial government, who was a proponent of holding a referendum on succession of the peninsula from the rest of the country. In 1995, amidst the first war between Russia and Chechnya, the Ukrainian national parliament dismissed Meshkov and annulled the autonomous status of Crimea.

As Russian identity is concerned, as a result of disintegration of the Soviet Union, numerous sacred symbols of old imperial Russia (e.g., Kiev and Narva) and twentieth-century Soviet Russia (e.g. the Baikonur Cosmodrome and the Brest fortress) were displaced beyond the borders of the Russian Federation almost overnight. Sevastopol was a symbol of glory of both imperial and Soviet Russia. [ii] Alongside Kiev and Odesa, Sevastopol was awarded the status of ‘hero-city’ to commemorate the heroism of their defenders during the Second World war.

A Treaty of ‘Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership’ sealed by Boris Yeltsin and the Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma in May 1997 set aside the territorial issue over Crimea. Separate agreements partitioned the Black Sea fleet, with Moscow buying out much of the Ukrainian’s share in exchange for debt relief, and provided a 20-year lease on the naval base in Sevastopol and the right to billet 25,000 sailors, aviators and marines there. Ukraine extended Russia’s lease of the naval facilities under the 2010 Kharkiv Pact in exchange for further discounted natural gas.

In late February 2014, following the regime change in Ukraine that ousted the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, the Republic of Crimea declared its independence from Ukraine following a disputed referendum on 16 March, deemed illegal by Ukraine and most countries, which was held on the issue of reunification with Russia; its official results showed over 90% support for reunification, but the vote was boycotted by many loyal to Ukraine. Russia formally annexed Crimea on 18 March, incorporating the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol as the 84th and 85th federal subjects of Russia.

[i] LeDonne, John P. (1997). The Russian Empire and the World, 1700-1917. The Geopolitics of Expansion and Containment. New York, Oxford. Oxford U. Press, p. 106.
[ii] Serhii Plokhy, ‘The City of Glory: Sevastopol in Russian Historical Mythology’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Jul., 2000), pp. 370-371


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