The headlines conjuring up the threat of Russian aggression are omnipresent. Apart from current reports about troop deployments in Russia (see Current Concerns No. 28/29 of 21 December 2021), the basis of the danger reports is the false claim that Russia “annexed” the Crimean peninsula in spring 2014. This is supposed to serve as proof that Russia expansively invades and annexes foreign countries. The historical context of the events around Crimea and which actors committed which actions is hardly the subject of consideration. It would also fit poorly with the narrative that a Russian lust for conquest was at work here in an exemplary manner. There it is a beneficial clarification work Rüdiger Kipke is doing with his book “Die Krim in Zeiten des Umbruchs. 1920–2014” (“Crimea in times of upheaval. 1920–2014”).
Rüdiger Kipke, a lawyer, political scientist and Slavic scholar, professor emeritus at the University of Siegen, has written a slim book, but very densely grounded in historical sources, which examines the political history of Crimea from 1920 to 2014 and sheds a different light on the events than our media usually convey. It is summarised below:
Little known to us is that Crimea is considered almost “sacred” to many traditional Russians because it was from here that the Christianisation of the great country began since the 10th century. The special significance of the Crimea for many Russians indicates that a reintegration of this piece of land does not necessarily imply comprehensive plans of conquest by Russia, as is widely done.
After the October Revolution, Crimea became a Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921 and remained relatively autonomous until 1928. The great famine triggered by Stalin’s collectivisation in the early 1930s did not have quite as strong an impact here as in northern Ukraine; industrialisation also took place and the population grew. The population had long been multi-ethnic, consisting of Russians, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and minorities such as Jews and Germans. The Russians were favoured by Stalin on almost racist justifications.
The Jews living in the Soviet Union were given their own land in Crimea in the 1920s, but bad land, so that many did not stay long. Completely unexpectedly, they were allocated an autonomous territory in the Soviet Far East a little later. A renewed attempt during the Second World War to create a Jewish homeland in the Crimea ended in execution for many of its protagonists.
From September 1941, the Wehrmacht advanced on Crimea and occupied it. Parts of the population collaborated with the Germans, especially Crimean Tatars, because they hoped for help against Soviet Russian oppression. Hitler’s plan was to Germanise the area and annex it to the Greater German Reich as the “Gothic Gau”. When the Red Army recaptured Crimea in 1944, the Crimean Tatars were deported to Uzbekistan, even those who were not Nazi collaborators. Since 1945, Crimea has also officially lost autonomy status within the Soviet Union. The Crimean Tatars were “rehabilitated” in 1967, but this meant practically nothing; it was only in 1989 that their resettlement was classified as criminal and they could return to Crimea – albeit to a country where conditions had long since changed to their disadvantage. In 1991, Ukraine, and with it Crimea, became independent. Large parts of the people living on the peninsula were dissatisfied with this development.
Crimea was “given” to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic by the Moscow leadership in 1954, which happened without much fuss, remained without practical consequences within the economic space of the Soviet Union and has no clear justification to this day. It may have played a role that the rising Communist Party leader Khrushchev needed Ukrainian support to consolidate his power, that he wanted to strengthen the bond between the Ukrainian and Russian Soviet Republics and would have preferred to also annex parts of Slovakia and Poland to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic.
At the end of the Gorbachev era, the Russian parliament declared the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine unconstitutional as early as 1990, which was indeed true according to Soviet law at the time, but was initially not given any further attention, as people everywhere in the country had other concerns after the end of the Soviet Union. The 1991 referendum on the peninsula, in which 93 % of those who voted (turnout 81 %) were in favour of an Autonomous Republic of Crimea independent of Ukraine, also received little attention at the time. Finally, a compromise was reached with Kiev: Crimea was granted the status of an autonomous republic within the otherwise unitarian Ukraine. In a national referendum in December 1991, 90 % of those who voted were in favour of Ukraine’s independence; in Crimea, the figure was only 54 %.
Leonid Kuchma had been president in Kiev since 1994. He revalued the Russian language, but continued to place Crimea under the Kiev administration. In 1998, Crimea was granted further autonomy rights within Ukraine, as the independence efforts in Crimea had not abated in the 1990s. Russia and Kiev mutually assured each other of territorial integrity by treaty in 1997. In addition, the Russian Federation concluded a lease agreement with Ukraine in the same year that ensured the Russian fleet would remain in Crimea – initially for 20 years, later extended until 2042.
The historically grown tensions escalated in 2013 after Ukrainian President Yanukovych did not sign an association agreement with the European Union. He feared disadvantages for his country with regard to economic relations with Russia. As a result, the Maidan demonstrations began in Kiev, which eventually turned violent and led to armed confrontations. In February 2014, the Kiev parliament deposed the president in an unconstitutional process; Yanukovych fled the country. EU countries and the US immediately recognised the new pro-Western government that had come to power in the course of the coup d’état. Russia accused the West of having massively interfered, if not initiated the events. In Crimea, there were protest demonstrations against the Maidan movement in January 2014, and violence between opponents and supporters of the new Kiev rulers in February.
There were Russian soldiers in Crimea at the time, though fewer than the 25,000 troops allowed by the aforementioned lease agreement. On 16 March 2014, a referendum was held in Crimea to decide between, firstly, annexation of Crimea to Russia or, secondly, recognition of the validity of the 1992 constitution with Crimea as part of Ukraine. There was no “preservation of the status quo” option. With 83 % voter turnout, 97 % voted for the first option, which may not only be due to the population majority of 68 % Russians, but also to the fact that, from the population’s point of view, there is a better economic perspective alongside Russia. On 18 March 2014, the government of Crimea declared the Autonomous Republic of Crimea independent and, on the same day, applied for the republic’s admission to the Russian Federation. Subsequently, Crimea was gradually integrated into the Russian Federation as a special economic zone. •
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