As Crimea increasingly appears to be the most dangerous flashpoint in the unfolding situation in Ukraine, it’s worth knowing a few things about the region. In order of importance, in my opinion, are a few of them.
1. Russia has the right to place soldiers there. While the recent re-deployment is threatening and uncalled for, it is not, strictly speaking, illegal. Russia has always maintained a military base in the Crimea and has signed agreements about the stationing of troops there to protect it. This is why Ukraine has not yet acted.
2. The Russian occupation doesn’t match its stated goals. Russians are a majority in the Crimea, and the local government and local armed forces are friendly to the Russian cause. Claims by the Putin government to be protecting their ‘citizens and compatriots’ are dubious at best. The thirty some percent of the population that is Ukrainian, Tatar, or some other ethnicity is in much more danger than the ethnic Russians. Moreover, danger for Russians in the rest of the country can only increase as a result of Russian hostilities – Russia seizing Crimea to protect Russian citizens in Kharkov makes about as much sense as the US invading Tijuana to protect Americans in Cancun – the danger from nationalism only increases with hostile acts.
3. Russia has no legal claim to the peninsula, and in fact is legally bound to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 guaranteed as much, in exchange for Ukraine giving up its massive Soviet-era weapons stockpile. Russia has certainly violated the letter and spirit of this agreement by using military force to attempt to remove Crimea from Ukraine.
4. There is, however, a pretty good international precedent for such actions. Should the majority of Crimea vote for independence and Ukraine be forced to accept it, Ukraine would be in no better position than Serbia was regarding Kosovo to reject that decision. Russia will undoubtedly bring this up if there is a debate in the UN (both sides here would be hypocrites, however, as Russia still refuses to recognize Kosovar independence even after 108 other nations have).
5. Ukraine has showed impressive restraint thus far – the current Ukrainian government has thus done better than Saakashvili’s government in Georgia did at avoiding a war they can’t possibly win. This is also contradicts the Russian characterization of the Kiev government as one of bloodthirsty nationalists.
6. Saying Crimea is a ‘historically Russian province’ is a bit misleading. Until 1944, Crimea was inhabited by Crimean Tatars, remnants of a Khanate that ruled most of Southern Ukraine (indeed, the word Ukraine comes from the word for frontier, and the famed Ukrainian cossacks were granted semi-autonomy in exchange for holding the border with the Muslim Tatars). Crimea had consistently sought independence and had the status of an independent SSR until World War II, after which the vast majority of the Tatars were shipped to central Asia and replaced with Russian-speakers. (Similar displacements removed other ethnic minorities from Ukraine and greatly decreased the Ukrainian population, again making room for more Russians to move in). I don’t say this because I think it invalidates the claims of over a million Russians currently living in Crimea, but many are appealing to the authority of history to ‘prove’ that the Crimean peninsula belongs to Russia. It belongs to Russia by the exact same claim that settlements in Palestine ‘belong’ to Israel.