Crimea: Europe’s flashpoint

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Friday, March 28, 2014

THE crisis on the Crimean peninsula has been on everyone’s lips lately. The Russian occupation and subsequent annexation of Crimea has made people wonder if it could possibly be the start of World War III, but thanks to President Obama’s ironclad unwillingness to use force against a nuclear-capable power, we might not see that happen. However, Crimea has been a flashpoint for several political disasters throughout the centuries. To understand why, you’ll have to take a look at Crimea’s geographic location and its long and violent history to understand why it’s so important.

First of all, Crimea is a peninsula, the only large peninsula in the entire Black Sea. This made it an important trading hub for everyone that ever conquered it. The first major power that settled in Crimea was ancient Greece, who proclaimed independence and formed their own kingdom a few decades after their settlement. A few centuries later, they were annexed by the Romans, who milked as much of its trading potential as they could until they in turn were overrun by the Goths, then the Huns, then the Bulgarians, and was divided by wars between all manner of small unimportant nation-states until the Republic of Genoa, then one of the world’s most powerful and opulent trading empires, took all the important coastal settlements and controlled Black Sea commerce for two hundred years. Genoa’s days in the Crimean peninsula were numbered when the Mongols arrived and besieged the city of Caffa (now Feodosia) and threw the bodies of their dead soldiers, who had died of a mysterious illness, over the walls of the city. The disease was the Bubonic Plague – and since merchants in Crimea came from all over the known world, the disease spread into the heart of Europe and killed two hundred million people. That’s how important Crimea was to world trade.

While Europe was suffering from a disease that would kill half its population, Crimea was still up for grabs. The Timurids, distant cousins to the Mongols, took the peninsula and formed their own country. The descendants of the Timurids, the Crimean Tatars, still live there today. They once had their own country separate from both Russia and the Ukraine, called the Crimean Khanate, which was a protectorate of the powerful Muslim Ottoman Empire. It was once so powerful because of its trade and connection to the Ottoman Empire that it dared to attack larger nations like Ukraine and Russia. In fact, the Russians coveted the Northern Crimea because its soil was more fertile than the soil of Moscow itself, and it had longer growing seasons.


The Crimean Khanate ceased to exist when it was attacked by an alliance of Russians and Ukrainians in the 18th century. After that, it became part of the Russian empire. When Russia began to expand south towards the warm water ports of the Black Sea a hundred years later, seeking warm water ports that did not freeze during the winter, it triggered a war with the Ottoman Empire, with France and Britain taking the side of the Muslims. In the modern age, Putin may be trying to do the same thing, as the vast majority of Russian ports are cold-water ports, and securing new warm water ports would be a great boon to Russian trade.

After Russia lost the Crimean War in 1856, the Russian fleet was effectively kicked out of the Crimea until the 20th century, when it became part of the Soviet Union. This next part is important – Crimea was originally part of the Russian Republic of the USSR. This is why so many Russians live there. It was given, on a whim, to the Ukrainian Republic, another member of the USSR, in 1954. Back then, both Russia and Ukraine were one country anyway, so it didn’t really matter. When Ukraine and the other Soviet satellites broke off from Russia in 1991, then it became a problem. Crimea, holding Russia’s only warm water port, was now in the hands of another country. The rest, as they say, is history.

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on March 28, 2014.


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