„Friendly green men“ – with that term Russian officials described what has marked a development that subsequently led to a war in Eastern Ukraine that cost thousands of lives. Obviously professional fighters, wearing uniforms without insignia, appeared on the streets of Crimea in February 2014, erecting checkpoints and occupying administrative buildings. The following events up to the admission of Crimea into the Russian Federation on 17 March 2014 are considered an act of illegal annexation by the vast majority of the world’s nations, while Russia maintains it acted on legal grounds following the results of a referendum held on the peninsula. Supporters of the Russian government have since claimed that the annexation has simply corrected “a historical mistake”, stating that Crimea always was a part of Russia and has now simply “returned” to its motherland. This point is a matter of dispute on many levels, with lots of false information being spread. The following is a look at the history of the peninsula to set the record straight.
Crimea is located in the Black Sea and is connected by a land bridge, the Isthmus of Perekop, to the Ukrainian mainland, where Kherson is the nearest large city. Between the peninsula and the Russian Taman Peninsula located east of it, there is a strait which is 3.1 kilometers wide at its narrowest section. In the course of its history, parts of Crimea were either settled or inhabited by various peoples, the Greek, Persians, Romans, Huns and Goths being among them. From the 1440s on, the Crimean Tatars, as successors of the Golden Hordes, established a Khanate centered around Crimea that was associated with the Ottoman Empire. From here, they frequently departed into Russian and Ukrainian (then under Polish-Lithuanian rule) and captured residents from there, which they would then use in slave trade, their main source of income. During one of those forays, they stormed Moscow and burned it down almost entirely. This episode, along with numerous other clashes between Tatars and Russians, laid the cornerstone for many centuries of strained relations between these peoples.
A treaty between Russia and the Ottoman Empire ended the hostilities between the two major powers in 1774. Notably, the treaty, which followed a number of severe Russian military hits against Ottoman forces, gave Russia the right to build a church in Constantinople. This article of the treaty would become important later, because Russia interpreted this paragraph as a right to intervene in the remaining Ottoman Empire if it saw the rights of Orthodox Christians threatened there. The treaty also gave the Crimean Khanate formal independence, something the Tatars did not want, as they felt they belonged to the Ottoman Empire. In reality, Crimea became closely tied to and dependent on Russia immediately after the treaty was signed and Russian forces stayed on the peninsula to ensure order. Later, a leader (khan) groomed in Russia was installed and Russian influence in general grew steadily. From 1777 to 1782, Russia’s military was deployed several times to crush revolts sparked by the Tatars, which were directed against the Khan and his puppet regime over Crimea. In 1783, Catherine the Great annexed Crimea without further resistance and by that opened a strategically important access point to the Black Sea.
In the following decades, the Ottoman Empire further lost significance and sought alliances with other major powers, particularly France and Great Britain. Russia attempted to make use of the weakness of the Ottoman armies by gradually pushing into areas once firmly in Ottoman hands and especially aimed at taking control of the Balkans. Although Russia had been a part of alternating alliances over the years, neither of the other European powers was in favor of the idea of Russia gaining control over more areas, after it had already added the Tatars‘ and Cossacks‘ lands in southern Ukraine, which it called “New Russia”. The British especially were intent on putting a stop to further expansion of the Russian Empire, fearing for their own spheres of influence in western and northern Europe. When the Ottoman Sultan signed a treaty with Napoleon III in 1851, that gave France the authority to protect Christians in its area, Russia immediately saw its position threatened, causing tsar Nicholas I to deploy troops to the borders of the Ottoman Empire. After all attempts at diplomacy had failed, Great Britain and France had sent warships in and Russia had occupied Ottoman lands in Moldavia and Wallachia, both the British and the French declared war on the tsar in 1854. It didn’t take long for the allies to set foot on Crimea, who then set out to capture Sevastopol. At the end of the lengthy siege of the city and numerous bloody battles, the Russians retreated and a total defeat of Russia on all fronts was imminent. However, the public in Great Britain and France demanded their government to put an end to the war that had caused so many casualties. In 1856, the Treaty of Paris was signed, which stripped Russia of many areas, for example in Moldova and Bessarabia and banned their navy ships from the Black Sea, but it returned Sevastopol and Crimea to Russia. It should take Russia less than 20 years after the treaty was signed to breach it and re-establish naval posts at the Black Sea in 1871. It used beginning unrest in some of the Ottoman provinces to attack the Ottoman Empire again in 1877.
Standing under the control of the anti-Bolshevik forces known as the White Army in Russian Civil War, Crimea remained under Russian control until 1942. The peninsula had briefly been a part of the Russian Socialist Republic after the Civil War, but had then been given autonomous status as a Socialist Republic in its own right, which in turn became a part of the Soviet Union in 1922. In World War II, it came under German occupation in July 1942 for almost two years. After the Nazis, who had amassed almost 200,000 troops here, were driven out of Crimea in May 1944, the Soviets deported the Tatars from the peninsula, claiming they had collaborated with the Germans. These deportations removed about one fifth of the total Crimean population at the time, after it had already been decimated greatly by the long, intense fights of the previous two years. Politically, Crimea lost its autonomous status after the war and became a part of the Russian Republic again.
In 1954, the highly controversial transfer of Crimea from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic occurred. The actual transfer act was decreed by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, but was mostly steered by then-Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev was of Russian heritage but had developed a certain fondness for and a strong connection to Ukraine, where he had served as head of the Communist Party under Stalin. This alleged personal motivation has often been cited as the reason why he made the Ukrainian Republic the “present” of Crimea, while others state that it had only been a matter of practicability as Crimea was connected to Ukraine by a land bridge and could more easily be administered from there. Also, it might have been intended to tie Ukraine closer to Russia by the move, as the Soviet Black Sea fleet had its main base in Sevastopol and would remain there indefinitely. The question for the motivation behind the transfer remains not fully answered to this day; quite possibly it was a mixture of all of the above reasons.
It is a matter of fact however that, according to the Soviet constitution, neither Khrushchev alone nor the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet had the legal authority to transfer an oblast (province) to another Republic. Regardless of the motivations behind the move, the assignment of Crimea to Ukraine back in 1954 could be seen as illegal and this possible perspective has caused many heated discussions and controversies between Ukraine and Russia over the years. There have also been a number of politicians in Russia who have wanted to return Crimea and the Russian Federation’s Supreme Soviet issued the statement that it ruled the transfer illegal and even accused Khrushchev for treason for his actions. Additionally, as the majority of inhabitants of Crimea have always been Russians by ethnicity, there have also repeatedly been calls by Crimean officials to allow the return of the peninsula to Russia, but none of them ever became a serious initiative.
In summary, the transfer of Crimea in 1954 did not observe legal proceedings and regulations. This fact would turn up again and again when discussions came to that point over the years and it was also one of the argumentation points used by Vladimir Putin and his supporters after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. This argumentation however misses out on three points which make the claim null and void.
The first of these points is the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. In exchange for its relinquishment of the nuclear arsenal, Russia and other signatories confirm Ukraine’s sovereignty within “the existing borders” – which back then without doubt included Crimea. Previously, the majority of Crimean voters had given their approval of Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, along with the majorities in all other Ukrainian provinces. The peninsula received far-reaching autonomy in the young country, including its own parliament and constitution, which contains a sentence confirming Crimea’s affiliation to Ukraine.
The second point is the “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership” signed by Ukraine and Russia in 1997 after long-lasting controversies over the status of the Black Sea fleet and even the beginnings of civic unrest. The treaty gave Russia the right to use military installations in Sevastopol for its navy and in exchange, Moscow acknowledged Ukraine’s sovereignty over the city and Crimea as a whole. By signing the 1994 memorandum, but latest with this 1997 treaty, Russia has finally verified and legitimized the transfer of Crimea in 1954.
The third and most important point to counter the idea that Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was justified can be found in the events leading up to the annexation itself. Shortly after former President Yanukovych had fled Ukraine in the context of the Euromaidan protests, armed men had taken over the Crimean legislature and installed a Prime Minister, Sergey Aksyonov, without popular vote or any other form of legitimation, such as the consultation with the Kiev government as provisioned in the constitution. Thereafter, the infamous “little green men” appeared in the streets, in front of the parliament building and at Ukrainian military installations and forced the troops present there to surrender. At the same time, the Crimean parliament apparently voted to dismiss the existing government and in favor of holding a referendum among the population. It was later claimed by separatist leaders that parliament members had been forced to vote at gunpoint. Officials in the Putin administration only a few weeks later acknowledged that the “little green men” had indeed been Russian military members, as had been suspected by many immediately. The referendum was declared illegal by the Ukrainian Constitutional court before it took place and the Ukrainian parliament officially dismissed the Crimean parliament. The referendum itself, held on 16 March 2014, allegedly confirmed the voters’ desire to join Russia. However, under international law as well as under the Constitution of Russia, such a referendum or decision of a province to join another country can only be initiated by the other country’s government, which was not the case here.
For these reasons, the majority of countries in the UN Global Assembly declared the referendum invalid and do not recognize Crimea as a part of Russia. Although the Kiev government currently cannot execute its powers in Crimea, the peninsula is by law still a part of the Ukrainian territory.