MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. --
Crimea, an autonomous republic in Ukraine, became the focus of attention in early 2014 when mass protests in central and western Ukraine forced the pro-Moscow president of the country to flee to Russia. Russia-backed forces in Crimea then took control of the republic and in a hastily organized referendum, the Russian ethnic majority in the region voted to join Russia. The Russian government quickly annexed the republic.
Crimea is home to 2 million people. Ethnic Russians make up the majority of the population, but there are also significant Ukrainian and Tatar minorities. The Tatars used to dominate the region before Russians and Ukrainians began to settle there in the late 18th century.
Crimea was part of the Ottoman Empire until the late 18th century, when Russia conquered the region. In 1954 under Soviet rule, Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Crimea became part of independent Ukraine, although the region enjoyed a degree of autonomy in the new state. While Ukraine has been an independent country since 1991, many in Russia regret the disintegration of the Soviet Union in general, and the loss of Crimea in particular. Russia sees the annexation of Crimea in early 2014 as justice restored; the move was hugely popular in Russia.
Crimea is a strategically located peninsula in the Black Sea. The area is home to both Ukraine’s and Russia’s Black Sea fleets (Russia and Ukraine had a leasing agreement allowing Russia to keep military installations in Crimea). After the annexation in early 2014, Ukraine lost access to all its military installations in the region and Ukrainian military personnel left the peninsula.
As a result of Moscow’s ambition to increase its political and military influence in the world, Russia is in the process of expanding and modernizing its Black Sea Fleet. The fleet allows Russia to project power in the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and as far as the Indian Ocean.
The annexation of Crimea has consequences for the wider region and relations between Russia and the West. Ukraine has a large Russian minority (more than 17 percent of the population) and many fear Russia may attempt to annex other Ukrainian territories inhabited by ethnic Russians. This fear is reinforced by the willingness of many ethnic Russians in Ukraine to consider joining Russia. Other countries in the region, including in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, fear the presence of Russian minorities in their states also exposes them to Russian aggression.
As an attempt to deter Moscow, the United States and its European allies imposed limited economic and political sanctions against Russia. In addition, NATO has developed plans to increase military presence in members of the Alliance along the border with Russia. Many leaders have also urged European governments to end their dependence on Russia for energy needs and to reverse the long trend of declining European defense budgets. There are also calls to treat Russia as a potential opponent that is willing to break international law and norms, and is actively working against Western interests.
Editor's note: This piece was created at the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning. The center is located on Marine Corps Base Quantico and provides regional, culture and language training programs for Marines of all ranks. For more information about CAOCL please visit https://www.tecom.usmc.mil/caocl/SitePages/Home.aspx