Ukraine has been back in the news lately, following recent protests relating to former President Viktor F. Yanukovych and the country’s economic problems. This time, though, the trouble has to do with Crimea, a southern part of the country that Russia has just taken for itself. As of yesterday, Russia has military control of the territory and has officially voted in favor of the annexation. If that sounds like something from 1944 and not 2014, well, it’s because stuff like this doesn’t happen very often. Here’s what the hell is happening in Crimea:
First of all, where exactly is Crimea?
Crimea is (or was?) part of Ukraine. It’s located in the southern part of the country on the sensibly-named Crimean Peninsula. Aside from thin strips of land connecting it to Ukraine in the north, it sits entirely surrounded by the Black Sea.
Why does Russia want control of Crimea?
Crimea has nice beaches, making it a prime tourist destination and economic asset. More importantly, it’s made up of a majority population of ethnic Russians (58 %), though there are also sizable amounts of Ukrainians (24%) and Muslim Crimean Tatars (12%). Because Russian speakers hold the majority, Russia (a.k.a. Putin) feels like Crimea should be a Russian territory. He also thinks Russia got screwed out of it at the end of the Cold War.
How did Ukraine get control of Crimea in the first place?
On February 19, 1954, the U.S.S.R. transferred Crimea to Ukraine as a gesture of goodwill (Ukraine was controlled by the Soviets at the time). After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine brokered a deal to divide the Black Sea between the two countries, leaving Crimea with Ukraine where its has been ever since.
What is Russia’s justification for annexing the country?
Aside from arguments that Crimea “has always been an inalienable part of Russia,” there was a vote held in Crimea in which 97% of people voted to join Russia.” Putin has stressed that this vote was legitimate, while the West has raised questions. Still, it's likely that a majority of the Crimean people would like to be part of Russia. The Crimean Parliament is already making plans to switch to the Russian ruble and making deals with Russian energy companies.
Can Russia just go and annex part of another country?
Well, they sort of just did. Still, the West is pretty miffed about it. Ukraine has referred to the Russian takeover as "a robbery on an international scale.” The U.S. and U.N. have condemned the action. But the fact remains that the Russian government has approved the takeover and Crimea is now under Russian control. It would take a large-scale military action to push out the Russians at this point, and that probably isn’t going to happen.
What do the Russians have to say to that?
The Russians laughed it off, basically. Putin addressed the Kremlin with a defiantly nationalistic speech saying that Crimea had signed a treaty and that it was now legally part of Russia. The possibility of returning to cold-war like relations with the U.S. doesn't seem to bother him— It's clear that he knew what the West’s response would be and proceeded anyway. This is a case of Putin flexing his muscles: It's as much a political show of force as a military one. So far, it looks like Russia is getting what it wants.
So it doesn't look like war is a possibility?
A full-scale war probably isn't going to happen. There have been a few violent incidents, however—one involving a sniper. CNN also reports that Ukraine’s Defense Ministry says one Ukrainian officer has been wounded by in an assault on a base by masked perpetrators. The biggest news yet is that Russians have seized a Ukrainian naval headquarters in Sevastopol, though there were no injuries reported. It remains to be seen if things will escalate further. Vice President Biden has maintained his support of U.S. allies in the region who are nervous that similar showings of aggression could happen to them.
What happens now?
Putin's behavior could set a precedent for even more extreme behavior in the future. The fallout is already starting: Obama has canceled a Russian-American summit for the first time in more than fifty years and has condemned the annexation. In a statement he said that “the international community will continue to stand together to oppose any violations of Ukrainian sovereignty.” Obama has also announced sanctions against Putin and other Russian officials. The U.S. will aim to isolate Russia. What that will mean for the Russian people and future political relations remains to be seen.