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Geography in the News: Ukraine’s Crisis

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

Ukraine’s Russian Crisis

In January 2009, the United States signed a pact with Ukraine to establish a U.S. diplomatic office in Simferopol, the capital of the Ukrainian republic of Crimea. The move clearly concerned Moscow.

Russia exerts substantial power in Ukraine. The Crimean peninsula is the site of the main naval base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and the region has a large and powerful ethnic-Russian majority. For this reason, most Crimeans are especially patriotic towards Russia. Russia has seen an American presence there as a threat to its power on the peninsula and in the region.

gitn_982_Ukraine
Map by Geography in the News and Maps.com

Ukraine has sent a powerful message that once Russia’s lease of the Crimean port Sevastopol ends in 2017, the Black Sea Fleet will have to leave. However, Russia has no other suitable warm water ports. For the first time in centuries, Sevastopol would cease to be a Russian Navy town. The Russians have repeatedly sent the message that they will not budge from the port.

Crimea is an autonomous republic of Ukraine located on the northern coast of the Black Sea on a peninsula of the same name. Ukraine has a population of 46 million, while Crimea has a total area of 10,100 square miles (26, 200 sq. km) and a population of approximately 2 million. Russians represent 69 percent of Crimea’s population and about 25 percent of Ukraine’s total population.

Many different groups conquered and controlled Crimea throughout its early history. A number of Turkic peoples, collectively known as the Crimean Tatars, have inhabited the peninsula since the Middle Ages. The Crimean Tatars, who are Muslims, still compose about 13 percent of the population.

The Russian Empire controlled Crimea in the 18th-20th centuries. The Soviet Union continued that control during part of the 20th century.

European powers invaded Sevastopol twice. During the Crimean War (1853-1856), the British Light Brigade charged to their deaths in the nearby town of Balaklava. During World War II, Crimea was home to some of the war’s bloodiest battles with the Nazis. After controlling most of Crimea for almost a year, the Germans finally captured Sevastopol in 1942. They held the entire peninsula until 1944 when the Soviets took over.

In 1944, Stalin’s Soviet government expelled the Tatars from Crimea to Central Asia. Stalin accused the people of aiding Nazi occupation forces. After the fall of the Soviet Bloc in 1991, some Crimean Tatars returned to the region.

In the post-war Soviet era, Crimea grew as a naval base. With its mountains, broad bays, beautiful beaches and Mediterranean climate, the peninsula became a prime tourist destination. Ukrainian and Russian populations have increased ever since.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimea became part of the newly independent Ukraine. With most of its population ethnically and culturally Russian, however, Crimea caused new tensions between Ukraine and Russia.

Upon gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine’s Russians supported an unsuccessful pro-Russian movement to separate from Ukraine. With Russia’s Black Sea Fleet stationed and a large share of the former Soviet Union’s weaponry stored there, Russia’s leaders wanted considerable control over the Crimean portion of Ukraine.

Russia and Ukraine have disagreed over who should control the port at Sevastopol where more than 800 poorly maintained ships in the Black Sea Fleet apparently are stationed. In 1996, Russia briefly declared the port a Russian city, but Ukraine countered with a demand for the removal of all Russian troops from Ukrainian territory. The dispute ended with an agreement allowing Russia to buy most of the fleet from Ukraine and lease some of the port facilities in Sevastopol for 20 years.

Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have continued as Moscow objected to Ukraine’s entrance into NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Russia feared its own influence in the former Soviet states would diminish if countries like Ukraine and Georgia enter the organization. Some Western newspapers have for years speculated that Russia could instigate a coup in Sevastopol or another Crimean city similar to the Russian-Georgian conflict over South Ossetia in August 2008. Although Ukrainian officials said a takeover was impossible, Russia’s influence in Crimea is substantial.

Now, the latest internal conflict within Ukraine is about whether to move closer to the European Union or Russia. The internal uprising appears to have opened the door for Russia to exert its military power to gain increased influence in the Crimea before its lease on Sevastopol’s port ends in 2017. Armed Russian gangs recently took control of some public buildings, no doubt with Moscow’s blessings, and Russian forces have amassed equipment on Ukraine’s border. The international community and especially the United States are exerting international pressure to defuse the situation before the political division of Ukraine along ethnic lines. The Russian “bear” is at Ukraine’s door.

And that is Geography in the News.

Sources: GITN 982, “The Crimean Problem, Maps.com, Mar. 27, 2009; GITN #764, “Ukraine Politics: Curiouser and Curiouser,” Maps.com, Feb. 4, 2005; and

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/crimean-peninsula-could-be-the-next-south-ossetia-910769.html

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.