Skip to main content

Ukraine's Crimea lives in Russia's shadow: 5 things to know

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
February 28, 2014 -- Updated 0245 GMT (1045 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tensions are running high in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula
  • The region has historically been part of Russia, but it's Ukrainian now
  • A lot of ethnic Russians live there, but so do Ukrainians and Tatars who are anti-Russian
  • Part of the Russian Navy is based in Crimea

(CNN) -- Just when it looked like Ukraine was settling down after toppling pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych over the weekend, tension flared again in Crimea, the southern part of the country where support for Russia is strong. Armed men seized regional government buildings in Crimea and hoisted the Russian flag.

Rival demonstrators chanted "Crimea is Russia" and "Crimea is not Russia" back and forth at each other.

With the peninsula turning into a flashpoint, here are five things you need to know about Crimea.

1. Crimea isn't legally part of Russia now, but it has been in the past.

Ambassador: Yanukovych still President
Gunmen seize Ukraine parliament building
Fears of Ukraine split sparks protests

Moscow has had an interest in Crimea for hundreds of years, with its rich farmland and its access to the Black Sea. Russia gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, when both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there was some local desire for Crimea to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia again, but lawmakers in Ukraine and Crimea voted for it to stay part of Ukraine.

Gunmen seize government buildings in Crimea, raise Russian flag

2. A lot of Russians still live in Crimea.

There are actually three main groups in Crimea: ethnic Ukrainians in the north, Russians in the south, and a third group called Tatars in the middle. The Tatars represent 15 to 20% of the population and suffered badly under Stalin in the Soviet era. They're "deadest against annexation by Russia," Alexander Motyl of Rutgers University told a Council on Foreign Relations audience last week.

3. Part of the Russian Navy is based in Crimea.

Any talk about the importance of Crimea to Russia quickly turns to the Black Sea Fleet. The Russian Navy has had a base at the Crimean city of Sevastopol, on the Black Sea, for 230 years. Ships and subs based there are just north of Turkey and can reach the Mediterranean to influence the Middle East and the Balkans.

An expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies has been arguing that the importance of the Black Sea Fleet can be overstated. It is the smallest of the Russian Navy's four fleets, and Russia has a Black Sea coast of its own. In fact, Russia is expanding its Black Sea port of Novorossiysk and moving military vessels there, Christian Le Miere argues.

And yet Sevastopol clearly remains significant for Russia. In 2010, Moscow gave Ukraine a good deal on natural gas, partly in exchange for Kiev extending the Russian Navy lease on the base in Ukraine.

4. Crimea has played a vital role in world history before.

Even if you don't know anything else about the Crimean War, you've heard of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. It was in the Crimean War in the 1850s that she became known as the Lady with the Lamp, caring for soldiers wounded in the war that Britain, France and Ottoman Turkey fought against Russia.

Generations of British schoolchildren have memorized a poem dating from the war: "The Charge of the Light Brigade," by Alfred Lord Tennyson. The poem commemorates a blunder when British troops attacked the wrong Russian position and were slaughtered, memorialized by Tennyson in the lines: "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die."

That same battle added a word to the English language: It was called the Battle of Balaclava.

5. And don't forget Yalta, of course.

When World War II was grinding to an end in 1945, the Allied leaders -- U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin -- met to divide up Europe. That meeting, which laid the groundwork for the Cold War, took place in the Crimean resort of Yalta.

Opinion: Will Crimea be Europe's next 'frozen' conflict?

CNN's Ben Brumfield contributed to this report

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
The Dutch investigators in charge of finding out what happened have yet to lay eyes on the wreckage or the human remains believed to be still left in the enormous debris field.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
More Russian aggression in Ukraine. More U.S. and European sanctions imposed on Moscow.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
The shooting down of MH17 may finally alert Washington and Europe to the danger of the conflict in Ukraine.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2304 GMT (0704 HKT)
The United States and its allies are angrier at Russia now over Ukraine, but will they do anything more about it -- especially Europe?
The U.S. State Department released satellite images of what it says is photographic evidence that the Russian military has fired across its border with Ukraine to strike Ukrainian military targets.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1540 GMT (2340 HKT)
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1437 GMT (2237 HKT)
Background information about Ukraine, the second-largest European country in area after Russia.
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1725 GMT (0125 HKT)
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on securing the MH17 crash site and negotiating with the separatists.
Learn more about the victims, ongoing investigation and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 0700 GMT (1500 HKT)
When passengers boarded Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last week, they couldn't have known they were about to fly over a battlefield.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 0925 GMT (1725 HKT)
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
Increased fighting around the MH17 crash scene blocks international investigators. CNN's Kyung Lah reports.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
In the tangled aftermath of the disaster, two narratives have emerged -- one that most of the world subscribes to, and another that Russia and the rebels are pushing.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
"Every country, including Russia," must determine whether it is "together with the terrorists or together with the civilized world," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said.
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Russian President Vladimir Putin bears at least some responsibility for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
June 28, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says peace is possible if Vladimir Putin is in the right mood.
ADVERTISEMENT