opinion | Hannah Thoburn

Crimea’s mixed loyalties

Ethnic Russians have deep ties to homeland, while Tatars associate it with tragedy

A pro-Russian woman with a Russian flag posed for photos with soldiers surrounding a Ukrainian military base in Crimea Sunday.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
A pro-Russian woman with a Russian flag posed for photos with soldiers surrounding a Ukrainian military base in Crimea Sunday.

IN AUGUST 2008, when the Russia-Georgia War broke out, I called Crimea — an autonomous republic in southern Ukraine — home. That short war captured the world’s attention for a few days, but in Crimea it took on another meaning entirely. When Russia obtained the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Crimea was swept with a great hope that they would be next to be taken into the fold. Russian flags appeared anywhere and everywhere — even painted on garage doors.

The peninsula is largely populated by ethnic Russians, most of whom moved there after 1944, when the native Crimean Tatar population (as well as large numbers of Armenians, Bulgarians, and Greeks) was deported by Stalin. The ethnic Russians came as soldiers posted to the various bases on the strategically located peninsula and stayed, put down roots, built families and lives. Along with the military came the industry and services needed to support them. The region’s sub-tropical climate, which once had made it a destination of choice for the Russian tsars and noblemen, began to attract thousands of Soviet citizens, who, under the Soviet system, were given government-paid vacations.

Although the administration of the region was transferred from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic (S.S.R.) to the Ukrainian S.S.R. in 1954, the residents of Crimea maintained their cultural and familial connections with Russia. The 1991 fall of the Soviet Union sent Crimea into a turmoil from which it has never truly recovered and introduced several factors now significant in today’s political crisis.


Pro-Russian sentiments ran high among Crimeans and the region briefly declared its independence, only to return to Ukrainian sovereignty though they retained for themselves extensive autonomous privileges. The Russian and Ukrainian governments reached an agreement to share the Soviet Union’s Black Sea base in Sevastopol. Retaining a warm water port was of highest importance for Russia, and the two countries agreed that Russia would rent the base from Ukraine until 2017, an agreement that was recently extended until 2042.

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But many of the other military bases that dotted Crimea met a different fate. The end of the Cold War and collapse of Soviet power meant that they were no longer needed. My city, Dzhankoi, had served as an air force base during the Soviet Union; my apartment was in the suburb that had been built right outside the airfield for the soldiers and their families. The disappearance of military jobs and collapse of the economy engendered within many Crimeans a strong longing for the good old days of Soviet glory and stability.

Simultaneously, the expelled Crimean Tatars began to return from their exile in Central Asia and the two groups began to clash over jobs, lands, and power. Neither party trusted the other, each certain that the other wanted to see them removed from Crimea. Slowly, a tacit acceptance between the groups emerged, but a latent distrust remained. Since 1991, the number of Crimean Tatars in Crimea has steadily grown. In Ukraine’s last census in 2001, Crimean Tatars made up 12.1 percent of the population, a number that has only grown since.

The Tatars understandably associate Russia with the tragedy that befell their people in 1944 and are afraid that their lives will again be upturned by the return of Russian power. Crimean Tatars are very loyal to Ukraine and many traveled to Kiev to participate in the antigovernment protests. As Russian troops have infiltrated Crimea, the Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians (about 25 percent of the population) that live there have understandably laid low.

The situation in Crimea and the desires of Crimeans are complex and cannot be reduced to easily digestible facts. Even among the ethnically Russian population there is not a consensus as to which nation they should be attached. Over the past 23 years, they too have built ties and established economic relationships with mainland Ukraine and have sent their children to university there. Russia now controls the Crimean Peninsula, but the struggle for control over the region is far from over. Crimea’s delicate internal dynamics will certainly have something to say about it.

Hannah Thoburn served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine from 2006-2008. She is a Eurasia analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative and tweets at @HannahThoburn.