By: Richard Mudyazvivi
What are Russian and Ukrainian Claims to Crimea?
Russia and Ukraine’s claims to Crimea can be explained better from the crisis of 2014 whereby Russia successfully invaded Crimea, at the time a part of Ukraine, initiated and held a referendum for Crimea to secede from Ukraine with the intention of joining Russia, and finally incorporated Crimea into Russia.
The Crimean Peninsula
Crimea is a peninsula that stretches into the Black sea and the sea of Azov, from the south of Ukraine and separated from Russia by a narrow strait called the Kerch Strait.
Crimea has been a contested territory since the 18th and 19th centuries. A lot of empires and states have at one point in time ruled over Crimea. From the Greeks, Mongols, to the Soviets.
Crimea has three main ethnic groups namely; Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and Russians, which make up the biggest group in Crimea. Russia under Joseph Stalin embarked on a massive plan to move the indigenous Tatars out of Crimea and instead, replacing them with ethnic Russians. Stalin accused the Crimean Tatars of collaborating with the Nazi occupiers and moved them either to Siberia or remote parts of Asia under Soviet control.
Anton Bebler argues that Crimea can be explained in relationship with Russia’s geo-strategic interests. Of all the groups and countries that have ruled over Crimea, Russia ruled longer than any other. According to Bebler, for nearly 168 years, Crimea had been part of Russia.
In 1954, Crimea under the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) was handed administratively to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) by the then RSFSR president Nikita Khrushchev. This was a handover that violated the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic’s constitution because it was not agreed by the parliament neither was it a constitutional amendment.
It was like a way to thank the SSR of joining the RSFSR. However Crimea stayed pro-Russian even after the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 (Saluschev, 2014).
The Annexation of Crimea
From 1954 to 2014, Crimea belonged to Ukraine and was regarded worldwide as a Ukrainian territory under international law. However all was to change early 2014 when Russia, under Vladmir Putin invaded Crimea and asserted Russian sovereignty over the region.
This was met wit condemnation of many Western countries and groups. Russia cited some reasons on why they intervened in Crimea in 2014, an exercise that saw them taking the peninsula in a ‘Blitzkrieg manner’.
Prior to the Russian invasion of Crimea, during and after the annexation, the Russian government insisted and claimed that its intervention in Crimea was to protect the Russians in Crimea from the Ukraine government.
By 1992, the relations between Crimea and Ukraine were tense, such that when the Supreme Soviet of the Autonomous Crimean Republic (Crimea) within Ukraine adopted an act proclaiming the independent state of Crimea, the Ukrainian government of the day forced them to revoke it.
Such a tense relationship invited Russia to intervene mentioning protection of Russians in Crimea. The Russians claimed that by intervening, they were operating within the confines of International law on protection of nationals of a state (Russia) that were abroad.
The Russian president, Vladmir Putin said that, the Russian military operations were to protect the Russians against the state of Ukraine. With anti-Ukraine demonstrations having started in 2009, the violent takeover of government buildings and strategic places by groups linked to the West in February of 2014, provided the ignition for Russia to kick start plans on Crimea.
According to the BBC, Moscow cited power seizure by “radical extremists” threatening the lives and safety of Russians residing in Crimea as a reason why they intervened in Ukraine.
According to international law, the rescue of citizens stranded out of the country is self-defence for a state. The Russians therefore saw it fit to defend its nationals in Crimea by intervening.
The Russian president also mentioned the forced assimilation of Crimean Russians into Ukraine as an unfair exercise that guaranteed Russian intervention in Crimea.
That is the reason why Vladmir Putin on 1 March 2014, citing the threat to Russian citizens, military personnel and compatriots in Crimea, asked and received the permission to use the Russian army in Ukraine.
Apart from intervention to protect citizens abroad, Russia also claimed that, the military occupation of Crimea by Russia’s Special Forces was to protect Russia’s port access to the Black Sea. The Black Sea is of great importance to Russia.
The geographical location of the sea in relation to Russia means several advantages to Russia geopolitically and economically. Their Black Sea Fleet is a strategic asset militarily. This helps them access other seas like Azov Sea, Mediterranean.
The fleet carries great significance and is extremely important to Russia. When the disturbances in Ukraine started, Russians intervened citing protection of their access to the Black Sea.
Another reason postulated by Russia on the intervention and subsequent annexation of Crimea was the right to self-determination of the people of Crimea. This to them, was a very strong reason to justify the annexation of Crimea.
With a predominantly Russian population in Crimea, the Russian government believed in its rights to lead the struggle of the Crimean people to secede from the Ukrainian state. Crimea has always shared strong attachments to Russia such that Russia felt obliged to help Crimea against Ukraine.
Additionally, Russians also have a strong sense of possession of Crimea as reflected by President Putin's words on the Kremlin website quoted by the Polygraph. Putin said, “Crimea is ours….And why ours? Not because we came and grabbed something …What is democracy...”
This is one of the reasons why the annexation took place because the Russians feel that Crimea belonged to them. A dissection of president Putin’s words above shows that they simply regard themselves as the right owners of Crimea and no any other, Ukraine included.
One of the key arguments of Russian politicians aimed at the justification of Crimea’s annexation is that in Ukraine in February 2014 an illegal coup d’état had taken place, as a result of which, arguably, the Ukrainian state collapsed and the Crimean population, in fear of a violation of its rights, acquired the right to secede from Ukraine.
This argument was formulated in the Statement of the Russian Association of Lawyers in the following way: “We propose to proceed from a general principle of law, ex injuria non oritur jus meaning ‘law does not arise from injustice’.
There is no doubt that the cause of the tragic events in Ukraine was the forceful change of government in Kiev that occurred outside the constitutional framework as a result of illegal actions of radical elements in the Maidan movement whose participants largely comprise the current government in Kiev.
An unconstitutional coup has been committed, accompanied by forceful seizure of government bodies, illegal actions towards Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, and illegitimate countering of legitimate demands of law enforcement officers on the part of the armed ‘Maidanians’.
Removal from office of Ukrainian President proclaimed by the new, self-appointed leaders of Ukraine does not fit in any legal framework. A legal classification of so high a level is the exclusive right of the Ukrainian people only that should only be exercised according to the procedure set forth in the Ukrainian Constitution.
As it declared and decided to hold a referendum, the Supreme Council of Crimea referred to the United Nations Charter, which speaks of the right of nations to self-determination. Incidentally, I would like to remind you that when Ukraine seceded from the USSR it did exactly the same thing, almost word for word. Ukraine used this right, yet the residents of Crimea are denied it. Why is that?”
In light of the above reasons, the Russians intervened to help a leaderless people decide their own destination.
It should be noted that it is very difficult to separate Russia’s intervention in Crimea and the annexation that took place immediately after the intervention. When Russia annexed Crimea, they aired out their claims to Crimea which is the reason for this article.
Another claim made by Russia is the broken state of Ukraine as a reason for the annexation of Crimea, is that they were invited by Victor Yanukovych to enter Ukraine.
Again International law has provisions for a foreign army to enter a foreign country upon invitation from the government with effective control in that country. Although there are arguments on the capacity of Yanukovych as an impeached president to invite Russia to Ukraine, but the Russians take that as a reason why they had to intervene and take Crimea.
The Russian authorities proclaimed that after Yanukovych had fled the country he had issued a letter in which he invited Russia to intervene in Ukrainian territory as a countermeasure against what Russia perceived as the takeover by nationalist and anti-Semite protesters.
Yanukovych has confirmed that he invited Russian troops, although he has expressed regret for that and said that he “was wrong” in doing so and “acted on [his] emotions”.
Russia pointed out that Yanukovych removal from office was not in accordance with the Ukrainian constitutional provisions and that Yanukovych therefore was to be regarded as the legitimate President of Ukraine who is in the position to invite foreign troops to intervene.
What in turn are Ukraine’s Claims to Crimea?
However, the Crimean Annexation of 2014 had Ukraine on the other side claiming ownership of Crimea and siding with the West against Russia and other selected countries like Afghanistan, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea who had approved the annexation and were quick to recognize Crimea as a part of Russia.
After the death of Joseph Stalin, Ukraine was given Crimea in 1954 and from that year till 2014, she was the authority in Crimea and Crimea was part of Ukraine according to International law.
When the Russians entered Crimea, Ukraine therefore argued that Crimea has always been part of Ukraine and that there was no unfair treatment of Russians living in Crimea.
Henceforth, to the Ukrainian government and the West, the annexation of 2014 was simply a brazen land grab by Russia that violated international agreements and International law.
The Crimea annexation of 2014 could simply have been influenced by Russia’s sense of possession over Crimea.
Russia had ruled over Crimea for longer when compared to other countries. The manner in which the intervention was done supports this observation. First of all, the Russian Parliament rescinded the 1954 decision that gave Crimea to Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic.
They realised the mistake that had happened with the unconstitutional handover of 1954 and wanted ‘their’ territory back. Moreover, the intervention in terms of disinformation, the timing in planning and holding of the 2014 referendum also showed an underlying hand of the Russians.
The referendum was changed from Crimean autonomy within Ukraine to secession of Crimea from Ukraine with intention of joining Russia. The chain of events from 1992 to 2013 pointed to the final annexation of Crimea.
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska & Richard Sakwa. (2015). Ukraine and Russia : People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives, E-International Relations www.E-IR.info ,
Anton Bebler. (March 2015) Crimea and the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict ROMANIAN JOURNAL OF EUROPEAN AFFAIRS Vol. 15, No. 1.
BBC (2014). Does Russia have a case? https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26415508#share-tools
Saluschev, S. (2014). Annexation of Crimea: Causes, Analysis and Global Implications. Global Societies Journal, 2.
Sasse, G. (2001). The ‘New’ Ukraine: A state of regions. Regional & Federal Studies, 11(3), 69-100.
Vladmir Putin, Address by President of the Russian Federation, 18.3.2014, http://www.kremlin.ru .
Statement of the Association of Lawyers of Russian Federation Concerning the Situation in Ukraine and Legitimacy of Conducting the All-Crimean Referendum on the Status of Crimea on 16.3.2014, 18.3.2014, http://www.alrf.ru/blog/zayavlenie-ayur-po-ukraine-iobshhekrymskomu-referendumu .
Quoted after an Associated Press report: C. Kriel/V. Isachenkov, AP Interview: Yanukovych Admits Mistakes on Crimea, 2.4.014, available at: <hosted.ap.org>.