After last week’s dramatic events in Ukraine, and the end of the protests that had paralyzed the former Soviet country since November, it appeared for a brief moment like the crisis in Ukraine might be coming to a halt. Instead, the focal point of the narrative has shifted from the capital Kyiv to the peninsula known as Crimea. Crimea, the country’s only autonomous province, has been the site of various degrees of separatist rumblings, ranging from calls for greater autonomy from the new government in Kyiv to promoting outright annexation into the Russian Federation. Here’s what you need to know as the region decides if it’s going to continue to march to the same beat as the rest of Ukraine:
1. There’s a large ethnically Russian population within Crimea.
The political crisis was set-off when former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych rejected a series of deals that would have strengthened ties with the European Union last November. Since then, the aftermath has played out — broadly speaking — between pro-European forces in the west of the country and pro-Russian masses in the east where Russian is frequently spoken instead of Ukrainian. Out of all of the east, the divide has been most apparent in Crimea, which has numerous ties to the Russian Federation — enough that the region is being considered the next flashpoint in the crisis. The majority of the concern is based on the fact that Crimea is home to a population that is about 60 percent ethnically Russian according to the most recent census (the New York Times has mapped what percentage of native Russian and Ukrainian speakers live in any given region of the country, including Crimea). Crimea is also where you can find Sevastopol, a city to the south of the region, where Russia’s Black Sea fleet docks, thanks to a lease that is due to last until at least 2042.
The exact effect of the east-west divide in the escalation of the events has been under debate in recent days given the imprecise measure that charting the linguistic divide has proven, as has the narrative of just how much Russian nationalism is present within Crimea. There’s also the 15 to 20 percent of the population who are ethnic Tartars — majority Muslim, and mistreated under the Soviet government, they have no love for Russia and support the interim government in Kyiv.
But the split between pro-Moscow and pro-Kyiv could matter more when it comes to Crimea than the rest of the country, according to Institute of Modern Russia fellow Michael Weiss. “What the media has rather glibly been defining for months as a geographical or ethnolinguistic East-West split for Ukraine as a whole might actually be better applied to Crimea,” he writes. “But here it runs along a North-South divide, with pro-Russian concentrations more heavily distributed closer to the Black Sea.”
2. Crimea doesn’t appear pleased with the removal of Yanukovych last week.
Even before the surprising events of last week that saw the Ukrainian parliament vote to remove Yanukovych from power, Crimea seemed to be a hotbed of support for the embattled leader — and of Russia itself. Volodymyr Konstantinov, speaker of Crimea’s parliament, last Thursday told Russian news agency Interfax that in the event Ukraine split apart, it would be possible that the region would seek annexation into Russia. “It is possible, if the country breaks apart,” he said. “And everything is moving towards that.”
A report from Radio Free Europe also showed that pro-Russian nationalist sentiment is on the rise following the onset of the protests in Kyiv. “This is the result of a political position to deny Russians, for whom the language is the main identifier of their Russian ethnicity, of their Russian nation, Russian people,” Crimean parliament deputy Sergei Shuvainikov said. “To deny them the right to remind children and young people that they are Russians. It is in fact the destruction of Russian nationality, of the concept of the Russian people of Ukraine.”
While the seriousness of the separatist rhetoric has been questioned, reality interceded on Thursday, when armed men stormed the Crimean Parliament, and raised a Russian flag over the building. “We are not separatists. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are one country,” shouted a man on the scene through a bullhorn, according to the New York Times’ Andrew Higgens. As night fell on Ukraine, the men still held the building, even as the local government continued to work, including voting for a referendum among Crimea’s population on “the widening of the authority of the autonomous republic of Crimea.” Precisely what that means is unclear, but the vote is scheduled to be held on May 25 — the same day that Ukraine is due to vote for a new president. The resolution also dismissed the region’s current government, which has backed the interim government in Kyiv.
3. Unrest in Crimea may drag Russia further in to the crisis.
If you think that a lot of this comes back to Russia, you’re right. The fact is that Ukraine is making headlines not just for the human rights concerns seen when the government was assaulting civilians, but the strategic role Ukraine plays in the region, caught in a tug-of-war between Russia and the West. While Moscow has taken more of a backseat than many would expect during the last few months’ events, separatist moves from Crimea — or overenthusiasm from Kyiv to show they still control the region — could force Russia to get more involved. Last week a Russian official went so far as to tell Financial Times that they were willing to go to war to protect the ethnic Russians living in Crimea. “If Ukraine breaks apart, it will trigger a war,” the official said. “They will lose Crimea first [because] we will go in and protect [it], just as we did in Georgia.”
That statement in conjunction with the surprise military exercises that Russian president Vladimir Putin announced on Wednesday. Russia has denied that the snap training announcement has anything to do with the unrest across the border, but that hasn’t stopped comparisons from being drawn between Ukraine and the short-lived war between Georgia and Russia in 2008. Then Moscow sent forces across the border into the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to protect them in their bid for greater independence from Georgia. While the odds of such an event repeating in Ukraine seem low, even skeptics like the Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Institute’s Moscow Center, are beginning to see the possibility.
“One can easily imagine a harsh Russian response if Kyiv takes rash steps to reassert its authority in Crimea either by sending in troops or by allowing revolutionary paramilitaries to launch a ‘people’s march’ on Crimea,” he wrote, along with the Center’s Vice President for Studies Andrew Weiss. “A hot war between Russia and Ukraine would have far-reaching and highly destabilizing consequences, and a transformative effect on Russia’s relations with the West. No effort should be spared to promote a rapid de-escalation of the situation on the ground.”
Adding to the intrigue, Yanukovych on Thursday announced that he would be holding a press conference on Friday from the Russian city Rostov-on-Don. Despite being referred to in the past tense by the U.S. and other foreign government, Yanukovych has maintained that he remains Ukraine’s president. That hasn’t stopped the interim government in Kyiv from setting up an interim government, including electing a speaker and attempting to restore order after months of political chaos.