What you might not be aware of is how the region’s long history and your trips to the gas station are shaping these events. The recent uprising was, in fact, highly predictable and had been brewing for several hundred years.
The area now known as Ukraine has a long strategic and bloody history. When you are a peninsula on what was the busiest shipping sea, you’re going to be an area that draws a lot of attention. The Greeks and Romans both created settlements, placing garrisons of soldiers on Crimea to secure shipping and port security.
But, much of the area was more notably shaped by the Tatars, people of Turkic origin and related to modern day Turks living in Turkey. Most people don’t remember much about the Tatars, but they were powerful and ruthless empire builders led by Genghis Khan. Although they did much to bring order to the people, they did have a few odd beliefs, including the dangerous spirits they believed inhabited fire and water. The Tatars were also shaped by the people they conquered, including conversion to Islam.
The pain in Russia’s backside didn’t really manifest until the Ottoman Turks took over the area by pacifying Tatars and assuming total control over parts of present day Ukraine, including Crimean peninsula in the early 1400s. New rulers were placed by Constantinople.
Catherine the Great knew that Crimea in particular had great strategic advantage to her growing empire. She took the region from the Tatars, travelling throughout Ukraine to demonstrate that the region was officially a part of Russia. Her problem, beyond a 4 year skirmish with the Ottomans, was that the area was mostly populated by Greeks who might never completely bow to Russian rule. Her simple solution was to insert lots of Russians into the area, tipping the power balance in her favour.
Russian and the Ottomans continued to fight over the area, including the famously failed Charge of the Light Brigade and the Russian decision to sink its fleet in an attempt to block shipping routes. With both sides seeing mounting casualties and debt associated with the conflict, the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1856. During the brief period of peace that followed, many great palaces were built in Ukraine, as were roads. Crimea was thus Turkish Ottoman controlled for 4 centuries.
But, the peace was broken by World War One. German troops invaded the strategically important Crimea. Russia was unable to properly supply her troops, leading to a near mutiny.
The area continued to see conflict during the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s desire to “cleanse” all of Europe. The remaining Tatars and Greeks were almost entirely cleared from Ukraine, including forced deportations. More Russians were then inserted and Crimea was the go-to tourism destination for Russian citizens for many decades. But, Ukraine never completely forgot its roots.
If you fast forward to the collapse of the Soviet Union, you’ll find Ukraine quickly declaring its complete independence from Russia, despite still having thousands of Russian citizens populating Crimea.
As Russia moved to its modern state, one important resource drove much of its economic growth- oil. But, Russia has always had problems with oil distribution because it lacks key sea transportation routes, especially to its South. So, Ukraine became the beneficiary by hosting multiple oil pipelines that carry oil from the Siberian oil fields to the Black Sea. But, there was still a nagging problem.
Ukraine wants to be an independent nation, but Crimean citizens are mostly Russian. And, there are those oil pipelines. There was, not so long ago, a rumour that Ukraine was willing to trade a long-term lease on Crimea for help paying its very large heating bill. Sometimes, rumours have some basis in fact. Ukraine doesn’t appear able to pay for the oil the country needs and Russia charges a premium price. This is curious because those pipelines, or their loss, would be catastrophic to Russia.
So, Ukraine stands a country divided. The bulk of the country wants democracy and recently ousted their pro-Russian president, following the lead of other pro-democracy nations. But, Crimea isn’t yet buying into the democratic tidal wave, instead kissing up to Russia. To suggest that Russia “invaded” Crimea means ignoring that the Crimean population isn’t happy to see Russian troops walking its streets. This is most likely false. Russia wants the ports and the citizens see Russian oversight as a way out of the poorly performing Ukraine economy.
The parallels between Russia’s desires for Crimea and the original invasion by global troops during the first Gulf War are many, but circle back to one key element-oil. Both saw foreign insertion into a sovereign nation to protect interests. The only difference is that Sadaam Hussein and crew were committing human rights violations along the way. Thus far, Russia hasn’t been seen abusing the locals. But, why would they abuse loyalists?
The current Crimean government has vowed to allow a vote on whether to cede control to Russia and no one should expect that this won’t go well for Russia’s Putin. What will be more interesting to watch is how the new democratic government of Ukraine uses Russia’s need for those pipelines to extract better oil pricing and other terms from Russia, regardless of the resolution of who controls Crimea.
What the history of the region can tell us is that Ukraine is strategically important, that population balance will play a key role and that an independent Ukraine, with or without Crimea, can improve its lot by demanding better treatment from Russia. But, don’t be surprised if pro-democracy fighters become impatient with slow negotiations and include pipeline disruption in the process.
Should this happen, tensions in the region will be off the charts and the entire world will hold its breath to see if Russia is willing to ignore the sovereignty of Ukraine over its desire to continue pumping oil. If Putin is serious about soothing the itch and rash in his backside, he would probably be wise to avoid pressing further into Ukraine and provide better oil pricing to the Ukraine’s populace, assuming Ukraine is willing to concede Crimea to improve the rest of the country.
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