World War II is relevant to the current situation in Ukraine because it solidified Soviet influence in the Crimean Peninsula. After liberating the peninsula from 2 years of Nazi rule, the Soviets deported many remaining non-ethnic Russians, such as the Crimean-Tartars, to central Asia. Post-war geopolitics increased the strategic value of Crimea as it provided an important port to counter NATO’s naval assets in the Mediterranean and serve as a vital warm-water port for commerce.
Crimea has been a victim of territorial expansion for most of its existence, especially due to its highly coveted location for its water access. Originally know as Taurica by the Greek and Roman empires, it has been invaded for centuries by various Gothic tribes, eastern powers, the Mongols and the Ottoman Empire. Although the territory changed hands many times throughout the centuries, it has been controlled by Russia from 1783-1954, even during the Crimean War in 1853, 1917 October Revolution, and Nazi invasion in World War II. The generous offering of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 marked the end of Soviet control of the area, and the beginning of mixed sentiments for the Crimean population and their historical ties to Russia.
Crimea’s value stems from its location along the Black Sea and offers a serviceable port year-round for the Soviet Union. Due to Russia’s northern climate, all of the other Soviet ports along its Western borders were liable to freeze over for part of the year. This gave Crimea, specifically the naval base at Sevastopol, inherent strategic value on the global chess game of the Cold War; Crimea offered a prime location to base Russia’s Black Sea/Mediterranean fleet as well as nuclear assets just above in greater Ukraine. Purely military reasons aside, it also improved Russia’s access to economic markets in the Mediterranean and Middle East via sea routes directly from the Crimean peninsula. The reasons for the follow on operations of the Russians that are occurring in Ukraine right now are connected to the economic importance of Crimea. The Russian’s need to grab some land on the Ukrainian side of the causeway in order to prevent the slowing down of goods being transported through Crimea to Europe. When ownership of this land was given to Ukraine in 1954, it was more of a solidarity gesture for Russia and Ukraine than a blessing of Ukraine’s sovereignty. One of the many results was over a million ethnic Russians inserted into Ukraine’s population; thus, when Crimea was recently seized in March it was with the blessing of many of these former ethnic Russians that were never really Ukrainian to begin with.
Since its transfer to Ukraine, Crimea has consisted of a majority of Russians. At the time of the transfer of “the Gift” Crimea was home to approximately 858,000 ethnic Russians and only 268,000 ethnic Ukrainians. This drastic gap between the ethnicities has kept Crimea tied closely to Russia over the past 60 years and allowed for the quick change of power that recently occurred to happen fairly easily. It is believed Khrushchev felt remorse for the poor situation the Ukrainian people had been left in after WWII and gave Crimea so they would have territory that had not been quite so devastated by the war.