Russia and the U.S. are at loggerheads over a part of Ukraine called Crimea, prompting an international crisis with distinctly Cold War echoes. But what is Crimea?
Crimea is a peninsula extending from the southern part of Ukraine into the Black Sea. About 2 million people, mostly ethnic Russians, live there. It is also home to a major Russian naval base in Sevastopol, Russia’s only warm water port and its primary access point to the Mediterranean. The base dates back to the 18th century and has long been the source of Crimea’s importance to Russia, and conflict with Western powers, Reuters notes.
Between 1853 and 1856, Russia fought a war against the Ottoman Empire over the Crimea. France and the U.K. entered the war on the side of the Turks, ultimately resulting in a treaty that banished the Russian fleet from the Black Sea. Crimea became part of the Soviet Union in the 1920s. In 1954, Soviet premiere Nikita Khrushchev made Crimea part of Ukraine, his home region, then a Soviet Socialist Republic.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Ukraine became in independent country. Deals brokered between Ukraine and Russia gave the Russian fleet access to the Sevastopol naval base until 2042.
However, since the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia has looked to extend political control over Ukraine. Last month — while Russia was hosting the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi — Ukrainians ousted their pro-Russia leader and installed a new government.
Russia called the ouster of the former leader illegal. It has sent soldiers into Crimea to take control of military bases and government buildings — though there has been no shooting yet — on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians from violence. Crimea’s parliament has recently announced plans to hold a referendum giving its citizens a chance to decide whether to officially join Russia.
Ukraine had denounced the referendum as illegal. The U.S. has threatened to hit Russia with economic sanctions if it does not withdraw its troops from Ukrainian soil.