The Crimean Peninsula, located on the Black Sea, has been historically significant for thousands of years, and various rulers have controlled it during different periods. This 27,000 square kilometre region also plays a unique role in Russia’s historical narrative.
So, who has the right to claim Crimea as their own, and can Russia’s assertion that Crimea is a native Russian territory be true? To understand this, let’s take a closer look at the history and how Russia interprets it to support its claim.
Originally inhabited by steppe nomads, the Crimean peninsula was already colonized by the ancient Greeks in the 7th century BC. For the next millennium and a half, Crimea remained largely associated with Greek culture, under the control of various Hellenistic states and then the Byzantine Empire. However, different parts of the peninsula were occupied by other nations at other times. For example, Jews settled in Crimea already in ancient times, and they still form several other communities in the region today.
According to medieval chronicles, in 988 the Grand Duke of Kyev, Vladimir Svyatoslavich, captured the Byzantine-held city of Hersonesos in Crimea. It is said that it was there that he also converted to Christianity after his marriage to Anna, the sister of the Byzantine emperor Basileios II, thereby laying the foundation for the Christianization of Kievan Rus.
With the weakening of the Byzantine Empire, Crimea was conquered by the Mongolian Golden Horde. The separatist Crimean Khanate soon took control of the peninsula and later became a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire. Czarist-Russia annexed Crimea in 1783, and Empress Catherine the Great then established Sevastopol, now Crimea’s largest city, as the home base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
Like Vladimir Putin, Catherine the Great loved history, and like Putin, she needed to legitimize Russia’s claim to the peninsula and other conquered territories on the southern border, which she called Novorossiia (New Russia). Catherine ordered the search for the ancient city of Hersonesos, which was finally found in the Crimea, near Sevastopol. This gave Russia a kind of historical claim to the peninsula, based on the baptism of Grand Duke Vladimir of Kyiv and the military victory of the time.
Grand Duke Vladimir of Kyiv was of course not a Muscovite, but during the time of Catherine the Great, the Russian Empire also ruled over Kyiv and presented itself as the successor of Kievan Rus. The empress also saw Russia as the successor of the Byzantine Empire and dreamed of conquering Constantinople from the Turks. Therefore, Crimea had two special meanings in the myth created during the Catherine era – as the birthplace of Russian Christianity and as a place that connected Byzantium and the Russian Empire through the ancient Kievan Rus.
This is exactly what the Kremlin’s master Vladimir Putin referred to in his speech on March 18, 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, saying that the peninsula has a “sacred and civilizing” meaning for Russia.
The Russification of Crimea began already during the time of Catherine the Great, who founded new cities there and resettled Slavic peasants in the newly conquered region. Crimean Tatars were persecuted, and lands were taken from their former owners and distributed to Russian nobles. Russification accelerated further in the 20th century when Hitler’s genocide and Stalin’s terror led to the Holocaust of Crimean Jews and the deportation of Crimean Tatars, Armenians, Bulgarians, and Greeks.
Historian David Keys writes in his story published in Postimees magazine that nearly 200,000 people were sent to camps in the middle of the desert in Soviet Uzbekistan and other remote areas, and at least 40,000 people died during and after the deportations. Tens of thousands of Russians settled in the land from which the Tatars had been expelled. Only then did Crimea become a territory populated by predominantly Russian-speaking inhabitants.
However, according to Putin, Crimea has always been “an integral part of Russia” and its transfer to Soviet Ukraine in 1954 was a mistake. If it remained part of Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was, in his view, simply “robbing” Russia. According to Putin, the people of Crimea suffered from this injustice and were particularly affected by the Ukrainian government’s attempts to “assimilate” them by taking away their “historical memory” and “mother tongue”.
The Kremlin narrative claims that Crimea has always been part of Russia, and that its annexation by Russia in 2014 corrected a historical injustice. It also argues that joining Russia was a true act of self-determination for the people of Crimea.
In particular, it is aimed at the Russian-speaking community, both in Russia and elsewhere. The story of Crimea as a native area of Russia must be viewed together with the narrative of the “Russian world”, which was analyzed by an earlier narrative X-ray. This refers to the ancient power of Russia and provides justification for the restoration of the empire. People who identify as Russian can focus on their country’s power and glorious history instead of domestic problems.
On the other hand, it is also aimed at the international community. In 2014, Russia successfully annexed Crimea without much fanfare. The response of the Western countries remained toothless, probably partly because the Kremlin’s narrative about Crimea as a native Russian territory had not fallen on completely deaf ears.
The narrative that Russia simply took back what was already hers appealed to many Western politicians. US President Donald Trump told G7 leaders in 2018 that “Crimea is Russia because everyone who lives there speaks Russian”. This was consistent with his earlier statement that “the people of Crimea, as I have heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”
Europe also has a group of mainly right-wing populist parties and politicians with strong ties to the Kremlin who promote the “Crimea is Russia” narrative. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) agreed with Putin’s claim that Crimea going to Russia was a response to “genuine public will”. In France, similar rhetoric came from League of Nation leader Marine Le Pen when she said that “Crimea was always Russia”. Italy’s then-Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini expressed a similar view, denying that the 2014 referendum was a fraud and adding that “there are some regions historically associated with Russian culture and traditions that rightfully belong to the Russian Federation”.
If Russia succeeds in legitimizing the occupation of Crimea through a historical claim, it will open a real Pandora’s box. If Crimea belongs to Russia due to the baptism of the Grand Duke of Kiev, then Russia has the right to decide the fate of Kyiv and the whole of Ukraine. According to this logic, which Putin has repeatedly expressed in several articles and speeches, Russians and Ukrainians are one and the same people, only Russia is better and stronger.
Given Putin’s interest in history, he certainly also has a personal ambition to go down in history as a great leader who restored the former power of the Russian Empire, starting with bringing Crimea “back home”. Crimea plays a central role in Russian imperialist ideology and propaganda, which continues to erase the peninsula’s diverse history and portray Russians as its natives.
In Russia, the narrative of Crimea as a native Russian territory is in good health and continues to be propagated by all Kremlin propaganda channels.
Also in the West, the “Crimea is Russia” narrative has influenced a number of influential policymakers, who have advocated recognizing it as part of Russia, especially if it were part of a larger agreement. Recognizing Crimea as part of Russia is said to be a solution that was allegedly recommended to President Trump by Henry Kissinger. Similarly, then-Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was presented with a “peace plan” that would allow Crimea to be leased to Russia for 50 or 100 years.
However, Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 made this narrative much more difficult for democratic Western policymakers to digest, and many who previously supported it have admitted their mistake.
The Russian empress Catherine II signed the annexation manifesto of Crimea by the Russian Empire only in 1783, and in 1954, Crimea joined Ukraine. Considering that Crimea was occupied by Hitler’s Germany for three years, it turns out that the peninsula belonged to Russia for only 168 years. For example, the peninsula was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire for much longer – about three centuries – so could Turkey consider Crimea as its own?
At the same time, from the 13th to the 15th centuries, the territories of Russia were under the rule of the Mongols. According to this logic, Russia should cede most of its lands because they belonged to other countries and empires for centuries.
However, the good thing about living in the modern world is that national borders are determined at the international level and no one has the right to unilaterally change them violently.
De facto, however, Crimea is currently under Russian rule, Ukraine is determined to return the peninsula and President Zelenskyy stated that Ukraine has a clear plan for restoring democracy in Crimea.
The images used are screenshots from the referenced pages. The infographic was created by Propastop’s editors.