In the early months of 2014, major political unrest gripped Ukraine for the first time since the Orange Revolution of 2004, after which Ukraine had been fixed in a state of economic inadequacy. Initially emerging in violent protests in Ukraine’s capital of Kiev, the instability later culminated with then-President Victor Yanukovych’s ousting. The revolution of February 2014 was predominantly a result of an anticipated economic reform that would align Ukraine’s economy with that of Western Europe’s more affluent countries, and subsequently break Ukraine from prior economic ties with Russia. However, President Yanukovych’s rejection of such a proposal, along with his agreement to a treaty with Russia instead, led to upheaval amongst the Ukrainian population. Subsequently, violent conflicts broke out between state-controlled forces in Moscow, Kiev, and independently led pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian groups.

Following the situation in Ukraine, unmarked Russian forces occupied what was formerly Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and claimed the Crimean Peninsula as part of the Russian Federation. Located just south of the Ukrainian mainland, the Crimean Peninsula is primarily populated by ethnic Russians with a minority of both ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars (a Turkish ethnic group native to the Crimean Peninsula). Despite Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority, debates have ensued over whether or not Russia’s current annexation of Crimea is legally and socially just.

It is here that the issue of sovereignty lies. Frankly, the politics of Crimean autonomy are highly ambiguous, as control of the Crimean region has hardly been consistent even within the past century alone. NYU’s Professor of History and Russian and Slavic Studies, Jane Burbank, provided a succinct summary of the history of this region: Crimea was conquered by Russia (under the rule of Catherine the Great) in 1783, prior to which it was a varied between being a Mongol Khanate and being under Ottoman rule. It remained part of the Russian empire until the empire itself fell apart due to war and revolution in 1917. After a good deal of turmoil, Crimea became the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921 , and, aside from a brief period in World War II when it was overrun by Germans, remained part of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic until 1954. In 1954, Crimea was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as a celebration of 300 years of Russian-Ukrainian unity (referring to the Pereiaslavl treaty of 1654). Following the break up of the USSR in 1991, the Crimean region remained under the rule of a newly independent Ukraine as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which it remained until earlier this year.  Professor Burbank explains: “As you see, there is no such thing as the Crimea being ‘always Russian,’ but since 1783 the Russian state has tried to make Crimea into its own territory.”

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in February of 2014 was thus quite a significant event, marking the first time in 60 years that the region was once again under Russian control. With the history of Crimea’s sovereignty in mind, it is sensible to try to understand why Ukraine and Russia both place so much importance on their own dominion over the region. And the dynamics are complex: is the status of Crimea’s administrative sovereignty a matter that should be dealt with single-handedly by the population of Crimea? Or does the historical sovereignty over the region held by Ukraine and Russia mean that either of the latter have a say in the outcome of Crimea’s status?

Opinions about Russia’s current conquest vary globally. Ukraine and its western allies (including the United States) condemn the annexation as illegal, whereas Vladimir Putin, Russia’s firebrand President, is adamant that Crimea has rightfully been returned to its home. Accordingly, the dispute between Russian, Ukrainian, or Crimean sovereign right to command the region remains uncertain. One might even wonder whether it is more important to consider the sociopolitical implications of either Ukrainian, Russian, or autonomous rule over Crimea, as opposed to assessing the strict legality of any such argument.

Popular opinion in Russia suggests that despite the potential economic drawbacks of Russia’s annexation of Crimea (for example, an estimated $8 billion cost for the Kerch Straight bridge that would link Crimea to Russia), an overall sense of nationalistic pride prevails regarding the annexation. Although the current national sentiment could be highly inflated by Russian state-controlled propaganda, President Putin stringently asserts Russia’s right to sovereignty over Crimea. On Russia’s national day, Putin expressed that “this year, we celebrate our national holiday with a special mood, special elation. Crimea and Sevastopol have returned to Russia, to their Motherland.”

Unmistakably, control of Crimea has brought back a long-missed sense of pride for many Russians. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who specializes in studying Russia’s political elite, says on behalf of Russia that “today, there is a kind of renaissance, [and] people are feeling that their country is strong again, but it is not about aggression. After the Soviet Union collapsed, we were losing territories – losing and losing and losing. Now, Crimea is a symbol that we have stopped losing, we are gaining.”

Considering Crimea’s disarrayed past, the future of Crimea’s sovereign standing is by no means established. Perhaps the sovereignty of the Crimean region should fundamentally belong to Crimea’s own residents. Yet such recognition of Crimea’s autonomous standing would be, by excluding Russia and Ukraine from the historical sovereignty of Crimea that they each separately claim, difficult to maintain in a geopolitical context. In this way, Crimea symbolizes the way that the idea of sovereignty itself is so muddled.

Seeing as the sovereignty of the region wasn’t altogether clear at its origin, Crimea’s future sovereignty is also far from certain. At the end of the day, despite the legal hold on Crimean sovereignty that these various authorities have claimed, maybe what’s further worth questioning is who desires the right to rule Crimea the most.

This article was written by Elizabeth Wilson. Send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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