World Views
12:50 pm
Fri March 14, 2014

To Understand Russia's Interest In Crimea, Start With Catherine The Great

Allegory of Catherine the Great’s Victory over the Turks and Tatars
Allegory of Catherine the Great’s Victory over the Turks and Tatars
Credit Stefano Torelli, 1772, Oil On Canvas / Wikimedia Commons

Talks in London about Ukraine between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up Friday, but the country’s top two diplomats say there’s “no common” vision between Russia and the United States.

“It’s not just about power and access to the base,” says Suzette Grillot, the Dean of the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “Historically, there’s much more to this story.”

A Crimean state controlled by Tartars gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1774 after the Russo-Turkish War. The treaty brought Crimea within Russia’s sphere of influence before it was formally annexed in 1783.

“Catherine the Great sent [Grigory] Potemkin, her lover and general, down to take the Crimea and the areas around the North Black Sea, which he did, and he developed them,” says regular World Views contributor Joshua Landis. “She took an incredible tour down there, bringing hundreds of courtiers with her. It’s such a long part of Russia’s identity.”

A century and a half later, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ethnically cleansed Crimean Tatars for allegedly colluding with Nazis during Germany’s World War II occupation of the peninsula.

“Now that Ukraine has decided to leave Russia's orbit, and move into Europe's orbit, Russia has reached in and tried to grab this one hunk of Ukraine that is a majority Russian in ethnicity,” Landis says. “I don't want to make any apologies for Russia, and what Russia is doing, but it looks like both sides are trying to save some face.”

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