UK & World News

  • 4 March 2014, 7:44

Crimea: A Gift That Became A Curse For Russia

The Crimea has given Britain so much; the cardigan, balaclava, poetry that has taken hold in the English idiom - the place was the birthplace of modern nursing and until last week very few Brits could have found it on a map.

That's not true of Russians. The Crimea has been for them, for centuries, the jewel in the Russian crown celebrated in poetry, a 19th century romantic wonderland, the place of Stalinist workers' health camps and still a magnet to a million Russians a year.

In 1856 Russia lost a war in the Crimea, scene of that famous Light Brigade charge where "theirs was but to do or die" to an alliance of Britain, France and the waning Ottoman Empire as the great powers wrestled for the spoils of a weakening Constantinople.

Crimea was supposed to be a bridgehead into the ancient world for Russia then, and has remained a potent symbol of national pride ever since.

The dominance of Moscow over the peninsula was cemented with Stalin's deportation of ethnic Tatars in 1944.

More than 200,000 were forced onto cattle trains and sent east to Uzbekistan and elsewhere - just under half died.

It was given to Ukraine, itself the mutant mess of a nation born of war between Poland, Germany and Russia over the 20th century, in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev.

Perhaps as a result of guilt he may have felt over the mass starvation Moscow forced on the Ukraine in the 1930s - when both provinces were part of the USSR anyway.

The gesture created a headache that never went away.

Russia's Black Sea Fleet was, and still is, based in Sevastopol. This vital asset was an orphan of Russian empire - left in the care of a neighbour.

Moscow was never comfortable with the arrangement, not even when a deal was signed which extended Russia's lease on its naval port until 2042 in return for a ceiling on the price of imported Russian gas.

Sevastopol and the wider Crimea have always been seen, by many Russians, as on loan.

Now that it has been taken back, wider questions about the future of other Ukrainian states will begin to be answered.

Eastern provinces with Russian-speaking majorities may clamour for integration with Moscow. They may get some support from Russia for this.

If Vladimir Putin really has new imperial ambitions he may foment insecurity in the east and a pretext for invasion.

But he is likely, for now, to be satisfied.

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