Here’s why Russia won’t let go of Crimea

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: So, why does Russia care so much about Crimea? The World's resident history expert, Chris Woolf, is here. What's your take, Chris?

Chris Woolf: Well, it's difficult to gauge what Russia might think about all of Ukraine. It's possible that they see the Ukrainian revolution, a revolution against tyranny and corruption, as an existential threat that they may want to nix themselves. But with Crimea, it's a lot clearer. It's an old school lesson in geography and history.

Werman: Right, okay, so unpack that geography and history for us. I know Crimea sits on the Black Sea. What is its significance?

Woolf: The biggest part of the significance for Russia is that you've got to remember that Russia, for most of its history, was a landlocked country. It felt poor, isolated, marginalized, a second rate power on the periphery of the civilized world. What the access to the sea symbolizes is the ability to reach out to the rest of the world. Crimea provides Russia its main ice-free outlet to the sea. Not so much for shipping but as a naval base. The ability to project power, that's what the Russian's really want. It only really started in 1783 when Sevastopol was founded. Sevastopol being a perfect place for a naval base because of its deep harbor and its right out there in the middle of the Black Sea so you can get to and from it very easily.

Werman: When I think about ports as cities for defenses, I think of cities that go way back to the middle ages. So 1783, for Sevastopol, that seems kind of late. What was there before?

Woolf: What was there before was a powerful Muslim state. The khanate of Crimea dominated what's now southern Ukraine and southern Russia and for decades the Russians fought the Crimean Tatars and slowly overcame them, drove most of them out. A few still remain, as we're hearing about in the protests in Crimea against the Russian takeover. But the destruction of the Crimean state kind of symbolized Russia's coming out as a great power. This is one of the first key lessons about Crimea's historic symbolism to Russians. It's this place where they finally broke out from being this landlocked, second-rate power and they kind of came out and reached out to the sea and drove away their enemies, were able to establish themselves as a power to be taken seriously in Europe.

Werman: What time period are we talking about there?

Woolf: This is about the same time as the American Revolution. We're talking 1780's. Then it was from there that the Russians built up their presence and naval power in southeastern Europe and the Black Sea.

Werman: How did Europeans feel about that?

Woolf: There was a lot of concern that eventually the Russians would push down and take over Turkey and get access to the Mediterranean, which would allow them to project their power even further. The Russians fought endless wars with the Turks and finally in the 1850's it looked like they would be able to reach the Mediterranean, so that's when the Britain and France intervened and you get what was called the Crimean War. A lot of people may have heard about George and the Light Brigade. A lot of things didn't go well for the Brits and the French, but they landed in Crimea; they besieged Sevastopol and eventually they took it after this long, heroic defense. But what that became, symbolically in the Russian mind, is a national humiliation, that the country was broken by the new, modern technological powers of western Europe. The country launched itself, after the Crimean War, into this massive program of reformed transformation and modernization. So that's a powerful memory, too.

Werman: And again, in World War II, Crimea gets front and center once more.

Woolf: Yes. In 1941, the Nazis invade the Soviet Union. It's defeat after defeat for the Soviet Power, but then finally the Germans try to take Crimea and they get hung up. They're hung up for nine months, wait until the middle of 1942. So for that period, it becomes this hero city where the whole of Russia is looking at the people there being able to hold out against the Germans and holding out principally because they have the ability to resupply them by sea, despite being besieged. Again, a giant roll in the struggle against fascism in the 1940's.

Werman: When the Soviet Union falls apart, Chris, in '89, '90, why did Crimea end up by going to Ukraine.

Woolf: It's really just an accident of history. In 1954, the Soviet government decided to transfer Crimea from being part of Russia to being part of Ukraine. Technically the decree said that it was motivated by the commonality of the economy, the proximity and close economic and cultural relations between the Crimean region and the Ukrainian SSR and that leads us to a significant point. Crimea doesn't actually abut Russia. You can't drive there from Russia without going through Ukraine and obviously we should mention that the way to get to Crimea is through the predominantly Russian parts of eastern and southern Ukraine.

Werman: This is some really interesting geography and history setting up where we are today with Crimea. What does all the geography and history suggest where things are headed, this crisis?

Woolf: Marco, it seems Russia's leaders have convinced themselves that they cannot give up Crimea without forfeiting Russia's status as a great power. I think it's as simple as that. Given old historic symbolism, I think it's pretty unlikely that the Russians will now tamely leave Crimea under pretty much any circumstances. The defensive lines being dug into the ground now along the Perekop Isthmus between Ukraine and Crimea, where they're digging in today, is exactly where they were digging in to hold off the Nazis in 1941. So I'm thinking that with that kind of imagery in the Russian media right now, that it's unlikely that they're going to go down without a fight.

Werman: Yeah, that speaks volumes. The World's Chris Woolf, thank you.

Woolf: You're welcome.