The Crimean and Donbass Question

In this long read analysis, Josh Thomas explains how history demonstrates the dubious nature of Russia's claims over Crimea and the Donbass.

There has been widespread global awareness of the contentious status of Crimea for about a decade now. The Crimean conflict in 2014, in which Russia de facto annexed Crimea from Ukraine, though largely derided by Western observers, was always a prelude to a larger event. The Russo-Ukrainian war is the 21st century’s Czechoslovakia. There is no greater desire of Vladimir Putin’s than to see “Greater Rus” restored. 

Self-determination does not necessarily oppose irredentism (the concept of Greater Rus being an irredentist spectrum of beliefs centred around the establishment of a new Russian Empire) but in this case it is obvious that Putin has made a miscalculation. Rigged elections in Luhansk and Donetsk are no indications of authority. It indicates desperation. While the majority of people living in the Donbass speak Russian, this has only been the case since the 1930s. One has to analyse the histories of Crimea and the Donbass more broadly to fully understand the nature of the region.

Putin and his acolytes believe in the “reclamation of nearby territories.” This is due to the fact that the regions they refer to were once a part of the Soviet Union, and also Imperial Russia. The perception is that these were points when Russia was at its greatest, and those people yearn for such a time once again. It is not unreasonable to suggest Putin desires the Baltic states too - there are Russian minorities in the Eastern regions of all three Baltic countries which could be used as reasoning for an invasion. What is clear now, however, is his undeniable desire for the incorporation of Ukraine into Russia.

This desire however, has little grounding in reality - in fact, it is a fantasy. The concept of Ukraine and the establishment of the Ukrainian language and culture took place throughout the 1500 and 1600s. Ukrainian culture is grounded and derived from that of the Cossacks, a semi-nomadic, militarised people living in and around what is today South and Eastern Ukraine. Crimea is slightly different - some Cossacks lived there, but the region was largely populated by Crimean Tatars. The Tatars and Cossacks, though hardly friendly (the aptly called “Ruin” saw a number of different forces struggle for power in the region including one another) were frequently repressed ethnic groups, seeing regular assaults from the Ottomans and the Russians. 

By the 19th Century, the Russian Empire occupied both modern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula. But the Ukrainian language and culture continued to grow. Sparking from a review and revival of Ukrainian heritage (i.e. the Cossacks and Kievan Rus), the Ukrainian nationalism movement continued to grow. Some Ukrainians lived in Crimea, but the majority of Crimean citizens remained Tatars. 

In the wake of the Russian revolution, Ukraine declared itself an independent nation. Unfortunately for the ordinary Ukrainian people, due to the ongoing Russian Civil War and establishment  of the Soviet Union, this did not last very long. Ukraine was deeply politically divided, and generally unstable due to the ongoing instability of the past centuries in the region, with modern-day Ukraine being occupied by 4 different political entities at one point in the late 1910s - the Bolsheviks, the Ukrainian nationalists (social democrats and socialists), the Ukrainian agrarian anarcho-communists (Green Army) under Nestor Makhno and the White Army. 

Eventually a Civil War ensued, leading to a Bolshevik victory, and the instigation of the Red and White Terrors of the respective armies. Makhno remained popular as did Ukrainian socialist Mykhailo Hrushevsky. Makhno was suspicious of Bolshevism whereas Hrushevsky slowly became appreciative of it. Makhno staged a rebellion, retaining support in the Donbas till the mid 1920s but was exiled and died in Paris in 1934. Hrushevsky’s support of the Bolshevik movement was sorely misguided, if well-intentioned (believing in the stability a Bolshevik nation provided, with Ukraine as an autonomous region). 

Upon the ascension of the authoritarian Stalinist regime, purges occurred throughout the 1930s. Stalin heavily targeted the Ukrainian people and their culture, viewing it as being preventative of establishing a ‘strong union of Soviets’, purging their political intelligentsia (the Executed Renaissance) and showing little regard for the Holodomor (also known as the Great Famine) and the subsequent 2 million deaths.

 The Ukrainian nationalist movement was crushed militarily, and de-ukrainisation, de-cossackisation and Russification took place. Although it was unrealistic for total de-ukrainization to occur, de-cossackisation largely eliminated the Cossack population of the Donbass,especially those who had supported Makhno. This resulted in a power vacuum for influence in the Donbass, enabling Stalin’s russification to take place - the result was a large flood of “internal” immigrants, ethnic Russians to populate the area. Russian was firmly established as the dominant language in the Donbass, although the ethnic origins of the region remained in general awareness. 

Although de-ukrainisation and russification during the Stalinist period resulted in more  Russian influence in the region, the vast majority of those living in the Donbass, upon collapse of the Soviet Union, wished to remain a part of Ukraine rather than the central Moscow administration - over 83% in favour in both Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. Although an economic recession throughout the 1990s due to economic mismanagement and corruption in post-cold war Ukraine dented support for the nation in the oblasts, with this having the biggest impact in the Donbass, which longed for autonomous status, the majority of the inhabitants of the Donbass (71% according to  a 2018 survey) did not support the Russian occupation of the Donbass, which occurred simultaneously with the war in Crimea.

The situation in Crimea during the 20th century was somewhat similar. Following the establishment of the Soviet Union, the Crimean ASSR (Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic) was created. Although Crimea saw little interference from the Soviet Central Government in the 1920s and 30s and remained populated by Crimean Tatars with a substantial Ukrainian minority, immediately following the Second World War - which saw Crimea occupied by Germany - the vast majority of Crimean Tatars were forcibly deported and subject to a culture genocide. The area was subsequently repopulated by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians and transferred to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. 

Due to the more intense de-tatarisation Crimea experienced, the Crimean Question upon the breakup of the Soviet Union was very contentious. An interim state, the Republic of Crimea existed from 1991-95, until it was firmly reasserted under Ukrainian control. However, although 250,000 Crimean Tatars have moved back into Crimea since the end of the Cold War, the process has been slower than hoped. Putin was able to capitalise on instability in the region and claim that as the population at the current time was ethnically Russian and spoke Russian. But it is clear due to their long-standing population and establishment in the region, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians have a greater ancestral right and claim to Crimea than Russia. Crimea never truly should ever have been or be a part of Russia and for approximately 300 years of Russian administration, respect for the autonomy of the different cultural groups has been notably absent, as witnessed by the despicable deportation of the region’s inhabitants.

There are clearly issues with Crimea being administered as a part of Ukraine too. It’s a volatile relationship that may never be restored. What is certainly clear is that the inhabitants of Crimea should be allowed to self-determine via democratic referenda, whether they wish to be an independent country, or be administered by another. And whilst the electorate voted for more autonomy in the 1991 referendum (with 94% in favour), this does not indicate a will to be a sovereign nation and support for complete independence in the region has been limited. Administration of Crimea by Ukraine is potentially only a short term solution that can be effectively put in place when the Russian language and ethnicity on the Peninsula becomes a plurality again, and when Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars reclaim their ancestral homeland. 

Only Ukraine under Zelensky can be allowed to administer Crimea. Russia has routinely violated the rights of Crimean citizens for centuries. And although Ukrainian administration was never stable or particularly popular, over time, reclamation of stolen lands will continue, and Ukrainians – and crucially, the Crimean Tatars – will return. When balance, equality and order in the region can be restored and Russian imperialism kept at bay, it is then – and only then – that Crimea can hold a referendum on the true nature of the nation’s desires. If it chooses Russia, it should be allowed to do so democratically rather than by force. Because the Russian administration has no regard for the ethnic minorities in the region, and it only seeks to expand and become Greater Rus – an untenable imperialist viewpoint. 

While Putin’s gaze falls on a wide horizon, for now he remains firmly rooted on the Eastern banks of the Dnieper River. And as Kherson has been liberated and the war dips deeper into attrition, it would seem the curtain is falling on Act 1 of the Putin Show. How it plays out is anyone’s guess.

Josh Thomas is a political activist and freelance journalist, whose interests include geopolitical affairs, environmental issues and social reform. He has been involved with organisations including Greenpeace and the Labour Party. He tweets at @joshhthomass_

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