04 May 2014

Why did Russia give away Crimea in the first place?

Good question.  Discussed at length at the website of the Wilson Center:
Crimea was part of Russia from 1783, when the Tsarist Empire annexed it a decade after defeating Ottoman forces in the Battle of Kozludzha, until 1954, when the Soviet government transferred Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federation of Socialist Republics (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkrSSR)...

Of particular importance were the role of Nikita Khrushchev, the recent traumas inflicted on Ukraine, and the ongoing power struggle in the USSR... Khrushchev saw the transfer as a way of fortifying and perpetuating Soviet control over Ukraine now that the civil war had finally been won. Some 860,000 ethnic Russians would be joining the already large Russian minority in Ukraine...

The transfer of Crimea to the UkrSSR also was politically useful for Khrushchev as he sought to firm up the support he needed in his ongoing power struggle with Soviet Prime Minister Georgii Malenkov, who had initially emerged as the preeminent leader in the USSR in 1953 after Joseph Stalin’s death...

The earlier published documents, and materials that have emerged more recently, make clear that the transfer of Crimea from the RSFSR to the UkrSSR was carried out in accordance with the 1936 Soviet constitution... the main point to stress here is that it is incorrect to say (as some Russian commentators and government officials recently have) that Crimea was transferred unconstitutionally or illegally. The legal system in the Soviet Union was mostly a fiction, but the transfer did occur in accordance with the rules in effect at the time.
My excerpts probably don't do justice to the complexity of the arguments.  Those wishing to orate upon this at cocktail parties would do well to consult the source.


  1. I don't like the way the 1954 handover is given so much importance, especially when it is presented as a direct "counterweight" to the current annexation. What happened in 1954 was nothing but an administrative reshuffling to make it easier to rule an empire - certainly not an international event.

    Territory swapping between individual soviet "republics" was almost routine: the borders of UkrSSR (and thus of modern-day Ukraine as well) were formed through no less than seven such events, of which Crimean handover was the last. Another dramatic example would be Kazakhstan, which was entirely part of RSFSR until 1936 when it became a separate SSR.

    It would be more accurate to say that Russia lost Crimea in 1991 when it became part of independent Ukraine. This assumes a practical definition of "Russia" over time (Russian Empire -> USSR -> Russian Federation) instead of a technical one (Russian Empire -> RSFSR -> Russian Federation). If we accept that border redrawing within the USSR is something that can be legitimately "reversed" today, it sets a nasty precedent that could be used to threaten the sovereignty of practically all independent post-soviet states, which generally want to have nothing to do with Russia.

  2. Who goes to cocktail parties?

  3. @buccaneer - And thus the fear of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and probably all the others as well. It is very important that the United States and Britain and all of Europe take a very firm stance to protect those post-soviet countries. This is a very frightening time and yet most of the world seems oblivious to what's going on.

  4. You might be interested in opinion of Sergei Khruschev (Nikita Khruscev's son):
    Khrushchev’s son Sergei said the decision to give Crimea to Ukraine had to do with economics and agriculture - the building of a hydro-electric dam on the Dnieper River which would irrigate Ukraine’s southern regions, including Crimea.

    “As the Dnieper and the hydro-electric dam [is] on Ukrainian territory, let’s transfer the rest of the territory of Crimea under the Ukrainian supervision so they will be responsible for everything," Sergei Khrushchev said. "And they did it. It was not a political move, it was not an ideological move - it was just business.”



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