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Crimea and other ‘gray areas’ in Caucasus


Decisions we make.

Every conflict in the world directly or indirectly affects the regions close to the conflict area.

When the world is over-concentrated on the West’s opinion, Caucasus seems to be one of the closest regions with many ‘gray areas’ (conflict zones). When the issue comes too close to the region, having an adequate, yet beneficial opinion about the current situation in Crimea becomes very difficult and crucial for Caucasus.

On March 16 in Sevastopol the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and local government of Sevastopol held referendum to let people of Crimea make decision: either join Russia as a federal subject, or to restore 1992 Crimean constitution and stay as a part of Ukraine. 96.7% of Crimeans voted for joining Russia.

After referendum held in Crimea UN, US and many others questioned the legitimacy of voting.  The vote that reaffirmed the unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine, the UNGA (United Nations General Assembly) adopted a measure underlining that the referendum held in Crimea, which led to the peninsula’s annexation by Russia, “has no validity” and that both countries immediately should pursue the peaceful resolution of the situation.

A vote was held among 193 members of UNGA. 100 in favor to 11 against, with 58 abstentions, UN General Assambly declared that the referendum is not legitimate. According to UN parties have to abstain from any action that might be interpreted as recognition of any other altered status of Crimea.

Nothing is lost or gained by approving, condemning or staying abstained after March 27 voting, but one thing that countries have to do in order to earn the UN’s respect is to remain certain in their own political moves.

When the time of decision-making came, Armenia made a last minute turnaround. Armenia’s Foreign Minister stated to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service ( that Armenia was likely to abstain. His decision can be attributed to direct pressure exerted by Moscow.

Armenia alongside with Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, Belarus and others voted against the resolution when 100 supported it. No need to describe the regard from the international community towards above mentioned countries, since most of them are considered to be authoritarian or under Russia’s direct pressure as it is in Armenia’s case.


What Crimea means to Russia?

In an both houses of parliament at the Kremlin on 18 March, Russian President Vladimir Putin described what Crimea means to Russia and what is Russia's motivation in entering to Crimea: “Soviet Union collapsed. Events progressed so quickly that few at the time grasped the full drama of the unfolding events or their consequences. And when Crimea suddenly became part of another country, Russia felt that she had not just been robbed, but plundered. Millions of Russians went to bed in one country and woke up in another, transformed overnight into minorities within the former Soviet republics.”

The recorded history of the Crimean Peninsula, historically known as Tauris, begins around the 5th century BC when several Greek colonies were established along its coast. In the medieval period, it was acquired partly by Kievan Rus' and partly by Byzantium, but fell to the Mongol invasions as part of the Golden Horde. In the 13th century, it was partly controlled by the Venetians and by the Genovese. They were followed by the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire in the 15th to 18th centuries.

The modern history of Crimea begins with the annexation by the Russian Empire in 1783. In 1921 the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was created. This republic was dissolved in 1945, and the Crimea became a province first of the Russian SSR (1945-1954) and then the Ukrainian SSR (1954-1991). Since 1991 it has had the status of an Autonomous Republic within Ukraine.

Putin’s speech about gaining back the lost territory is referring to 1954, when Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine.

The transfer merited only a paragraph in Pravda (on Feb. 27, 1954), the official Soviet newspaper. Here's what it said: "Decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet transferring Crimea Province from the Russian Republic to the Ukraine Republic, taking into account the integral character of the economy, the territorial proximity and the close economic ties between Crimea Province and the Ukraine Republic, and approving the joint presentation of the Presidium of the Russian Republic Supreme Soviet and the Presidium of the Ukraine Republic Supreme Soviet on the transfer of Crimea Province from the Russian Republic to the Ukraine Republic."

Neither this nor the other famous cases after the Soviet Union collapse are surprising. Soviet regimes are quite famous for making or changing decisions within one day.

Since the imperial 18th century to the Soviet era Sevastopol has been a seat of Russian naval power, giving its forces access to the Balkans, Mediterranean Sea and Middle East. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia began leasing part of the port from Ukraine (this deal was extended from 2017 to 2042).

But there is much more than a political injustice that Putin is referring to, more than just a historical territory, Russians or Russian ethnicity in Crimea.

NATO's growing influence over the region concerns Russia. Ukraine was obviously not going to give up on Crimea. UN and NATO were up to supporting Ukraine, but Russia was quick and smart. Putin's ambitions to regain former Soviet Union, concerns the US, especially when it comes to complicated relations with Iran and Syria.


The map of conflict zones in the Caucasus and neighboring territories.


A map showing the disputed areas near Russia in red (Laris Karklis / The Washington Post)


How Crimea is different from Nagorno-Karabakh and from the other ‘gray areas’?

Crimean’s overwhelmingly voted 96.7% to split from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. A referendum was held when Russian army forces were in Crimea.

Russian influence in Crimea was huge, the referendum being held under the pressure of 14,000 Russian soldiers who have occupied the region since late February of 2014.

If we dig on history or even look around how referendums are being held in the world it’s not hard to notice that there is usually kind of pressure from political parties. Just like Crimea, Chechnya over the years is trying to get independence, but Russia resists, and many are dying of wars and terror attacks. 70 years being part of a Soviet block made us less civilized. Now it’s not the separatist movement, not a right of self-determination; it’s just about territorial benefit and military security.

We don’t have to go far to find a similar case with Crimea: Nagorno-Karabakh. Even though situations in these areas are not similar, after the Soviet Union collapse, Nagorno-Karabakh also held a referendum to separate itself from Azerbaijan.

According to the official data, on September 10, 1991 Nagorno-Karabakh held a referendum, which was not recognized by international community.


Russia’s actions in Crimea.

If you want to characterize the whole situation about ‘gray areas’, you would use words such as: Secession - Self-determination - Territorial integrity. That’s the surface. But there is a war between strong and weak, and weak always looses. The question is not how illegal is it, but how politically expedient are the actions of Russia?

When UN and NATO (which stopped relations with Russia), US, EU and many others declare referendum illegitimate, Russia is in action. According to ‘Stripes’ “The incursion into the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine has drawn attention to its naval base in Sevastopol and its Black Sea Fleet, a modest force of aging ships that military analysts say Russia is trying to modernize.”

Thomas Fedyszyn, a researcher at the Naval War College in Rhode Island came to the conclusion that the fleet may also need to grow to support a new Mediterranean task force created by Russia last year, a move that comes as the U.S. increases its own Mediterranean presence with four destroyers in Spain.

“There is certainly some increase going on because Russia is increasing its naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea,” he said. “In order to do that, they have to augment their fleet in the Black Sea area.”


 Ani Mejlumyan


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