KYIV, Ukraine — The Crimean peninsula dangles like a diamond off Ukraine’s southern coast, blessed with a temperate climate, sandy beaches, lush wheat fields, and orchards filled with cherries and peaches.
It is also a critical stopping place for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Crimea is connected to Russia by bridge and serves as the home base for Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet. It forms a vital link in the Russian military’s supply chain, supporting tens of thousands of soldiers who now occupy much of southern Ukraine.
For President Vladimir V. Putin, it is sacred ground, as it was declared a Russia by Catherine the Great in 1783, paving the way for her empire to become a naval power. Soviet ruler Nikita S. Khrushchev donated it to Ukraine in 1954. And because Ukraine was a Soviet republic at the time, not much changed.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed nearly four decades later, Russia lost its jewel. Putin, for example, claimed he was making amends for a historic injustice when he illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.
Mr Putin promised at the time that he had no intention of further dividing Ukraine. But eight years later, in February, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers stormed north out of the peninsula, starting the current war.
In recent days, military targets in Crimea have been attacked and the peninsula is once again at the center of a major power struggle.
Early in the war, Russian forces advancing from Crimea captured parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions that remain key to the Russian occupation of southern Ukraine.
Crimea, in turn, provides important logistical support to Russia to maintain its army of occupation, including two key rail links Russia relies on for moving heavy military equipment. Crimean air bases have been used to stage missions against Ukrainian positions, and the peninsula has provided a launch site for Russian long-range missiles.
The peninsula is also home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which is helping Russia maintain dominion over the sea, including a naval blockade that has crippled Ukraine’s economy.
A place in the sun
Russia is cold – a fifth of the country is above the Arctic Circle. But it can be wonderfully sultry in the sun-drenched Crimean city of Yalta.
“Russia needs its paradise,” wrote Prince Grigory Potemkin, the general and lover of Catherine the Great, when he urged her to claim the land.
Crimea is where tsars and Politburo presidents used to keep holiday homes. Before the West imposed sanctions on Russia for illegally annexing the peninsula, it was a place where wealthy Eastern Europeans went to relax and party.
“Casinos are buzzing and haggling all over the city’s pine-clad alleys,” proclaimed a 2006 DailyExpertNews Travel article about Yalta, adding, “A lot—if not everything—goes in this seaside boomtown.”
Tourism plummeted after 2014. But when explosions sounded at an airbase near Crimea’s western coast last week, visitors at nearby resorts were still taking photos and videos as black smoke obscured the sun.
Ties to Russia
“Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in people’s hearts and minds,” Mr Putin said in his 2014 speech, marking the annexation. But he is a selective reading of history.
Over the centuries, Greeks and Romans, Goths and Huns, Mongols and Tatars have all laid claim to the land.
And perhaps no group in Crimea has watched the unfolding war with as much trepidation as the Tatars, Turkic Muslims who migrated from the Eurasian steppes in the 13th century.
They were brutally attacked by Stalin, who – foreshadowing the Kremlin’s justification for its current war – accused them of being Nazi collaborators and deported them en masse. Thousands died in the process.
In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, allowed the Tatars to return to Crimea. And before the 2014 annexation, they made up about 12 percent of Crimea’s population, about 260,000 there.
In 2017, Human Rights Watch accused Moscow of intensifying the persecution of the Tatar minority in Crimea, “with the apparent aim of completely silencing dissent in the peninsula.”