Russia’s recent seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula has drawn worldwide attention to the region’s ethnic and linguistic demographics. A predominantly Russian-speaking region, Crimea was transferred in 1954 to the then-Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by First Party Secretary Nikita Krushchev. Although the area was historically populated by Tatars, an ethnically Turkic group, Joseph Stalin forcibly resettled the Tatars in Central Asia during World War II in retaliation for alleged Nazi cooperation.
Today, Crimea is part of an independent Ukraine, whose relationship with Moscow has vacillated over the past decade as government power has shifted between pro-EU, Ukrainian-speaking factions from the west and Russian speakers from the east and south. Under a security agreement signed by the now-ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine gained gas subsidies for leasing a port to Russia’s 15,000-man Black Sea Fleet at the Crimean port of Sevastopol. The uncertainty of Ukraine’s future direction in the wake of Yanukovych’s abrupt flight to Russia has driven Russian Crimeans to press for more autonomy from Kiev. This facilitated Russian military intervention and further poses the risk that ethnic violence could erupt between the region’s Russians and its Ukrainian and Tatar minorities, who could feel threatened in a seceding Crimea dominated by Russian security forces.
While Crimea’s demographics seem to advantage Russia in the crisis, calls for secession are less than unanimous. Despite the media’s presentation of numerous maps of Ukraine emphasizing an East-West split between Russians and Ukrainians, Crimea’s population is much more complex. In an October 2013 survey conducted by the International Republican Institute, Crimean residents were asked how they identified themselves regardless of their passports or language. Surprisingly, only a plurality (40%) self-identified as Russian, with 15% claiming to be Tatar, 15% Ukrainian, and 24% identifying themselves simply as Crimean. Of those who were ethnically Russian, a full 37% self-identified with another group. Most tellingly, only 23% of Crimeans supported seceding to join Russia, a full 10% decline from years prior.
This data explains why today’s pro-Russian leaders only venture so far as to call for a referendum on more autonomy, rather than pressing for full independence. In sum, declarations by commentators that “Crimea has de facto declared independence from Kiev” largely overlook how regional identities may not entirely be in favor of secession or Russian intervention.
What does this mean for U.S. strategy?
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Crimean peninsula is not dominated by a Russian population set on evading Kiev’s rule. As President Putin continues to justify his intervention as a move protecting Russians in Ukraine’s east and south, an opportunity exists for Washington to drive a wedge between the Crimean population and the Kremlin. As Secretary of State John Kerry visits Europe this week, policymakers should keep the Crimean population in mind as they prepare a strategy for dealing with Russia’s intervention.