Since their main charge relates to Crimea, it's worth it for us Americans to understand some basic facts about that region. The short and skinny of it is that Crimea has always belonged to Russia, and was internally transferred to Ukraine in 1954 when both were part of the larger USSR. With the rise of nationalism in Russia during the 21st century, they have taken back their long-held region, which is not only strategically important but a cornerstone of their national identity.
For a more detailed discussion, see this post by Peter Turchin, which uses the example to illustrate a more general theory about why nations behave the way they do -- they are not only rational calculators, but also honor-driven protectors of their sacred places. Key excerpts follow.
On the historical importance of Crimea in Russia:
Consider the Crimean city of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Initially this port was just a convenient naval base that allowed Russia to project power into the surrounding region. Because of this geopolitical value, the city played a key role during the Crimean War of 1853-1856, when Russia fought Britain and France for the right to expand into the waning Ottoman Empire. This first ‘heroic defence’ of Sevastopol left a significant imprint on Russia’s collective psyche; not least Leo Tolstoy’s important early work, Sevastopol Sketches (1855).
The second ‘heroic defence’ of the port came in 1941-42, during the war against Nazi Germany. Indeed, the siege of Sevastopol remains only slightly less resonant for Russians than the more famous Siege of Leningrad. But it is climbing the rankings. In the midst of the present conflict, Russia designated Sevastopol a city of federal significance, a status it shares only with Moscow and St Petersburg, the city formerly known as Leningrad. As we watch, Sevastopol is being woven ever more tightly into Russia’s national mythology.
On the Russian transfer of Crimea to Ukraine, and its recent fate:
If Crimea is so precious, one might wonder why Russia ever let it go. The simple answer is that it didn’t mean to. In 1954, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine as an essentially symbolic gesture. Ukraine was then a Soviet imperial possession, so this seemed an innocuous arrangement. Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia itself started fragmenting. Chechnya achieved de facto independence. In a more peaceful fashion, Tatarstan was acquiring greater autonomy. There was talk of the Far East seceding. Crimea, in short, was not the priority.
Such periods of disintegration generally end in one of two ways. Russia rallied. During the 1990s and 2000s, it gradually squeezed out its pro-Western liberal elite, though not before they had almost halved GDP, created extreme differentials of wealth, and lost Russia its Great Power status. With the liberals in disgrace, a new, nationalistic cadre seized the moment. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia began to claw back its lost lands, beginning, in 1999, with the reconquest of Chechnya. And now here we are.
On the uniform support in Russia for taking back Crimea:
All parties represented in the Duma (Russian Parliament) are solidly behind Putin. In the Duma vote, 445 votes were for the annexation with only one against. It was hardly surprising that Putin’s party, United Russia, supported him. But the other three parties, Just Russia, the Liberal Democrats and even the Communists, were also solidly behind him. That is less usual.
Even more importantly, the general population overwhelmingly supports Putin on this issue. In a large sociological study that polled almost 50,000 Russians, more than 90 per cent said that they wanted Crimea to become part of Russia. Only 5 per cent were opposed. Putin’s policy of ‘reunification with Crimea’ is extremely popular. His approval ratings soared from an already high 60 per cent to 76 per cent. Sociologists such as Alexander Oslon, of the Public Opinion Foundation, and Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who studies Russian elites, say they have never before seen such a degree of unity on any issue in Russia.
On the unlikeliness of Russia giving up Crimea again:
Judging by the polls, Putin and his people are of one mind over Crimea. As I write this essay, it seems that little short of an all-out war, risking the use of nuclear weapons, could dislodge Russia’s grip from the peninsula. Not even the most punitive economic sanctions would do the job: by their nature, sacred values trump material considerations, which is what makes conflicts over sacred values so intractable. Consider the case of Jerusalem: the Temple Mount is sacred both to Jews and to Muslims, and neither is willing to give it up. Luckily, the Crimean case is different. Crimea is not sacred for the Americans or western Europeans. It is scarcely more so for the Ukrainians.
In American terms, imagine if California gave the Bay Area and northern CA to Oregon as a gift. Then suppose that California and Oregon separated into two independent nations. Don't you think California would want the Bay Area back? It was the site of the earliest Spanish missions, the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, and Silicon Valley. Aside from the economic importance, this role in shaping California's historical identity would guarantee that it would be taken back in the event that it was donated to a fellow state that then broke off into a separate nation.
Allowing ourselves to get swept up into a phony outrage over Russia taking back its historical region of Crimea would march us closer to nuclear WWIII, so every effort must be made to prevent the Wall Street warmonger Hillary Clinton from taking office, and making sure that the Russia-neutral Trump can steer us clear of mutually assured destruction.