Credit…Denis Sinyakov for The New York Times
Kyiv, Ukraine — The Crimean peninsula hangs off Ukraine’s southern coast like a diamond, blessed with a temperate climate, expansive beaches, lush wheat fields and orchards filled with cherries and peaches.
It is also a critical ground by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Connected by a bridge to Russia and home to Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet, Crimea provides a vital link in the Russian military’s supply chain that supports tens of thousands of troops now serving a wide swath of southern Ukraine.
For President Vladimir V. Putin, it is hallowed ground, as Catherine the Great declared it part of Russia in 1783, helping pave the way for her empire to become a naval power. Soviet ruler Nikita S. Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954. And since Ukraine was then a Soviet republic, not much changed.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed nearly four decades later, Russia lost its jewel. Putin therefore claimed he was righting a historical wrong when he illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.
Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Mr Putin vowed at the time that he had no intention of dividing Ukraine further. However, eight years later, in February, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers stormed north of the peninsula, starting the current war.
In recent days, military targets in Crimea have been attacked and the peninsula is once again on the brink of a major power struggle.
Early in the war, Russian troops emerging from Crimea seized areas of the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions that remain key to Russia’s occupation of southern Ukraine.
Crimea, in turn, provides key logistical support for Russia to maintain its occupying army, including two major rail links on which Russia relies to move heavy military equipment. Air bases in Crimea have been used to launch sorties against Ukrainian positions, and the peninsula has provided a launch pad for long-range Russian missiles.
The peninsula is also home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which helps Russia maintain dominance 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 positively balmy in the sun-drenched Crimean city of Yalta.
“Russia needs her paradise,” wrote Prince Grigory Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s general and lover, when he urged her to claim the land.
Crimea is where tsars and Politburo chairmen had vacation homes. Before the West imposed sanctions on Russia for its illegal annexation of the peninsula, it was a place where wealthy Eastern Europeans went to relax and party.
“Casinos ring and ping everywhere amid the city’s pine alleys,” proclaimed a New York Times travel article about Yalta in 2006, adding: “Much, if not everything, happens in this city in boom by the sea”.
Tourism fell sharply after 2014. But when explosions rocked an airbase near Crimea’s western coast last week, visitors were still at nearby resorts taking photos and videos as black smoke obscured the sun.
Links with Russia
“Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of the people,” Putin declared in his 2014 speech to mark the annexation. But his is a selective reading of history.
Over the centuries, Greeks and Romans, Goths and Huns, Mongols and Tartars have claimed the land.
And perhaps no Crimean group has watched the war unfold with such unease as the Tatars, Turkic Muslims who migrated from the Eurasian steppes in the 13th century.
They were brutally attacked by Stalin, who—in a foreshadowing of the Kremlin’s justification for its current war—accused them of being Nazi collaborators and deported them en masse. Thousands of people 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, with about 260,000 there.
In 2017, Human Rights Watch accused Moscow intensifying the persecution of the Tatar minority in Crimea, “with the apparent aim of completely silencing dissent on the peninsula.”