Ukrainian counterintelligence efforts recently uncovered a Russian plot to steal a great deal of information on the current state of Ukrainian naval forces and readiness as well as future plans. The spy was a Ukrainian naval officer with access to all this information, and he was caught making secret trips to Crimea. Further investigation discovered the Ukrainian officer had been offered Russian citizenship and equivalent rank in the Russian navy at the completion of this mission. The officer was arrested and the information he had collected seized before it could be turned over to the Russians.
Such disloyalty among Ukrainian naval officers has been a problem since Ukraine achieved independence from Russia in 1991, and even earlier. One of the many peculiarities of Crimea is that it has long contained a population that was not considered loyal to whoever owned the place. The Russians apparently had a more realistic view of these situations than the Ukrainians.
After Russia seized the Ukrainian province of Crimea in early 2014, it used some very traditional Russian techniques to ensure that the population did not change its mind and support the return of Ukrainian control. For example, soldiers recruited (or drafted) from Crimea were stationed in the Russian Far East (Pacific Coast). The several thousand Ukrainian soldiers who changed sides during the Russian takeover were stationed in the Caucasus. Russia wants as few armed and trained Crimeans in Crimea as possible.
The Russian takeover was completed by early March when Ukrainian military officials admitted there was no way for Ukraine to take back Crimea, especially since Russia appeared to have moved in 30,000 troops. This was done by air and sea. The Crimean Peninsula is separated from Russia by the 4.5-kilometer-wide Kerch Strait. Maximum depth of the strait is 18 meters (59 feet) which have led to proposals that a bridge be built there. Now that Crimea was part of Russia again the bridge was built. Meanwhile, there were ferries to quickly move people and vehicles across the strait.
The main reason for the Russian takeover was the military and the desire to assure continued use of Crimea Peninsula naval bases already rented from Ukraine. Russia had long claimed ownership of the Crimean port of Sevastopol, the home of the Black Sea fleet. Russia had leased the land for the naval base since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 and Ukraine became independent. This lease brought in cash for Ukraine and provided jobs for some 20,000 Ukrainians. But prominent Russians kept demanding that Sevastopol become a part of Russia. The Ukrainians resisted this and regarded Russia as a bully for their attitude towards Ukraine.
Many senior Russians, including president Putin, openly claimed that much of Ukraine was actually Russian territory. This included Crimea and much of eastern Ukraine where most of the industry and Russian speaking population is. The Russians make the case that these areas were conquered by Russia after Russia took control of Ukraine and were only incorporated into Ukraine during the Soviet period for convenience, not to recognize what territory an independent Ukraine would have. Most of the Russian speaking Ukrainians wanted to remain part of Ukraine, but with a little more respect shown for ethnic minorities, like Russians and the Turkic Tatars in Crimea. The official Russian line was that Western agitators and agents were behind all the unrest in Ukraine. But the Russians have been saying that for over a century and still the Ukrainians resist. Russia knows that most of the people in Crimea did not want to live in a Russian controlled Crimea so the Russians installed a lot of police and troops to discourage any pro-Ukrainian activities.
Ethnic Ukrainians are a minority in the “Autonomous Republic of Crimea”, created by the 1996 Ukrainian constitution. The two million people living in Crimea were mostly ethnic Russian but 12 percent are Crimean Tatars. These are descendants of Mongol and Turk troops that invaded the region in the 13th century. The invaders blended in with the existing inhabitants, who were a mélange of Greeks and even more ancient peoples who had been there for thousands of years. The Tatars became Moslem in the 14th century. Eventually, the Ottoman Turkish Empire took control of Crimea but that was lost in 1775 when the Russian Empire drove most of the Turks out. These Tatars fled to Turkey and elsewhere but eventually many returned to Crimea. While they were gone Ukrainians and Russians moved in.
When the communists took over in the 1920s, they proceeded to kill or deport half the Tatars remaining in Crimea. The communists didn’t trust the Tatars. In 1944 all remaining Tatars were moved to Central Asia and while that expulsion was revoked in the late 1960s, Tatars only began returning after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The communists believed that the Tatars had collaborated with the invading Germans, and some did, but no more than other non-Russians. By 2014 nearly a quarter of Crimeans were Ukrainian and 58 percent Russian.
In Ukraine, ethnic Ukrainians are the majority in most provinces, even those in western Ukraine that have the largest Russian minorities. Many Russians believe that Ukraine should be part of Russia, or at least parts of Ukraine should be. All this is connected with the bitter memories of the 13th century Mongol conquest of Russia, which was then Moscow and territory north to Novgorod. The Mongols also conquered most of the independent Ukraine and Belarus. This included the destruction of many major cities like Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, Vladimir and Kiev, which were all rebuilt. Some smaller or less prominent cities were not rebuilt. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the Russians and Ukrainians managed to win back most of their territory. Meanwhile, the Turks from the Ottoman Empire (centered in modern Turkey) were moving north and it took until the 19th century to push the Turks out of what became the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. All this is vividly remembered in Russia and is one reason why a lot of Russians want their empire back and the Ukrainians don’t want any part of that new “empire”. Been there, dome that, don’t want to do it again.
Yet there are still Ukrainians who can be tempted to join “mother Russia” if the price is right and, in the current espionage case, it would have worked if the traitorous officer had remembered how important it was not to get caught.