Photo courtesy of Mikhail Mihin via Wikipedia.
In an apparent display of force this Wednesday , Russia mobilized more than 150,000 soldiers, 90 aircraft, 120 helicopters and 880 tanks for war games in a district bordering Ukraine, according to RT.
The move is widely seen as a response to the violent Ukrainian protests (which we explained here) that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich earlier this week, although the Russian government said it’s part of a series of large-scale drills it’s carried out since 2012.
Civil unrest began late 2013 in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, after the government backed out of a trade deal with the EU in favor of stronger ties with Russia.
A Russian stronghold
On the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine, however, President Yanukovich still enjoys support.
Thousands of ethnic Russians protesters gathered over the weekend in the two cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol to protest the ousting of Yanukovich, according to the NY Times, clashing with the Muslim Crimean Tartar people.
Politics on Crimea are dominated by the presence of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which has had its headquarters on the peninsula since the end of the 18th century.
Since it was captured from the Ottoman Empire in a 1783 Russian invasion, Crimea has been a contentious place, seeing in turn: a Russian campaign of revenge against Tartar slave traders, the bloody Crimean War of 1854-1856, Russian Civil War battles until 1920, heavy fighting between the Axis and Soviets in WWII, and mass deportation of the native Tartars following the war.
Changes of ownership
Administration of the peninsula was transferred to Ukraine in 1954, when both countries were still part of the Soviet Union. When the Union dissolved, its ownership was disputed but a compromise was reached allowing Russia to lease the Sevastopol port for its Black Sea fleet.
This lease was originally due to expire in 2017, but in 2010, then-President Yanukovich signed a 25-year renewal with Russia, in exchange for cheaper natural gas.
The decision was not altogether popular with the 46-million nation, especially among the pro-EU and pro-democracy groups that had recently won the non-violent 2004 Orange Revolution.
A decade later, it’s the same struggle manifesting itself – whether Ukraine will be under the influence of the EU or Russia. Few believe that Moscow will resort to a military intervention in the current crisis.
However, the troop mobilization was a muscle-flexing exercise for an increasingly assertive Russia, demonstrating its commitment to its spheres of influence – including its foothold on the Black Sea.