Since the late 18th century, Crimea was part of Russia.
Jack Matlock, the last U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union (1987-91), said the peninsula played an important role in Russian history, especially in the military arena.
“English-speaking people maybe don’t realize that the Charge of the Light Brigade - that famous charge - happened during the Crimean War when the British were attacking Crimea. Leo Tolstoy, the great novelist, wrote some of his early stories about that - he was an artillery officer on the Russian side,” Matlock said. “The naval base at Sevastopol has been the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet ever since it was established there in the late 18th century.”
During the Russian Civil War, Crimea became a base for the White Army of anti-Bolshevik forces.
In 1954, then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the peninsula to Ukraine, at that time a Soviet republic.
But now, Crimea is under the control of Russian armed forces, who moved into the peninsula last month. Russian officials say the move was to protect ethnic Russians living there. They represent the majority of Crimea’s population. But Western officials say there is no evidence that Russians need protection.
Matlock said by taking military control over Crimea, Russia has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Obama role downplayed
The former U.S. ambassador disagrees with those who say Russian President Vladimir Putin acted the way he did in Crimea because he felt President Barack Obama was weak.
“He’s [Putin] doing this in part," said Matlock, "and I think it’s very damaging to his own cause, because he sees, I think unfairly, that it has been the policy of the United States in particular, and of the West in general, to encircle Russia militarily - and he’s not going to accept that. No Russian leader would.”
Matlock said those who say President Obama is weak are sending the wrong signals.
“Many that are crying that we are looking weak are precisely those that overplayed our hand that got us involved in situations that tragically lost nearly 5,000 American lives in Iraq,” said Matlock. “It is absolutely absurd to start implying that by beating his [Obama] chest a little more, he could subdue a Russia which in Russia’s eyes is only defending their interests - very unwisely, against international law, against previous agreements - but they can say exactly the same thing about some of the things we were doing just a few years ago.”
Lawmakers in Crimea have scheduled a referendum March 16 on whether to join Russia or stay within Ukraine.
Matlock said in the event voters decide to join Russia, any move to rearrange borders would violate the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. It says, among other things, that if recognized borders are changed, it must be by mutual agreement of all parties involved - in this case Russia and Ukraine.
“I would hope that the [Russian] government would simply say we have a political obligation under Helsinki Final Act - the Soviet Union signed it and as a successor state we also have those obligations - and therefore we are not going to accept Crimea until the Ukrainian government, which is the de jure [current legal] sovereign, agrees to it.”
Matlock said that would be a brilliant political move by Putin and it would defuse tensions in a volatile region.
As for Sunday’s referendum, the United States, its European allies and the Ukrainian government say it violates the Ukrainian constitution and is illegal.