“Today based on the Crimean referendum, and the will of the people, I introduce to the federal assembly of Russia, and ask them to examine, a bill about admitting two new regions into Russia: Crimea, and the city of Sevastopol.

Don’t believe those who intimidate you with Russia, [who] shout that other areas will follow after Crimea. We don’t want Ukraine’s breakup; we don’t need it.”

Vladimir Putin, addressing the Federation Council, March 18

On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin was received with applause at the Federation Council when he signed a treaty to reestablish Crimea as a Russian territory.

In the rest of the world, however, he was not been greeted as cordially; the Western community has condemned every move made by Putin. Sanctions have been placed on top Russian and Crimean officials by the United States and the European Union. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gone as far as comparing Putin to Adolf Hitler, and dozens of articles are released every day comparing the current conflict to the Cold War.

(Related: Progress, Not Perfection: US-Russia Peace Talks Regarding Ukraine)

While Putin’s actions may not be legitimate, to have a well-rounded understanding of history, both in Crimea and externally, it is necessary to put the events in perspective. While Crimea has a rich history of turmoil dating back centuries, this article only focuses on events starting in 1954.

During 1954, while both nations were still part of the Soviet Union, Premier Nikita Khrushchev changed the Crimean region from a Russian to a Ukraine territory. While there is speculation as to why Khrushchev made this move, what is important is that Crimea, which had been a part of the Russian/Soviet federation in one way or another since 1783 (except for a very brief period from 1917 to 1921, when it was an autonomous region), became a part of Ukraine. While still part of the Soviet Union, the region was no longer nominally a part of Russia.

In 1954 both Russia and Ukraine were a part of the Soviet Union, and changing Crimea from a Russian territory to a Ukrainian territory held far less significance when they were both under the same ruling entity. At the time, the exchange of land was nominal more than anything else. The Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper, only dedicated one (albeit long) sentence to the land transfer:

“Decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet transferring Crimea Province from the Russian Republic to the Ukraine Republic, taking into account the integral character of the economy, the territorial proximity and the close economic ties between Crimea Province and the Ukraine Republic, and approving the joint presentation of the Presidium of the Russian Republic Supreme Soviet and the Presidium of the Ukraine Republic Supreme Soviet on the transfer of Crimea Province from the Russian Republic to the Ukraine Republic.”

As we know, the Soviet Union dissipated in 1991. The change is no longer just nominal, and the current crisis in Crimea can be seen as a result of this land transfer, among other events.

Over the same period of time, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), was creating an allied military force across Europe. Founded in 1949, the organization formed an alliance between the United States, Canada, and ten Western European nations. During the Cold War, the NATO alliance repeatedly came head-to-head with Russia, engaging in conflict and disagreements that continue to this day. NATO continued moving east across Europe, accruing new member countries during the Cold War, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, moving closer and closer to Russia’s border.

This map shows NATO expansion from its inception in 1949 until 2009, when it's most recent members were added. From Wikimedia Commons

This map shows NATO expansion from its inception in 1949 until 2009, when it’s most recent members were added. (Wikimedia Commons)

Putin perceives NATO as a threat to the Russian sphere of influence that he wants to maintain in the Baltic region, and he should. As former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said, “no country would be happy about a military bloc to which it did not belong approaching its borders.” In 2008, former President George W. Bush promised NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, two countries with historically strong Russian ties. This prompted Putin to warn that Russia would never accept the membership of either of these two nations into NATO. The 2008 crisis in Georgia has been attributed to Georgia’s bid to join NATO. In Ukraine, problems arose after pro-Russian (and anti-joining NATO, for that matter) President Viktor Yanukovych suddenly decided to abandon a plan of economic integration with western Europe in favor of strengthening ties with Russia. Yanukovych was ousted by protests (see Euromaidan) of Ukrainian citizens. The door for Ukraine to join NATO remains open, and Yanukovych’s replacement is more open to the idea.

This is not a Putin apologist piece, and I am in no way condemning his actions. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “there is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion.” Putin’s actions may not be legitimate, but it is essential to have press that is not over-sensationalized and one-sided. There is a strong Russian history in Crimea, and about 60 percent of Crimeans identify as Russian. The means used by Putin are not diplomatic, and there may be far better solutions for Russia in regards to its actions in Crimea. However, there are also better means than name calling and fear-inducing sound bites.

What do you think? Leave a comment below or tweet me @dannystevens91 with your thoughts!