A military personnel member, believed to be a Russian serviceman, stands guard on a military vehicle outside the territory of a Ukrainian military unit in the village of Perevalnoye outside Simferopol. Photo: Reuters
The Crimean Tatars were deported from the peninsula, along with large numbers of Greeks and Armenians
Crimea's situation is, as with many things in Ukraine's political crisis, compounded by a complicated history. Let's take a look back. It's revealing that Crimea is, much like Ukraine, often prefaced with a ''the'' when referred to in English. The once-widespread use of ''the Ukraine'' has often angered Ukrainians, many of whom believe that the implication is that Ukraine is a region, not a country, that could be conquered by greater powers.
That logic could be applied to Crimea: For centuries the Crimean Peninsula, which occupies a strategically important location on the Black Sea (it is the base of Russia's Black Sea Fleet) and has arable land, has been fought over by various outside forces.
Before it was even known as Crimea, for example, the peninsula was known as ''Taurica'' by the Greek and Roman empires, both of which at times ruled the region.
Other outside forces dominated Crimea at various points and it has been invaded or ruled by Gothic tribes, the Kievan Rus' state, the Byzantium empire and the Mongols.
The modern name ''Crimea'' seems to have come from the language of the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group that emerged during the Crimean Khanate. While Russia, which annexed the state in 1783, officially tried to change the name back to Taurica, Crimea was still used informally and eventually reappeared officially in 1917.
If that's accurate, it's apt that Crimea is perhaps best known in the English language for the Crimean War, which began in 1853 and involved three years of bloody fighting between Russia and an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, France, Britain and Sardinia. While Russia lost the war and Crimea suffered significant damage, it remained part of Russia.
After the October Revolution ended the Russian Empire in 1917, Crimea was briefly a sovereign state. That didn't last long, however: it was quickly dragged into the Russian civil war, where it became a stronghold for the White Army.
Following a succession of governments in a few short years, Crimea eventually became the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921, part of the Soviet Union. It remained like this until 1945, when it became the Crimean Oblast, an administrative region of Russia.
Like much of the Eastern Front, Crimea's experience in World War II was incredibly traumatic: It was occupied by Nazi Germany, and the port city of Sevastopol was almost destroyed in the fighting.
Once the Red Army retook Crimea in 1944, it forcibly deported the entire population of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia for collaborating with German forces. Almost half are believed to have died along the way. The Tatars, were not allowed to return to Crimea until the end of the Soviet Union. They wouldn't forget their hardships, however.
With the Crimean Tatars deported from the peninsula, along with large numbers of Greeks and Armenians, Crimea was a very Russian place. Then, in 1954, something unusual happened: Russia gave it to Ukraine.
It probably didn't feel like a big deal at the time: Back in the days of the Soviet Union, the difference between Ukraine and Russia perhaps felt nominal. By 1991 and the Soviet collapse, things were different. While many apparently expected new President Boris Yeltsin to demand that Crimea be returned to Russia, it never was.
When Ukraine held a referendum on independence in 1991, 54 per cent of Crimean voters favoured independence from Russia. It was a majority, but the lowest one found in Ukraine.
After a brief tussle with the newly independent Ukrainian government, Crimea agreed to remain in Ukraine, but with significant autonomy.
In 1997, Ukraine and Russia signed a bilateral Treaty on Friendship, Co-operation and Partnership, which formally allowed Russia to keep its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.
The Euromaidan protests have frequently been portrayed as a battle between the pro-European West and the pro-Russian East, a legacy of Ukraine's own history of Russian domination. That could be an oversimplification, but it's an idea that resonates with many.
Given that Crimea has a modern history intrinsically linked with Russia, contains the largest population of ethnic Russians in Ukraine (60 per cent of Crimea's population speaks Russian) and harbours a significant portion of Russia's navy in Sevastopol, Crimea is an important place in that narrative. Add a minority Crimean Tatar population (12 per cent in 2001) that has pretty good reason to be wary of Moscow, plus a lot of Ukrainians, and the situation could easily be explosive.
By Adam Taylor
The Washington Post