Putin's Gamble: Russia's 2014 invasion of Crimea - a short history

Putin’s Gamble: Crimea Invasion is a comprehensive look back to March 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. The show will air on Sky HISTORY on 15 April at 9pm and on catch-up services.

Here's everything you need to know about the events of 2014.

History of Crimea

The Crimean Peninsula sits atop the Black Sea and is home to approximately 2.5 million people. Crimea first became part of the Russian Empire in 1768. Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, sent her armies to occupy the region in an attempt to expand her country’s influence in the East. Less than a century later, the Ottoman Empire and its Western allies defeated Russia in the Crimean War and the latter’s military presence in the peninsula was severely reduced.

The Russian Civil War was fought from 1917 to 1921, during which Crimea changed hands several times between the White Army and Red Army. Upon the conclusion of the conflict and the Bolshevik’s victory, Crimea became part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic which was later absorbed by the Soviet Union.

It remained within the Soviet Union’s power until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine as part of his de-Stalinization programme. The deal was made under the pretence that Crimea would forever remain a part of the Soviet Union, but issues began to arise when the communist state dissolved in 1991.

Why did Russia annexe Crimea?

When the Soviet Union broke up, Ukraine held a significant number of nuclear weapons. In fact, the country had more nuclear warheads than China, the UK and France combined, making it the third-largest nuclear power in the world. Three years later, Ukraine reached an agreement with Russia and the US to hand over its nuclear weapons to be destroyed. In return, Russia promised to forever recognise the independence of the whole of Ukraine, including Crimea.

Vladimir Putin began his first term as prime minister in 1999 and brought with him very different ideas about his country’s relationship with Ukraine. He initially flirted with the idea of joining NATO but eventually decided to focus on reasserting Russia’s standing within the world.

Meanwhile, Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovych was facing mounting pressure as the President of Ukraine for failing to sign the Ukraine-EU agreement in November 2013. The autonomous Crimean parliament supported Yanukovych while the rest of the country opposed him. At least 50 protesters were shot dead by the police in Kyiv. Ukraine was on the verge of a civil war.

An audacious military coup

On 22 February 2014, Yanukovych fled for the safety of Putin’s Russia. On the pretext of rescuing his ally, Putin ordered Russian Special Forces into Crimea and began an audacious military coup.

On 27 February, Russian armed forces without insignias seized the building of the Supreme Council of Crimea and the building of the Council of Ministers in Simferopol. Crimea belonged to Russia again.

International condemnation

William Hague, the Foreign Secretary of the time condemned the annexation saying, ‘This action is a potentially grave threat to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. We condemn any act of aggression against Ukraine’.

The United States and the European Union threatened and later enacted sanctions against Russia for its role in the crisis, and urged Russia to withdraw.

During the 2014 Winter Paralympics held in the Russian resort of Sochi, the United States refused to send a Presidential delegation. David Cameron and Angela Merkel also refuse to attend though all three countries send teams to compete.

On 24 March 2014, the G7 members cancelled the planned G8 summit that was to be held in June of that year in the Russian city of Sochi and suspended Russia's membership with the group.

The aftermath

On 16 March 2014, a referendum was held with 2 options on the ballot. The first asked the local population if they wanted to join the Russian referendum as a Federal Subject. The second option asked if Crimeans wanted to restore the 1992 constitution and Ukraine's status as part of Russia.

95.5% of voters in Crimea voted in favour of joining Russia. The vote was condemned by the EU as ‘illegal and illegitimate and its outcome will not be recognised’. A 2014 resolution by the UN recognises the territorial integrity of Ukraine, rejecting the results of the referendum, as being illegitimate.

Russia formally incorporated Crimea as the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol on 18 March 2014. Following the annexation, Russia escalated its military presence on the peninsula consolidating its presence in the region.

Fact sheet

  • Crimea was transferred to Ukraine on 19 February 1954.
  • Ukraine gained its independence with the dissolution of the Soviet Union on 26 December 1991.
  • Russia invaded Crimea on 20 February 2014, officially marking the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian War.
  • The 2014 Crimean referendum is regarded by the UN as illegal because the whole of Ukraine is required to vote and both options on the ballot would have resulted in a separation from Ukraine.