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Eurasia Analyst Thoburn: Struggle for Crimea Is Far From Over

By Lisa Barron   |   Monday, 03 Mar 2014 02:25 PM

As Russia's military strengthens its grip on Crimea, demanding that Ukrainian forces clear out, there are mixed loyalties among the population itself, a factor that could help determine the outcome, says Hannah Thoburn, Eurasia analyst for the non-profit Foreign Policy Initiative.

"The original population of Crimea was Crimean Tatars, but they were expelled from Crimea in 1944 by Josef Stalin. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, many of them have started to return from their exile in Central Asia and Uzbekistan and places like that.

So, the number of Crimean Tatars that was in Crimea as of 2001 [when the last census was taken] was about 12 percent of the population. Russians made up about 58 percent, ethnic Ukrainians made another 12 percent, and then various other ethnicities comprised the rest," she told Newsmax TV's John Bachman on "America's Forum."

Thoburn, who is also senior research assistant, Center on the United States and Europe, at the Brookings Institution, acknowledged reports that Tatars are creating their own militias to fend off Russian troops, saying, "From the Crimean Tatar perspective, they have had a rough history with Russia and they do fear that being a part of the Russian federation will bring upon them the same sorts of things that happened to them in 1944, and they're very concerned now in forming these militias about simply defending themselves against any kind of ethnically motivated aggression that may come their way."

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Asked whether Russian President Vladimir Putin might be staking his claim to Crimea on the fact that in the post-Stalin era, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handed control of the region to Ukraine, Thoburn replied:

"It's really very complicated. Both Ukraine and Russia, of course, were part of the Soviet Union and in 1954, Khrushchev had ceded Crimea, and maybe ceded is not the right word, but he shifted administration of Crimea from the Russian [Soviet socialist republic] to the Ukrainian SSR. Russians have always said that, 'Oh, he must have been drunk while he was doing it.'

"Other people said, 'No, he did it as a gesture to say to the Ukrainians, we remember how you joined yourselves with us and we thank you, and this is something that we want to give you.' And others, frankly, said that it was because Crimea was economically unsuccessful and he wanted to get rid of it. Not get rid of it, but get it out of the Russian SSR.

"As to whether or not Putin has any basis for doing this, it's very problematic. There are groups of ethnic Russian speakers in Kazakhstan, ethnic Russian speakers in the Transistria region of Moldova, it's a breakaway region. And by that standard, we would allow Putin to go in and take those regions as well."

If Putin were to succeed in wresting control of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, Thoburn speculated that he could then turn his sights to the eastern part of the country.

"If there is something to be next, it would be eastern Ukraine. That's a major if, but many people in Russia as well as Ukraine expect that that's a serious possibility," she said.

"There's also a significant Russian minority in regions of eastern Ukraine, and there have already been demonstrations – pro-Russian demonstrations – which Ukrainians say are orchestrated and organized by Russians who have been bused in over the border, and there are pictures of buses with Russian license plates in those areas.

"But it's really just very unclear. There are people with pro-Russian sentiments in that area, and they do have a different mentality than do people in, say, western Ukraine."

As for reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a conversation with President Barack Obama, questioned whether Putin had lost his grip on reality, Thoburn said, "It's an opinion that is based in our world view, our Western world view, and when Angela Merkel says something like that, yes, it basically means that it's impossible to reason with Putin at this point, but we have to remember that he has his own form of rationale."

"The one thing he's really been promoting in Russia over the last several years is that Russia is different from the West. He wants to promote a certain Russian, Eurasian world view," she said.

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