Special Operations: Tatar Rebels in Crimea


April 8, 2024: Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and, during the last decade, had t0 deal with violence from various local irregular groups that want the Russians out of Crimea. The armed resistance includes groups from the more than a million Ukrainians living in Crimea as well as rebels from the 300,000 Tatars in Crimea. The Tatars have been in Crimea for over a thousand years despite efforts by Russia to reduce their numbers in Crimea as well as Russia. Currently 89 percent of all 7.3 million Tatars live in Russia. That includes the Tatars in Crimea. Tatars are a Turkic people originally from Central Asia. Many generations of intermarriage have resulted in most Tatars looking like other Russians or Ukrainians. These Tatars maintain their Tartar identity by speaking the dialect of Turkish found among Tatars. In addition, Tatars speak local languages, usually fluently. It’s easy for local or Russian leaders to accuse the Tatars, or the Jews or any other minority, of being troublemakers or possibly guilty, or capable of treason.

Russian leaders proved to be more adept at devious behavior. When plans do not work out, Russian leaders look for a minority to blame. Jews are often victims of false accusations. There are few Jews in Crimea, but the Tatars make an adequate substitute. The Tatars fight back whenever they have an opportunity and the muddled situation in Crimea provides the Tatars with Russian soldiers and civilians to attack. The fighting has been rather intense during the last decade. That’s because in 2014 Russia unexpectedly seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and then proceeded to go after a chunk of eastern Ukraine. This last effort was halted when NATO nations protested and imposed economic sanctions on Russia. The Crimean Ukrainians and Tatars imposed a perpetual state of armed and unarmed resistance to the Russian presence in Crimea.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, the resistance in Crimea benefitted from the fact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was not the quick victory Russian expected and turned into a protracted war with heavy Russian losses. After two years of fighting, Russian military manpower was a case of too few and too untrained Russian soldiers. At the same time Ukrainian armed irregulars in Russian occupied Ukraine, which now covered 110,000 square kilometers, gave the Russians much trouble. This includes Crimea, which Russia declared part of Russia and imported a lot of Russian civilians with the promise of free housing. The houses came from the Ukrainian and Tatar families killed or driven out since 2014. Russian civilians soon discovered that many of the evicted Ukrainians and Tatars were still around with some of them armed, angry at the Russian presence in Crimea and theft of their homes, and willing to do something about it. This is a problem because a quarter of Russian-occupied Ukraine consists of Crimea. Russia placed a lot of army, air force and naval bases in Crimea. This included supply depots for storing and distributing supplies to Russian troops in Crimea as well as Ukraine. The military installations include surveillance radars and electronic monitoring equipment. These valuable, to the Russians, items became targets for attacks by the Ukrainian and Tatar rebels. Russia is suffering a shortage of soldiers and cannot muster a large enough force to deal with violent unrest in Crimea. The Ukrainian government does not say anything specific about this because that could endanger the partisans and their operations. Some proof of Ukrainian government support comes from commercial satellite photos or rare reports from the Russians. Known support techniques include low night-flying helicopters and, if coastline is available, small boats used at night to resupply, reinforce, or transport rebels to other parts of Crimea.

The Crimean Tatars have post-war plans that include Crimea once more being Ukrainian and getting the Ukrainian constitution amended to make Crimea an autonomous National Republic, with the Ukrainian Tatars recognized as the oldest inhabitants of Crimea and deserving of special status for that. At the rate the Tatars are attacking Russian soldiers and facilities in Crimea, that special status may be possible.

Most of the world condemns Russian aggression against Ukraine and the seizure of Ukrainian territory like Crimea. The UN charter forbids such actions, as does a treaty Russia signed in 1994 promising Ukraine that Russia would never seize any Ukrainian territory. This solemn promise was in return for Ukraine giving up thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons in its territory. The agreement that broke up the Soviet Union in 1991 stipulated that Russia and the 14 new countries created by the half of the Soviet population leaving the empire for independence would keep whatever Soviet weapons and other state assets were on their territory. That was simple and straightforward, but it left Ukraine with over 2,000 nuclear weapons plus 176 ICBMs, 44 heavy bombers and over a thousand nuclear weapon equipped cruise missiles used by the heavy bombers. Ukraine could have been a major nuclear power, but it gave it all up for guarantees to its territory from NATO and Russia plus a lot of cash, including the expense of removing the nukes and related equipment.

Russian violation of a major international treaty in such a blatant fashion was a major hit to Russian credibility. China is watching this carefully because China is violating an international maritime borders treaty it signed by claiming all of the South China Sea. What happens to Russia for violating the 1994 treaty will influence what China does with its numerous illegal offshore territorial claims. Another problem with violating the 1994 treaty is the message it sends to states like Iran. The message is that if you really want to keep invaders out you need nukes. Iranians believe the negotiations to limit Iranian nuclear research and development are an effort to block Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Many Iranians see nukes as a necessity for maintaining Iranian dominance in the region. Iran has been the regional superpower for thousands of years. Once you get a taste of superpower status, it’s a hard thing to put behind you.

Russia believes it has historical claims on Ukraine and Crimea. In 1686 Russia gained control of much of modern Ukraine, including Kyiv, via a treaty with Poland and Lithuania that was mainly about joint operations against the Turks. That campaign lasted until 1774 when Russia took over and the Ottomans renounced their claims to the Crimean Peninsula and a long alliance with the Turkic Tatars. Earlier the Tatars had allied themselves with the Golden Horde and had long been a problem for Ukrainians. In some respects that is still true because the current Russian claim on Crimea traces back to their victory over the Ottomans and Tatars in 1774. History does repeat itself in Crimea and Ukraine and Russians ignore the fact any Russian victories in Crimea don’t last long.


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