The Boot on the Other Foot: Moscow and the Crimean Tatars

Crimea’s Tatar minority is one group particularly wary of Russian incursion. With the threat of a full-scale Russian invasion hanging over the peninsula, individuals in the Crimea are confronting difficult choices about whether to support or oppose such an event, or whether to simply keep their head down and hope for the best.

Crimea's Tatars face an anxious wait
Crimea’s Tatars face an anxious wait

The Tatars may be fearful of Russian interference today, especially given their recent history of Stalinist-era eviction from their homeland and the suspicions regarding their Islamism. However, it is often forgotten that it was the Russians who were once deadly fearful of the Tatars.

In the 15th century, remnants of the Mongol horde that had descended upon Eastern Europe some three centuries earlier established a Crimean Khanate, encompassing parts of modern-day Russia and Moldova in addition to the Black Sea peninsula. Ultimately a vassal of the burgeoning Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Tatars made frequent incursions into Russian territory, much of which was only loosely controlled by the Grand Duke of Muscovy (later the Tsar).

These incursions reached an apogee during the 1570s during the Russo-Crimean Wars. In 1571, an army of 120,000 (mostly Tatars and some Turks) rampaged northwards, burning and pillaging en route. Having routed the Russian Army and sent the remaining military remnants and civilians on the retreat, the Crimeans put Moscow to the flame. Virtually the entire city was devastated and the Russians narrowly avoided complete capitulation to the Ottomans the following year.

The Crimean Tatars carried on the Mongol legacy of expert cavalry
The Crimean Tatars carried on the Mongol legacy of expert cavalry

Anthony Jenkinson, an employee of the English Muscovy Company who visited Ivan the Terrible in Moscow, detailed in 1572 the ‘woeful state of Russia’ brought about by the Tatar raids:

A valiant nation of Tatars, in the latter end of May last, invaded this realm, gave the prince an overthrow in the fields, caused him to retire, burnt and consumed all the country before them, and came to the city of Moscow, set fire to the same, not leaving one house standing, and few people are now escaped.

The number of those that were burnt, besides such as were carried away captives by the said Crimeans, is thought to be about three-hundred thousand. A just punishment of God for such a wicked nation. (Jenkinson, p.306)

Jenkinson, clearly not enamoured with the Russians, predicted further Tatar invasions. He would be proved right. Although never exerting such devastation on the Russian people as they had in 1571,the Tatars of the Crimean Khanate would prove a constant nuisance to the Tsars until their annexation by the Russian Empire in 1783. (Even then, many Tatars fought for the Ottoman Empire against the Russians during the Crimean War).

The boot by then, as it is now, was firmly on the other foot. Whether the Crimean Tatars would summon the spirit of their ancestors to defy a Russian invasion may be a nugatory question. It is clear, however, that they have welcomed their return to the Black Sea under Ukrainian authority and they are unlikely to be cowed without some form of resistance.

We may not have seen the last clash between Moscow and Crimea’s Tatars.


Jenkinson A, Early Voyages and Travels to Russia and Persia, by Anthony Jenkinson and other Englishmen (Hakluyt Society, 1886)


A Repeat of the Sudetenland Crisis? Russian Forces Encircle the Crimea

Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, has compared the Russian military incursion into the Crimea with Adolf Hitler’s purposeful advance into the Czechoslovak Sudetenland in 1938.

Russian forces have swarmed into the Crimea
Russian forces have swarmed into the Crimea

Certainly, Vladimir Putin’s ‘muscular diplomacy’ is not too far removed from Hitler’s defiant aggression. By using the pretext that his forces are protecting the ethnic-Russian population in the Crimea from Ukrainian malice, Putin is employing a tactic Hitler used recurrently during his expansionism of the 1930s.

Ethnic Russians make-up some 58% of the Crimean population. The German percentage of the Sudetenland people prior to WWII was probably higher, indeed 23% of the whole of Czechoslovakia spoke German as their native tongue. A case can be made by Putin, therefore, that a majority of the population of the Crimea would naturally prefer a closer association with Russia rather than Ukraine, to which the region was assigned as a ‘gift’ by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.

There is a problem with this perception, however. Just because ethnic Russians constitute a majority in the Crimea does not necessarily suggest that all Russian-speakers want a closer political association with Moscow. Whilst there were many Sudeten Nazis that encouraged Hitler’s invasion in 1938, other German-speakers had no desire to become part of the Third Reich. 

Many ethnic Germans welcomed the Nazi incursion into the Sudetenland in 1938 - something Hitler's propaganda machine exaggerated as a sign of universal support
Many ethnic Germans welcomed the Nazi incursion into the Sudetenland in 1938 – something Hitler’s propaganda machine exaggerated as a sign of universal support

Another similarity in the two cases relates to the strategic importance of the territories in question. The Crimea is home to Sevastopol and the Russian Black Sea Fleet and allows a projection of Russian power to the west and south. Putin would not want this to be undermined by a more determined, pro-Western Ukrainian government in Kiev. Likewise, the Sudetenland was of great potential importance to the Nazis. It was the centre of Czech industry, home both to vital natural resources and the manufacturing and assembly plants that produced finished goods.

Furthermore, both Putin and Hitler laid false claim to their desired territories being an inextricable component of their nation’s history. Whilst the Crimea was part of the Soviet Union and had been under the influence of the Russian Empire since the 18th century, it ha a longer association with the Muslim Tatar people. The Sudetenland, meanwhile, formed a part of Central Europe where territorial boundaries were forever changing, falling under the control of a variety of Germanic and Imperial princes before being incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Crimea's Tatar minority is largely anti-Russian
Crimea’s Tatar minority is largely anti-Russian

Whatever the similarities of the situation, it must be ensured that their conclusions are different. The international community must face down Putin in a way the Western European powers never managed against Hitler during the Sudeten Crisis. With Russia’s economy and political system in a precarious state, Putin must be made to realise that his bluster will be fruitless.