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Musk’s Ukraine Peace Poll Fails on Its Portrayal of Crimean History

Relatives say good-bye to conscripts as they depart for military bases, in Sevastopol, Crimea. September 27, 2022. (REUTERS/Alexey Pavlishak)
Relatives say good-bye to conscripts as they depart for military bases, in Sevastopol, Crimea. September 27, 2022. (REUTERS/Alexey Pavlishak)
Elon Musk

Elon Musk

CEO of Tesla

“Crimea formally part of Russia, as it has been since 1783 (until Khrushchev’s mistake).”


In an October 3 Twitter thread, U.S. billionaire Elon Musk floated a possible deal to end Russia’s war on Ukraine.

One element of the plan: “Crimea formally [becomes] part of Russia, as it has been since 1783 (until Khrushchev’s mistake).”

Problem is, that characterization of Crimea’s past is misleading. It leaves out a history of ethnic persecution and parrots the view from Moscow, which illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. History disputes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that Crimea, and all of Ukraine for that matter, has always been Russian.

Musk is right that the Russian Empire annexed Crimea from the Ottoman Empire in 1783. Russian Tsars used Crimea as a luxury resort, and the imperial house of Romanov’s ostentatious castles still stand on the Black Sea peninsula’s coast.

As in other Russian colonies, Moscow employed ethnic cleansing to keep Crimea under control. The indigenous Crimean Tatars suffered forced deportation and repression under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

By logically extending Musk’s interpretation of Crimean history, Russia’s imperial claims could justify annexing all its former colonies over time. That would include Ukraine, parts of Poland, Finland and Romania; the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania; Belarus; all of Central Asia; and the South Caucasus countries of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and more.

In a critique of Putin’s mythical notions about Crimea published October 10, acclaimed Yale University historian Timothy Snyder recounts the peninsula’s status over centuries, although he begins with a contemporary legal fact:

“Crimea is a district of Ukraine, as recognized by international law, and by treaties between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Putin, however, has taken the view, for more than a decade now, that international law must yield to what he calls ‘civilization,’ meaning his eccentric understanding of the past.”

Snyder traces Crimea’s governance back to the year 998, under Scandinavian warlords who begat the Kyivan “Rus” empire, and continues through Mongol takeover in the 13th century. Moscow emerged as a “vassal state” of Mongols about out the same time, he notes.

“The Crimean Khanate, by contrast, was a direct successor of the Mongol empire. Mongol leaders converted to Islam in the late thirteenth or the early fourteenth century. The Crimean Khanate, which covered most of the Crimean Peninsula and much of what is now southern Ukraine, was a Muslim state ruled by princes descended from Chingis Khan. It had a nobility which was represented in an assembly, or kurultai. …”

“Crimea was ruled by a larger Mongol state for a couple of centuries, and then as the Crimean Khanate from 1441 to 1783 – quite a long time.”

There was no Russia then. In the early 18th century, as Snyder recounts, Moscow rebranded itself. It eventually absorbed southern Ukraine and Crimea, although this “did not amount to a restoration of ‘lost’ territory,” he points out. In fact, the Russian Empress Catherine II referred to these lands as “New Russia.”

“This of course meant suppressing the history of the peoples and states of the ‘New Russia,’ Ukrainian Cossacks and Crimean Tatars. To bring together the old and the ‘new,’ Catherine replaced Turkic names in Crimea with Greek(ish) ones.”

Crimean Tatars fled during the early Russian regime. And after the empire’s World War I collapse and subsequent Communist takeover, Crimea was seized by Soviet Union. Post-World War II, a brutal new wave of Russification arrived under Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

“Soviet leaders understood that Crimea had a quite distinct past, and until 1945 the peninsula was regarded as an autonomous republic within the Russian republic of the USSR. In its last years as an autonomous republic, the entirety of its remaining indigenous population was forcibly resettled. Stalin falsely portrayed the entire Crimean Tatar people as collaborators with the German [Nazi] occupation, and ordered that every single one of them be deported from their homeland. …

“In just three days in May 1944, the Soviet secret state police rounded up and forcibly deported 180,014 Crimean Tatars, most of them to Soviet Uzbekistan. Included later in the deportations were Crimean Tatar Red Army veterans who wanted to go home after their release from German camps. All of these people lost their homes and property; they were replaced by settlers from the rest of the USSR, usually Russians. It was thanks to this rather recent ethnic cleansing that Crimea became Russian in population.”

Which brings us to what Musk called “Khrushchev’s mistake.”

Nikita Khrushchev had been leader of the Communist Party apparatus in Ukraine prior to advancing as Soviet leader in 1953. Historian Mark Kramer, director of the Cold War Studies Project at Harvard University, examined Khrushchev’s decision in 1954 to transfer Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federation of Socialist Republics to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkrSSR).

Kramer wrote:

“During the last several years of Khrushchev’s tenure in the UkrSSR, he had overseen the Soviet government’s side of a fierce civil war in the newly annexed western regions of Ukraine, especially Volynia and Galicia. The civil war was marked by high levels of casualties and gruesome atrocities on both sides. Despite Khrushchev’s later role in denouncing Stalinism and implementing reforms in the USSR, he had relied on ruthless, unstinting violence to establish and enforce Soviet control over western Ukraine.”

Kramer writes that Khrushchev saw internal political benefits for the transfer. Crimea’s standing as an “autonomous republic” had by then been removed, he says, “ostensibly because the forced removal of the Crimean Tatars had eliminated the need for autonomy.”

“…Khrushchev saw the transfer as a way of fortifying and perpetuating Soviet control over Ukraine now that the civil war had finally been won. Some 860,000 ethnic Russians would be joining the already large Russian minority in Ukraine.”

As Snyder noted, Russia has since signed treaties promising to forgo any territorial claims on Ukraine. One was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, co-signed by the United States and the United Kingdom, which guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear arsenal.

Likewise, the Belovezha Accords sealed the Soviet Union's dissolution and declared the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of its former republics.

Those treaties did not prevent Putin from invading Crimea in 2014 and annexing it after a rigged referendum, like those conducted last month in occupied areas of eastern Ukraine.

It’s important to note that Musk has been praised as a “lifesaver” and “hero” in Ukraine for providing thousands of Starlink satellite connections that provide wartime communications. The Starlink internet service is operated by Musk’s SpaceX company.

Musk’s peace poll, however, infuriated Ukrainians and their supporters while giving a fresh boost to Russian propaganda.

The Kremlin praised Musk, with Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling reporters: "It is very positive that somebody like Elon Musk is looking for a peaceful way out of this situation."

Now, after military setbacks in the war against Ukraine, Putin has launched a nationwide military call-up that looks to conscript Crimean Tatars for battle.

In the eye of the international law, Crimean Tatars remain Ukrainian citizens, with a majority publicly expressing loyalty to Ukraine. The international rights community and governments have criticized Russia for forcible conscription of the Crimean Tatars to fight against their own countrymen.