Elon Musk's tweet on Crimea is all wrong - opinion

Elon Musk tweeted at the beginning of October that "Crimea is formally part of Russia" and he could not be more wrong.

 Elon Musk's assertion that Crimea is 'formally part of Russia as it has been since 1783,' is totally wrong, says the writer. (photo credit: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)
Elon Musk's assertion that Crimea is 'formally part of Russia as it has been since 1783,' is totally wrong, says the writer.
(photo credit: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)

Elon Musk’s by-now infamous tweet on how to achieve peace in Ukraine stated: “Crimea is formally part of Russia as it has been since 1783. (Until Khrushchev’s mistake).”

He is totally wrong about that. As Michael Sheitelman, an Israeli writer living in Kyiv has observed, Crimea has never really been part of Russia, or rather of an independent state called the Russian Federation, in which Vladimir Putin is president (for life).

In a very similar way, it can’t be said that the Republic of Austria, created in its current state in 1955, controlled the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary or Bosnia. Those territories were part of the great Hapsburg empire which, partly by conquest and partly by dynastic marriages, owned all those territories as well as a number of others, including at various points, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and much of the western hemisphere. Austria was not a sovereign country but one of the lands of the Hapsburg empire.

The Crimea-Russian history

 Elon Musk Twitter account is seen through Twitter logo in this illustration taken, April 25, 2022. (credit: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS ILLUSTRATION) Elon Musk Twitter account is seen through Twitter logo in this illustration taken, April 25, 2022. (credit: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS ILLUSTRATION)

Thus Crimea was part of the Romanov empire or Russia of the tsar. Empress Catherine II added Crimea to the Romanov’s territorial possessions in 1783. But since Russia was equally part of the Romanov empire, Musk could have easily declared that the Russian Federation has been part of Crimea since 1783, and part of Ukraine since 1654, which is when Moscow took over Ukraine.

In other words, Crimea has never been part of the Russian Federation. Moreover, since both countries were created for the first time in 1991, the Russian Federation recognized Ukraine in its current borders in a number of treaties and was paying Kyiv rent for its naval base in Crimea until the 2014 annexation. 

The 1994 Budapest Memorandum, moreover, committed Russia not to use military force or economic pressure against Ukraine when Ukraine agreed to adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and give up its Soviet-era nukes.

When Empress Catherine conquered Crimea for her empire, it was populated by Crimean Tatars. That population – including women and children – was summarily deported from the peninsula in 1944 on Stalin’s spurious charge of collaborating with the Nazi occupation. Other people suffered the same collective punishment, including the Chechens, but they were eventually allowed by the Soviet authorities to return to their homelands. 

Not so Crimean Tatars. They were forced to remain in Central Asia; those who tried to return were arrested and sent back. Instead, the government brought in and settled ethnic Russians from other parts of the Soviet Union, who are currently a majority population in Crimea.

However, for two generations the Tatars longed to return to their land – something that Israeli Jews can readily understand and appreciate. But that could take place only after Mikhail Gorbachev initiated his policy of liberalization in the second half of the 1980s.

Crimean Tatars who are after all the indigenous population of Crimea, were strongly opposed to the Russian annexation. Since 2014, they have been persecuted and harassed by the Russian security apparatus, activists have been arrested and disappeared, but they are a substantial – and vocal – minority demanding that Crimea be returned to Ukraine.

And now about Khrushchev’s mistake. Indeed, in 1954, the Soviet government transferred the Crimean Peninsula from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (not to be confused with today’s Russian Federation) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (also a place that is not today’s Ukraine).

That was done for administrative reasons because the only overland connection to Crimea was through Ukrainian territory, and Ukrainian regions provided water for the parched peninsula. Of course Khrushchev never expected the two republics to secede from the Soviet Union – as they both did in 1991 – and become independent sovereign states.

But that does not mean that Putin has any claim on Crimea. Modern states are by and large the creation of the past 100 years. Their borders are often arbitrarily drawn and are the result of happenstance. This includes the Republic of South Africa (formerly the Union of South Africa), the country where Musk was born.

In many instances, the drawing of those borders was accompanied by considerable bloodshed, communal violence and ethnic cleansing. Still, in many countries people of different ethnicity, language or religion end up living side by side.

However, after the disaster of World War II, the community of nations decided to recognize existing borders as they are and not alter them except in special circumstances – and never by a war of aggression.

There have been exceptions, but by and large, the rule held. One such exception took place in 1990 when Saddam Hussein decided to annex Kuwait. Then, a US-led coalition defeated the Iraqi invasion force and liberated Kuwait.

Putin illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and in 2022 started an all-out war in the middle of Europe, annexing the territories he has partially occupied. He should not be allowed to keep any of his illegal gains, as Musk suggests, but taught the same lesson as Saddam was in 1990. 

Born in the USSR, the writer has lived in the US since 1975, having emigrated on an Israeli visa during the Let My People Go campaign for Soviet Jewry. He has worked as an economist for 35 years, including positions at Standard and Poor’s and The Economist Intelligence Unit. Over the past 10 years, he has published four murder mysteries set in Moscow in the 1960s.