If you ask the average Westerner about the Crimea, you will likely get a blank stare. Some might remember the mid-19th century Crimean War or recollect high school analysis of Lord Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade." An outdoorsman perhaps has a vague understanding that the balaclava is somehow related to the Crimea. However, the Crimea is now a flashpoint for political tension between Russia and Ukraine, ethnic tension among Russians, Ukrainians, and Tartars, and friction between Muslims and Christians--examples of some of the most important struggles in the world today.
Nestled on the shores of the Black Sea, the small peninsula of the Crimea is home to two million people in an area that is comparable to the size of Massachusetts. The region belonged to Russia from the late 18th century until Soviet leadership transferred it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine kept the Crimea, but Russia maintains a lease on a naval port in the city of Sevastopol, where its Black Sea Fleet is based, creating strategic concerns that are the basis for the Ukrainian-Russian conflict over the peninsula.
Moreover, the existence of a significant Muslim Tatar minority in the Crimea is also a source of tension in the area. The Crimean Tatars were deported from the region under Stalin, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tatars began to return: according to the latest Ukrainian census, 250,000 Crimean Tatars constitute around 12 percent of Crimea's population. The return of this population to their ancestral homeland has caused both ethnic and religious friction with the Slavic peoples in the area. Sporadic conflicts between these two groups have the potential to spark greater conflict with Turkey (the Tatars are a Turkic people) or to provide a new venue for clashes with Islamic extremism as in nearby Chechnya. Any clashes could also serve as a pretext for Russia to appeal to anti-Muslim sentiments and exercise more control in the area in order to protect ethnic Russians, which could serve as a dangerous example for far-right sentiment in the rest of Europe.
However, Russia's pretext to intervene in the Crimea would more likely come from tensions between ethnic Ukrainians and Russians or strategic considerations over Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Nearly 60 percent of the Crimea's population is ethnically Russian, compared to only 17.3 percent in the Ukraine as a whole. …