In the ongoing international showdown between Russia and Ukraine, the region known as Crimea has emerged as the top prize — a position it has held, for better or worse, for millennia.
Russian-allied troops in Crimea have taken hold of key targets — including airports, government offices and military bases — and Russian military leaders demanded the complete surrender of all Ukrainian forces in Crimea on Monday (March 3).
What is it about this peninsula that makes it so desirable as a geopolitical trophy? The answer lies in Crimea's unique climate, diverse culture, geography and often-troubled history. [The 10 Epic Battles That Changed History]
1. Crimea is semi-autonomous
Crimea has been a part of Ukraine since 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev "gave" it to Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991. Since that time, Crimea has existed as a semi-autonomous region of the Ukrainian nation, with strong political bonds to Ukraine — and equally strong cultural ties to Russia.
Crimea has its own legislative body — the 100-member Supreme Council of Crimea — and executive power is held by a Council of Ministers, which is headed by a chairman who serves with the approval of the president of Ukraine. The courts, however, are part of the judicial system of Ukraine and have no autonomous authority.
2. Crimea's climate and geography
Crimea is surrounded almost completely by the Black Sea, and encompasses an area of about 10,000 square miles (26,000 square kilometers), roughly the size of the state of Maryland. The peninsula is connected to the Ukrainian mainland by the narrow Isthmus of Perekop.
And Crimea — which rests about 200 miles (322 km) northwest of Sochi, Russia — enjoys the same mild, year-round climate as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. The climate is a big reason why Russian leaders are so adamant about keeping Crimea within their sphere: The Black Sea is Russia's only warm-water port.
Though Crimea is recognized worldwide as a part of Ukraine, the Russian Navy has kept its Black Sea Fleet stationed at a naval base in Sevastopol (in southern Crimea) since the late 1700s. In 2010, Russia negotiated an agreement that allows the country to share the all-important Sevastopol naval base through 2042, in exchange for deep discounts of about $40 billion on natural gas from Russia.
3. Gas and grains drive the economy
Beyond the strategic importance of Crimea and Ukraine, the situation in the region is complicated by both the abundance and scarcity of certain natural resources.
Ukraine has been called "the breadbasket of Russia" for centuries, since the region produced much of the grain needed to feed the country's vast czarist empire. Even today, Ukraine is one of the world's largest producers of corn and wheat, and much of that passes through Crimean ports. (More than 50 percent of the Crimean economy is devoted to food production and distribution industries, according to Ukrainian government figures.)
But the semiarid climate that makes Crimea such a popular tourist destination also makes the peninsula largely dependent on Ukraine for water, as well as about 70 percent of its food, according to Slate.
The energy picture in Crimea and Ukraine is also tricky: Crimea relies on Ukraine for much of its electricity, and Europe relies on Russia for about 25 percent of its natural gas, according to CNN. Furthermore, the natural gas that Russia sends to Europe travels largely through pipelines that snake across the Ukrainian landscape.
That's why any instability in the region is bound to send shock waves through international energy markets: Crude-oil prices jumped by $2.33 a barrel on Monday (March 3), due in large part to jitters over the Russian aggression in Crimea, according to the Associated Press.