Once part of the Russian empire, today an autonomous republic of Ukraine, Crimea is days away from a referendum on secession (March 16).
Russia has one of its four naval fleets based in Crimea, but the importance to Moscow of the Black Sea peninsula is more than strategic.
Crimea was gifted to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev. At the time, few could imagine that the USSR would collapse decades later.
Ukraine became independent in 1991, Crimea within its borders.
According to the country’s most recent census, conducted in 2001, close to 60 percent of Crimea’s population are ethnic Russians and around 22 percent are ethnic Ukrainians.
In Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election almost 80 percent of Crimean voters supported Russia-leaning candidate Victor Yanukovych.
Crimea’s March 16 referendum is widely expected deliver a result in favour of putting the peninsula under Russian control.
There is bitter opposition, both within Ukraine and abroad, to the referendum and to Russia’s escalating military presence on the peninsula.
However, if Moscow were to annex Crimea it would be seen by many Russian nationalists as the return of the territory to its natural home.
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