February 20, 2022

Ukraine Invasions and Justifications: Catherine the Great Got There First

Ukraine Invasions and Justifications: Catherine the Great Got There First
Catherine the Great and Grigory Potemkin, united in conquest of Crimea | Illustrations by Haley Bader

Over the past several weeks, many have been preoccupied with whether Russia will invade Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin insists that his government has no plans to do so. Some leaders in the West fear an invasion is likely, but people living in Ukraine and Russia are skeptical.

It has been argued that that the current crisis began with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, following the Ukrainian Maidan protests that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, a friend of Russia. That annexation has been likened and linked to the colonization of the territory by Catherine the Great in 1783. The modern annexation also had deeper historical significance for Russia, which has a cultural tendency to look to the past for reasons of national pride as well as the legitimization of political decision-making. In 2016, Putin placed a statue of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, a forefather of modern Russia who expanded Kievan Rus in the tenth century, just outside of the Kremlin. Legend has it that Vladimir was baptized in Crimea after converting himself and his people to Orthodox Christianity

Prince Vladimir of Kiev, Catherine the Great and President Vladimir Putin

Control of Crimea gives Russia great military advantage in the region, and it would facilitate any invasion of Ukraine that might take place. How can Catherine’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula shed light on Russia’s relations with Ukraine today?


When Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, like Catherine, he claimed that he was acting in the interest of the resident population, which is 60 percent ethnic-Russian. Like Catherine, Putin also gained a strategic military port on the Black Sea; and, as with two of Catherine’s campaigns, he took the territory with very little resistance. At the present moment, Putin has announced a withdrawal of some troops from the border of Ukraine but continues to leverage the threat in what he claims is an effort to protect Russia's borders. Catherine's invasion of Crimea, only in small part a reaction against raids on Russian lands, was largely a grab for territory. Putin's motivations today are less clear.

One of President Putin’s publicly voiced concerns, which he has long insisted is being ignored in the West, is that of territorial security. Despite promises otherwise, the West began expanding NATO beyond an agreed geographic point in 1997. Retreating back to the 1997 line of defense is one of the concessions Putin seeks from the West. There have also been reports that Russia is planning, as did Catherine the Great in Crimea, to install a friendly puppet government in Ukraine.

In an online MIT forum on the current Ukrainian crisis, military strategist Dmitry Gorenburg explained that Russia currently has a number and distribution of troops capable of invading and occupying Ukraine. Other forum experts, however, argued that occupation is doubtful, since the economic and foreign policy consequences would be dire for Russia.

Catherine the Great never became involved in a war with European powers because she kept to territorial agreements that she had made with several Western European countries. Putin’s seizure of Crimea violated several agreements, including the UN Charter, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances for Ukraine, and the 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between Ukraine and Russia.

* * * * *

For further reading…

Adams, Cecil. “The Straight Dope.” Chicago Reader, 13 November 2003. https://chicagoreader.com/news-politics/the-straight-dope-227/

Chang, Rachel. “Catherine the Great: The True Story Behind Her Real and Rumored Love Affairs.” Biography, 14 October 2020. https://www.biography.com/news/catherine-the-great-lovers

Harding, Luke and Sabbagh, Dan. “Ukraine: west’s fears of imminent attack not shared in Kiev.” The Guardian, 30 January 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/30/analysis-ukraine-russia-vladimir-putin-uk-us-intelligence

Hardzinski, Brian. “To Understand Russia’s Interest In Crimea, Start With Cathering The Great.” KGOU, 14 March 2014. https://www.kgou.org/world/2014-03-14/to-understand-russias-interest-in-crimea-start-with-catherine-the-great

Harris, Carolyn. “When Catherine the Great Invaded the Crimea and Put the Rest of the World on Edge.” Smithsonian Magazine, 4 March 2014. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-catherine-great-invaded-crimea-and-put-rest-world-edge-180949969/

Jakjimovska, Viktorija. “A Shift in the Russo-Ottoman balance of power in the Black Sea region: The Treaty of Kuçuk Kainardji of 1774.” Oxford Public International Law.  https://opil.ouplaw.com/page/kainardji-treaty

Khan, Andrew. “How did Catherine the Great’s reign shape Imperial Russian history?” The British Academy, 30 July 2020. https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/blog/how-did-catherine-the-great-reign-shape-imperial-russian-history/

Oldenbourg-Idalie, Zoé. “Catherine the Great.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Catherine-the-Great

O’Neill, Kelly. “From A Historical Perspective, This Is Why Crimea Matters.” WBUR, 19 March 2014. https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2014/03/19/crimea-and-russia-through-history-kelly-oneill

Pifer, Steven. “Crimea: Six years after illegal annexation.” Brookings, 17 March 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/03/17/crimea-six-years-after-illegal-annexation/

Pinkham, Sophie. “How annexing Crimea allowed Putin to claim he had made Russia great again.” The Guardian, 22 March 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/22/annexing-crimea-putin-make-russia-great-again

Politi, Daniel. “U.K. Accuses Russia of Pursuing Plan to Install Pro-Moscow Government in Ukraine.” Slate, 23 January 2022. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2022/01/britan-russia-plot-puppet-government-ukraine.html

Solly, Meilan. “The Story of Catherine the Great.” Smithsonian Magazine, 15 May 2022. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-catherine-great-180974863/

For viewing…

“The Russian Military Threat to Ukraine: How Serious?” CISAC Stanford, 13 January 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwrzophpNJA

“Starr Forum: The Russian-Ukrainian Conflict: A prologue to WWIII or another frozen conflict?” MIT Center for International Studies, 28 January 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IX-W4vVIYHU

And in the Russian language…

“Век Екатерины: позолота и грязь.” BBC News, 20 сентября 2012. https://www.bbc.com/russian/russia/2012/09/120920_golden_age_catherine
«Екатерина Великая в Крыму: факты, мифы и легенды. Часть II.» РИА Новости, 3 апреля 2016. https://crimea.ria.ru/20160403/1104142228.html

“Императрицей Екатериной II был подписан манифест о присоединении к Российской империи Крымского полуострова, острова Тамань и Кубанской области.” Президентская Библтотека имени Б. Н. Ельцина. https://www.prlib.ru/history/619179

Мележенкова, Елизавета. «Шальная императрица: 10 любовников Екатерины Великой». Газета.ru, 2 мая 2019. https://www.gazeta.ru/lifestyle/style/2019/05/a_12335251.shtml

Мухаматулин, Тимур. «…принудил к новому отряду войск Наших в Крым: 19 апреля 1783 года Екатерина даровала манифест о присоединении Крыма к России». Газета.ru, 18 апреля 2014. https://www.gazeta.ru/science/2014/04/18_a_5997845.shtml

Олтаржевский, Георгий. «Только спокойствие: почему Екатерина II двенадцать лет не объявляла Крым российским». Известия, 19 апреля 2019. https://iz.ru/869139/georgii-oltarzhevskii/tolko-spokoistvie-pochemu-ekaterina-ii-dvenadtcat-let-ne-obiavliala-krym-rossiiskim

«"Подчеркнуть могущество" и "внушить страх": как и для чего Екатерина II ездила в Крым». ТАСС, 15 января 2017. https://tass.ru/v-strane/3939753



You Might Also Like

A Short History of the Crimea Partisans

A Short History of the Crimea Partisans

The partisan movement in Crimea developed in a complex context, given the USSR’s general lack of war-readiness and the defeats in the fall of 1941 on the Crimean section of the front.
A Woman of Substance
  • November 01, 1996

A Woman of Substance

Two hundred years ago this month, the death of Empress Catherine II brought many things in Russia to an end. Russia said goodbye to its last female ruler, and to the last ruler in its history to be given the title "veliky" (great). The period known as the Golden Age of the Nobility also drew to a close. Nikolai Pavlenko tells the story of the controversial and strong-willed German princess who siezed ppower in a vast foreign country and earned the ardent respect of her subject and outsiders alike.
The Defense of Sevastopol
  • July 01, 2005

The Defense of Sevastopol

Russian soldiers held off the French at Malakhov Kurgan for 349 days, before it fell, 150 years ago this month. The end of this battle brought an end to the Crimean War.
Potemkin's Palace
  • September 01, 1997

Potemkin's Palace

From Prince Potemkin to Prince Charles, Petersburg's Tauride Palace has seen its share of VIPs over the years. This month, 205 years after the death of the palace's famous namesake, we take a look at the history of the Tauride from its founding to the present day.
Catherine Ascends; Peter Falls
  • July 01, 2012

Catherine Ascends; Peter Falls

We read history through the eyes of the victors, and in June 1762, the victor was a German-born princess newly ascended to the throne with her husband, Peter III. To history she became known as Catherine the Great.
Simferopol's Banksy
  • July 01, 2014

Simferopol's Banksy

For six years, a street artist nicknamed Sharik has been leaving his mark on Crimean streets.
Crimean Sojourn
  • January 01, 2015

Crimean Sojourn

Mikhail Mordasov has been traveling all over Crimea since the annexation last spring. He shares this moving photo feature.
Catherine Seizes Power
  • June 28, 2017

Catherine Seizes Power

On June 28, 1762, Catherine (born Sofia Frederika Augusta), the German wife of a weakened tsar, seized Russian throne. She soon earned the appellation "the Great."
Crimea Crisis Solved?
  • April 01, 2016

Crimea Crisis Solved?

In a surprising move that has shocked international pundits, Secretary of State John Kerry today announced he has arranged the de-annexation of Crimea by Russia. 
The Solution to Crimea Lies Through Finland
  • March 28, 2014

The Solution to Crimea Lies Through Finland

You have to hand it to History. She has a very well developed sense of irony. Exactly 160 years ago today the Crimean War began... While it is useful for the current crisis over Crimea and Ukraine to understand history, solving the crisis is more likely through analogy. 
7 Ways Not to Protest the Occupation of Crimea
  • March 07, 2014

7 Ways Not to Protest the Occupation of Crimea

Russia’s occupation cum annexation of Crimea is a tragedy no matter how you slice the salami tactics. One just wants to protest, boycott, DO something. But what? Well, like President Obama and the EU, we’re coming up a bit short on the list of feasible and effective sanctions. But here are a few things we recommend NOT doing.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567