The Russo-Turkish war of 1768-74 was one of the most consequential conflicts for the global balance of power in the 18th century. After the war, Russia, under Empress Catherine the Great, got access to the Black Sea through the Kerch and Azov seaports and officially became the “protector” of the Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire. In 1783, nine years after the war was over, Prince Grigory Potemkin, a Grand Admiral in the imperial Russian Army and a favourite of the Empress, annexed the Crimean Peninsula that juts into the Black Sea in the name of protecting its Christians, amid violent clashes between Christians and Crimean Tatars (a Turkic ethnic group). The annexation gave Russia seamless access to the Black Sea’s warm waters, helping its rise as a naval power.
There are interesting parallels between the imperial annexation of Crimea in the 18th century and the Russian annexation of the peninsula in 2014. Prince Potemkin is credited to have built Russia’s Black Sea fleet in 1783 with Crimea’s Sevastopol being its principal base. Ever since, Russia has retained its influence over Crimea in one way or the other. During the Soviet period, Crimea was the centre of Russia’s Black Sea manoeuvres. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Crimea became part of the newly independent Ukraine, but continued to host Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Moscow’s grip over the peninsula faced its first real threat in 2014 when the elected government of President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine was brought down by violent protests that were backed by the West. Six years earlier, the US had offered NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, both Black Sea basin countries and former Soviet republics.