The referendum on Sunday in Crimea on whether or not to join Russia has become virtually a symbol of the whole Ukrainian crisis, by extension, of the East-West confrontation, and subsequently, of the Cold War that seems to have ended many years ago. However, there has also arisen an echo of the Crimean War more than a century and a half ago, thus showing that old conflicts are never resolved, just postponed. Furthermore, the existence of the Crimean Tatars shows that the Ukrainian crisis has a Muslim component, and the OIC’s silence demonstrates not just its own weakness, but the low profile of the Crimean Tatars.

However, it is not just the Tatars who will engage Pakistani attention, but also the sudden revival of the Cold War, due to Pakistan’s backing of the United States at the time. The USA has found its way into the current crisis as a result of their backing of the European Union. Russia became involved when Ukraine initially decided to join the EU. Ukraine came into existence as a component of the USSR, and was allocated the Crimean Peninsula in 1963, when the Ukrainian Nikita Khrushchev was in charge of the USSR. Historically, both Ukraine and Crimea were not a part of Russia. The Crimean Tatars were an added element in the equation. They were the most Westernised, and educated segment of the Muslim population within the old Czarist Russia, of which they had been a part of since 1783. Crimea was supposed to be their national homeland. However, at the end of World War II, Stalin exiled them internally to Uzbekistan. The Crimean Tatars having only returned from that exile after 1991, now fear a return to Russia reiterating a common concern within Ukraine.

The Western and Eastern parts of the country are inhabited by Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox respectively. The national inclination is to follow Poland, which has joined the European Union. For Ukraine, this represents the natural easternmost extension of Western Europe, just as it represents the westernmost extension of Russia. There is the added complication of the Black Sea, which represented, through the Crimean Tartars, the northernmost expansion of the Muslims, through the Turks. It should not be forgotten that the Khanate of Crimea owed allegiance to the Ottoman Caliph until it was cut loose by the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainardji in 1776.

However, the Crimean War saw the British and French ally with the Ottomans against Russia. Back in 1853, there were questions regarding the fate of the Black Sea after Turkey collapsed. Russia at the time, wanted the Black Sea to become its preserve, and it is worth noting that this is still a major issue today. Since World War I, Russia has enjoyed undisputed naval access to the Black Sea, and the importance of Crimea is not so much the Russian-speakers on whose behalf it claims to have intervened, as is the access of the Russian fleet to Sevastopol (its Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters). It is through this fleet that it has access to Tartus – its port on the Mediterranean established under a 1971 agreement with Syria - which is now the last Russian base outside the country.

It is not entirely a coincidence that the Crimean War had a Middle Eastern component. One of the issues of the Crimean War was deciding which European power, France or Russia, was to represent the Christians of the Ottoman Empire. France was Roman Catholic, Russia was Orthodox, and both based their claim on the right of co-religionists to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In the present crisis, the Russian interest in propping up the Assad regime is to an extent caused by its Black Sea concerns. The importance of the Black Sea has been because its coast has been the only area though which Russia has been accessible by sea all year round. Sevastopol, on the Crimean Peninsula, was as prominent in the Crimean War as it is now. The Black Sea became increasingly important for Russia since the 16th century, when it began importing goods from Western Europe, in large quantities. The character of the trade changed, with Russian grain being ultimately exported. Even now, Russian gas is exported to Europe through a pipeline passing through Ukraine, which is why Moscow wants a friendly government in Kyiv. Another reason for wanting Crimea under Moscow’s control is the fact that it is close to the Caucasus, home not just to the Chechens, but other Daghestani nationalities, which are also Muslim. Even though Russia has got rid of the Central Asian Republics, it still has a substantial Muslim population which is non-Russian. It therefore expects, the Crimean Tatars to have a pacifying effect.

That the Crimean War was about the Black Sea is shown by the fact that Russia was supported by the Bulgarian and Wallachian Legions. These rebels against Ottoman sovereignty achieved the independence they sought, which descended to Bulgaria and Romania, both important for their presence on the Black Sea, both subordinate to the USSR after World War II, and now both EU members. If Turkey wins EU membership, and Ukraine had, Russia would find that the Black Sea would have become an EU preserve, and it would have found itself virtually shut out of Ukraine, complete with the Crimean Peninsula.

Another point of interest for Pakistan is that the Crimean War was the time at which the Lee-Enfield rifle, with its new greased cartridge, won military approval to the extent that its use by the Indian Army was ordered. The cartridge had to be bit, the cartridge paper used grease obtained from both cows and pigs, and the Indian Mutiny was the result. Britain was not the only one of the Crimean War participants to suffer. The Ottomans have vanished off the face of the earth, their empire now a welter of independent states. The British have been eclipsed by the USA, and although Russia is still around, the then-ruling Romanovs have long since fallen. Both Ottoman and Romanov dynasties fell in World War I, which was the culmination of the development of the warfare that Crimean War represented since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.

Hopefully, Crimea will cause a revival of neither the Cold War of the 20th century, or of the first major hot war of the 19th. However, it remains a source of confrontation even now, in the 21st century.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.