I don't know what you might have been reading and hearing about Russia and Ukraine lately, but I thought it might be worth a few words on what's going on there, just to catch you up.
First, let's talk a little bit about Ukraine's recent events. While the world was watching the Winter Olympics a few hundred miles away in Sochi, Russia, Ukraine was in the middle of a revolution. Ukraine is a country culturally divided between ethnic Russians in the eastern part of the country and ethnic Ukrainians in the western part of the country. The eastern part of the country identifies pretty closely with Russia and, to one extent or another, longs for reunification with Russia. The western part, however, identifies with the western-style democracies and longs for closer ties to the modern economies of the European Union.
After massive protests marred by violence, the eastern-leaning president of Ukraine agreed to reforms to appease the western opposition, but he was ultimately driven from office.
In the meantime, Russia has seized the opportunity to put troops into Crimea.
The Crimean Peninsula is attached mainland territory belonging to Ukraine at a narrow neck of land on its northern end. The peninsula, which is colored light peach in the map below, juts into the Black Sea. The smaller "sea" on the northern side is called the Sea of Azov, and it is connected to the Black Sea by the Strait of Kerch.
The Crimean Peninsula has been the scene of several important events in world history. As you can see on the map, Yalta is a Crimean resort best known for hosting a conference among Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt in early 1945, at which the so-called "Big Three" powers planned for the postwar.
The Crimean Peninsula (along with the Black Sea) was also the setting of what might have, in another century, been termed a "world war." In the 1850s, Russia was in conflict with the Ottoman Empire over the protection of Orthodox Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. Russia destroyed the Ottoman naval fleet based at Sinope (located on the "hump" of modern Turkey that juts into the Black Sea). Britain and France, worried about growing Russian influence in the Middle East, entered the war on the Ottoman side. The Crimean War was devastating all around and settled very little, except that it established the Black Sea as neutral territory (since Russia's Black Sea fleet was also, eventually, destroyed).
The Crimean War is famous mostly for two things. As a result of her efforts, Florence Nightingale became a household name. And Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote a famous poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade," about the Battle of Balaclava and a genuinely disastrous attempt by the British cavalry to take Sevastopol.
For administrative reasons, the Crimean Peninsula was part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was in turn part of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Ukraine became an independent country and took Crimea with it. However, modern-day Crimea, while nominally a part of Ukraine, enjoys "autonomous" status within Ukraine.
Culturally, Crimea is Russian. Its population consists mostly of ethnic Russians, and it has, over the last two decades, had an increasingly tense relationship with the rest of Ukraine. Part of this tension is exacerbated by the presence of a major Russian military base at Sevastopol. Russia leases this base from Ukraine, and in 2010 the Russia-leaning Ukrainian government extended that lease, by treaty, to 2042.
Last month, the new pro-Western provisional government of Ukraine took steps to assert Ukrainian nationalism and independence, to the detriment of ethnic Russians (in particular). For example, the new government established Ukrainian as the sole national language and abolished the use of minority languages at any level of government. This contrasts with the former practice of using minority languages as de facto official languages where there were significant minority populations.
The new government has also undertaken to reassert control over Crimea and to abolish the autonomous (pro-Russian) local government. In response, Russia has sent troops into the area. The Russians claim that they have done so only to protect Russian assets (including the military base and Russian business interests in Crimea) and ethnic Russians living in Crimea. The Ukrainian government, however, considers this an invasion of its sovereign territory.
While violence and military action is regrettable, it is not altogether clear who is in the right and who is not in this situation. There have certainly been times in our history where we have taken exactly the same actions that Russia is taking, by invading the sovereign territory of another country when we deemed it in our national interest. I'm not sure where I come down on this yet, but hopefully cooler heads will prevail.