More thoughts on Crimea

Saturday, March 1, 2014

There's a piece I noticed yesterday in the Washington Post on the Crimea--it turns out that to 'understand' Crimea, you have to at least take a look at its history.It's nice to know that the Crimea is understandable, but it is kind of a bummer to think that I'd have to go through the trouble of 'taking a look at its history' first.
More seriously, there is a problem in the piece (or at least something I don't understand). The piece’s author, Adam Taylor, writes "[w]hen Ukraine held a referendum on independence in December 1991, 54 percent of Crimean voters favored independence from Russia."

That would be independence from the USSR, not Russia.
The quotation links to a 2002 book by Mark Beissinger, an expert on the region and a political scientist from Princeton. But Beissinger’s point is that, because of the large Russian population in the Crimea, there was less support for independence from the USSR. In other words, little enthusiasm for Ukrainian independence. But there's a huge difference between favoring, in 1991, 'independence from Russia' and preferring to break away from the USSR.

I point this out not to pan the article—it has some interesting bits, in a Wikipediaesque sort of way—but because the slip-up makes a big difference. Saying that “54 percent of Crimean voters favored independence from Russia" gives the impression that a majority of Crimeans did not want to be part of Russia. In fact, they weren’t given the choice. They voted yes or no over the question of whether or not the Ukrainian republic should secede from the USSR. 
And what if voters in the Crimea had been given the chance, back in 1991, to join the Russian Federation? What if voters in the Crimea had had three options, instead of two? They were given the choice between Ukrainian independence and the completely discredited idea of a continued federation, something which only Gorbachev still supported by this time. But what if they had been given the choice to join the Russian Federation in 1991? What would have happened then?
A large majority of the peninsula is ethnic Russian. They were so desperate to avoid becoming a part of Ukraine that a very large number preferred, in 1991, to stay in a revamped USSR. If the option of joining Russia had been on the ballot in 1991, I frankly think this issue would have been settled a long time ago. Now it seems a referendum is going to be held on Crimean independence. Non-Russians will likely boycott, but under any conditions the referendum would succeed. With this in mind it’s worth asking what’s wrong with the Crimea just becoming part of Russia? Why make a big fuss over something that, while stemming from violence, would likely reflect the preferences of a majority of the local population anyway?
The thing is, there were other options available to Putin. Why not campaign for the right of people in ‘mini-republics’ like the Crimea to secede from the countries they got stuck in after the USSR broke up? Oh yeah, Putin would never do that because the Russian Federation itself contains almost 20 republics and dozens of federal units, many of which owe their existence to the presence of a non-Russian population in the region.
Pundits in the 1990s always loved to attribute Russian support from Yugoslavia/Serbia as an expression of some kind of mystical Orthodox Christian brotherhood. As romantic a notion as that is, there were also more concrete factors at play: Russia, like Yugoslavia was, is a patchwork of republics and autonomous regions. 
Of course Boris Yeltsin, who otherwise sought to please the Clinton administration in most instances, would stick up for the right of federal centers to prevent republics (like Slovenia and Croatia) or autonomous zones (like Kosova) become independent. It’s self-preservation. But Putin has apparently abandoned this policy as Russia has gone on the offensive in South Ossetia and now in the Crimea.

I wonder how I would be feeling right now if I were living in the Baltics—Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Those countries have enormous Russian minority populations. Unlike ethnic Russians in, say, the Crimea, many of the ethnic Russians living in the Baltics were frozen out of post-Soviet citizenship. Many of them remain stateless to this day. Despite this, all three countries were welcomed into the European Union.
Will EU membership protect the Baltics from being similarly bullied by Russia? Maybe Estonia should give up the city of Narva, on the Russian border in the far east of Estonia. After all, most of the people there are Russian! And Narva has an important role in Russian history, as a famous battle was once fought there. How can Narva not be Russian! 
That’s the logic that many ordinary Russians apply to the Crimea. This weekend’s takeover is something that I imagine will be genuinely popular in Russia. Most people will swallow the BS about ‘nationalist-fascists’ from Ukraine heading down to the Crimea to cause bloodshed and noble Russian soldiers preventing this from happening. Russians will be exposed to the same kind of rah-rah-rah ‘journalism’ that accompanied the US invasion of Iraq.2 Creepy—but we’ll likely see it.
The Crimea is also seen as an essential part of Russian history and patrimony by Russians living in both the Crimea and Russia. Russian friends of mine offhandedly refer to the Crimea as ‘southern Russia.’ They dismiss borders, passports, and customs houses with a wave of their hand. ‘The Crimea is Russian,’ they’ll say. I know that not all Russians feel this way, but the point I’m trying to make is I think that most people in Russia will have absolutely no problem with this as long as it all goes well. They believe in Putin’s competence, if nothing else.

Why shouldn’t they?

The Obama  administration, meanwhile, seemed to be in denial on Friday as events were unfolding. Obama intoned, during his statement yesterday, that invading would be a clear violation of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine, and of international laws."

Well yes, it would be, except that it already was.

It hurts to have the shoe on the other foot, doesn't it? Putin was apoplectic at the United States for the invasion of Iraq, among other things. Bush & Co. gave him the finger and sped off toward disaster. Why the hell should Putin care what the United States says now about the Crimea?
So what happens if this is allowed to stand with little more than a face-saving deal struck between Obama and Putin? What would the implications be for eastern Ukraine, where there are no neat borders to point to? People in those regions are waging street battles with one another. What eventually happens in these regions could end up making the Crimea seem relatively calm by comparison. 
And what happens in places like Transnistria, where a Russian minority has staked out is own self-recognized republic in a bid to separate from Moldova? Somewhere in Tiraspol, hearts are aflutter. And that's the main problem with all of this. 

In the regions of the world that I'm most interested in--a large swath of land and seas extending from the Balkans to Central Asia--there are lots o
f countries where borders could be changed. Many people will draw lessons from the response, or lack thereof, to these events by Obama, the EU and the rest of the world. Others will draw the conclusion, perhaps, that it makes more sense to suppress minorities than to give them the widespread autonomy that Kiev had hammered out with regional authorities in the Crimea. In a multitude of ways, the events in the Crimea will have an indelible impact upon the future of cross-cultural interaction and international geopolitics in the region.

What's happening now is part of a much longer struggle that has been taking place for 20 years between the US and Russia over influence in eastern Europe and the former USSR. Back in the late 1990s, it was a big deal that former Warsaw Pact countries got into NATO, and then the Baltic states became US allies right on Russia's borders. In more recent years, Ukraine and Georgia have been literally torn apart as a consequence of this proxy war.

I just don't see Obama, or anyone else, making a big enough stink about things to stop matters. My guess (and it is a total guess, because the situation is very fluid and anything could happen) is that Obama and Putin will come up with a deal whereby Russia withdraws most of its troops and a referendum on independence is promptly held. My sense is that, under such an arrangement, there would be no immediate annexation to Russia, but the Crimea would most likely become a de facto part of Russia the way Abkhazia and South Ossetia have. There's precedent--in 1774, the Crimea became independent of the Ottoman Empire after the Ottomans lost a war with Russia. Nine years later, the independent statelet was annexed by Catherine the Great. 
If Crimea does become a part of Russia again (whether de facto or de jure),  it will be especially crushing to the Crimean Tatar minority, which is strongly pro-Kiev. No country, other than Turkey, cares about the Crimean Tatars, and I just don't see the Turkish leadership, embroiled as it is in a struggle to survive, expending political capital on them. Victims of a mass deportation in 1944 in which tens of thousands died, the Crimean Tatars associate their past mistreatment with Russia. For them, this will be yet another bitter, bitter pill to swallow.


1. Sorry if this sounds picky (it is), but would anybody think it is possible to 'understand' the United States by quickly learning a few facts about its history?

2. Of course, Russian journalists live in a state were broadcast information is tightly controlled. What’s the excuse of American journalists?

Also see:

Crimea on the Brink: What's Going On?

South Ossetia and the Fate of the Mini-Republics

More thoughts on South Ossetia

Obama, Russia and the Middle East

Trouble in Ukraine


More links and commentary can be found in the Borderlands Lounge 

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