Monday, November 24, 2014

Crimea's Russian Destiny

Tonight I’m going to take a controversial stance on the issue of the Crimea.  Without condoning the methods employed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the annexation, it is my opinion that, when all is said and done, Crimea should belong to Russia, at least more than it should belong to Ukraine.  History, demographics, and public opinion fall heavily on Russia’s side of the ledger on this issue.



History
The history of Crimea, as with any geographic area that has hosted civilizations, is complex.  Tribes and nations have come and gone, leaving in their wake no certainty regarding ownership of the land.  How do we track right to a land that has been populated by the Cimmerians, the Scythians, the Greeks, the Golden Horde, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Russians?  The Cimmerians and Scythians would be difficult to locate today.  Ancient Greek colonies along the Black Sea coast of Crimea no longer exist; abandoned ruins are all that remain in places like Chersonesus and Feodosiya.  The Greeks obviously have no viable play left for the Crimean peninsula.  Crimean Tatars put in place the Khanate, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, followed the Golden Horde. 

Under Catharine the Great, the Russian Empire wrested control of the peninsula away from the Khanate and the Ottoman Empire in 1783.  In the 19th century, the Russian Empire sought to gain additional territory as the Ottoman Empire began to climb.  Using the rights of Christians in the Holy Land as a reason, Russia went to war in Crimea against an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia.  It was a shock that the Christian nations of the West sided with the Muslim authority, giving rise to the idea that Russia was the defender of Christianity and civilization.  In open conflict with the West, Russian blood was spilled on Crimean soil, tying the land tightly to Russia.

From 1783 to 1954, Crimea was part of Russia.  Today there wouldn’t be any question about ownership of the Crimea if it weren’t for Nikita Khrushchev.  For a variety of reasons, Khrushchev basically gifted Crimea to Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954.  It seems certain, that at the time, the gift seemed largely symbolic due to the expected longevity of the Soviet Union.  Nobody expected it to become a geographic pawn between the Russian and Ukrainian nations.


Demographics
Demographics in Crimea make Russia’s case of territorial possession stronger.  As of the 2001 census, Russians make up 60.4% of the population.  Only 24% of the population is ethnic Ukrainians.  Russians have outnumbered Ukrainians since Russia gained control of the territory.  In terms of national and ethnic identity, Crimea is not Ukrainian--it's more Russian.

The only other argument for territorial control that is viable today belongs to the Crimean Tatars.  After World War II, the Crimean Tatars were deported from the peninsula forcibly and allowed to return en masse only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Today they make up more than 10% of the population in Crimea.  While the Tatars could mount a convincing argument for political control of the peninsula, their current numbers and the power of the Russian state make that highly improbable.

Public Opinion
In 2008 I was in Ukraine on a business trip for the US Air Force Academy.  As part of the trip we spent some time in Yalta and other parts of the Crimea.  One evening a few others and I went to dinner at a Georgian restaurant in Yalta.  This was just after the Russian invasion of Georgia.  Neither Georgians nor Americans were popular at the time.  As we sat in the restaurant, we could hear loud cheering and chanting at a nearby public arena.  Our hostess seemed very nervous at our presence and partway through dinner asked if we were Americans.  When we answered in the affirmative, she almost started to cry.  I asked here about the noise and what was wrong.  She informed us that there was a large pro-Russian/anti-American gathering taking place at the nearby arena.  She begged us to eat quickly, leave quietly, and to lie about being American.

The meal was delicious as Georgian food usually is.  Unfortunately, our departure coincided with the end of the rally.  Walking back to our hotel, we put our heads down to try to avoid any attention.  In the middle of the boardwalk a group of young Russian men stopped us, grabbing one of my associates by the arm.

“Who are you?  Where are you from?  Are you Americans?”

An entire group of about 15-20 men stopped around us, waiting to hear our answer.

Looking up, I smiled at them, and with poor pronunciation I said, “No, we’re from Canada!”

The mood immediately lightened and several of them clapped us on the back.

“We love Canadians!  Welcome to Crimea!  We hate the Americans.”

“And we hate the Ukrainians,” yelled another one to the cheers of his fellows.

Over a period of three years I traveled to Crimea on four separate occasions.  There was an overwhelming sense of belonging to and support for Russia.  Russian national flags flew from dozens of buildings in Sevastopol alongside the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

One poll in 2008 indicated that over 60% of the population in Crimea was open to the idea of seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.  The same poll revealed that a significant portion was willing to stay with Ukraine if given greater political autonomy. 

The fall of the Yanukovych and the rise of Russian attention on Ukraine lead to a popular uprising of support in Crimea to join with Russia.  Calls for a referendum on annexation arose almost at once.  Polling prior to the referendum, by local and third party sources, again indicated overwhelming support to leave Ukraine and join Russia.  The credibility of the actual referendum is questionable because of the percentage voting in favor of annexation—over 96%.  Such results indicate that results were manipulated to some degree or another.  Even without the manipulation, it is likely that the vote would have shown overwhelming support for annexation to Russia.

Legalities
Among all of the issues impacting the question of territorial control of Crimea, the only one that is not on the side of Russia is the legality of the annexation.  The referendum and seizure of Crimea was not done in accordance with international law and norms.  Without the assistance of a legal expert, I’m limited in my ability to hit all of the relevant issues.  I would venture to guess, however, that Russia would not recognize a similar vote for independence in a place like Chechnya or Dagestan.  The annexation of Crimea flies directly in the face of Russia’s claims of control over its own territories populated by non-Russians.

The legality of the annexation is made more questionable by Russia’s role, perceived or real, in aiding and abetting separatists in eastern Ukraine.  

Ukraine's Need for Crimea
Crimea is important to Ukraine for two primary reasons.  First, it provides a strategic location for the basing of naval forces in the Black Sea.  It provides a method for Ukraine to protect the rest of its Black Sea coast and establishes a degree of legitimacy in terms of military projection.  Second, and more importantly, the annexation of Crimea by Russia represents a direct threat to Ukrainian statehood.  If Russia can seize Crimea from a sovereign state, using historical arguments of national ties and based on a referendum that was conducted illegally and outside of accepted international norms, then Ukrainian statehood is under a real and direct threat of extinction.  

The annexation of Crimea is Russia's gate on the path to seizing greater swaths of Ukraine if they so desire, starting with east Ukraine where they can (and are) fomenting separatist movements with political and military support.  Further if the Russian government and military can weaken the Ukrainian government sufficiently and cause enough violence and instability, then President Putin may well use it to justify sending in forces in order to protect Russia from the expanding chaos.  Essentially, President Putin will pull regurgitate bastardized versions of NATO arguments for bombing Serbia and for the US invasion of Iraq.

Conclusion
With all of the factors weighed, Russia has much stronger ties and stronger claim to Crimea than does Ukraine.  Unfortunately, Russia used a political crisis in Kiev to gain control using illegal and questionable methods.  With greater patience and willingness to play by the rules, Russia could have regained control of Crimea legally.  Instead Russia showed the world that the rules only apply when they want them to apply.  It’s interesting this is a charge that Vladimir Putin often throws at the United States.  Russia’s actions and methods in gaining Crimea, and its continued effort to sow chaos in Ukraine, heighten concerns throughout Europe about further territorial aspirations.  Crimea has become the poisoned fruit that increase distrust and uncertainty in Russia’s international relations.

Russia's seizure of Crimea also highlights the weakness and lack of preparedness of the West.  NATO and the EU failed to foresee Russian reactions to events in Ukraine.  They failed to react in any meaningful and timely way.  The result is an emboldened Russia.

See additional posts regarding Russia and Ukraine:

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