Russia and Crimea: Have You Read Enough?

If you think so, you need to reconsider. 

Unidentified gunmen on patrol at Simferopol Airport in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, Feb. 28, 2014 (Elizabeth Arrott/VOA)

The initial endeavor of newsmen is to “tell all”. Except when the gathering of information imperils the journalist’s life, that is the easy part. Alas, the bare facts get the public bored. By the time the crucial meaning pours in, the interest has ebbed.

Through its extensions, the Crimean crisis will haunt the future. Solutions through unconcern will not spare us the consequences. The fault is not Putin’s but of the comfort-spending politician. Past crises that got worse through neglect, reveal that the culture in which the bacteria multiplied has been a mixture of neglect and the illusion of immunity.

In the “crime of the Crimea”, the accusing finger does not point to Russia alone but it also identifies those that had encouragingly miss-reacted to the mischief.

Prior to the emergence of the Kremlin’s “solution through applied might”, your correspondent had planned a piece about a multi-ethnic Ukraine and of Europe’s comparable entities. It was the expected charge that his ethnic outlook motivates the writing that hindered the execution. 

An imperial past relying on diverse ideologies has shaped Europe. The Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburg Empire, the Third Reich and the Communist and Czarist versions of Russia’s systems, had something in common. Besides retarding and distorting their domains’ development, they moved peoples in a ways that ignored historic ethnicities. The general peace treaties following the conflicts the empires created ignored historic or ethnic rights. Some of this reminds us of the colonial and post-colonial order in Africa and the near/middle East. 

If we pursue a stable world order, we must crave one made of components that prevail internally and in their relationships without the resort to power. This can be achieved if the participating entities are democratic and if changes, whether internal or involving state relations, unfold through a consensual process. A system that accepts change only as an expression of power, or one that is said to be unalterable by a dominant guarantor makes lawlessness into the tool of the ruthless. 

Since it is the fate of the Crimea that prompted the foregoing remarks, we may connect that crisis to our generalizations.

Let us commence by defining to whom the Crimea should belong. Here the rod we use determines the result. The question is which conquest marks the scale. The Tartars, replacing the Greeks, were the “original” settlers of the peninsula. Czarist Russia’s expansion imposed new rulers. Then Stalin deported the natives to the USSR’s ample “East”. By now, the GULAG’s survivors have returned to their land –without regaining what they had left behind in 1944. Meanwhile, migration created a Russian majority. Finally, while a part of the USSR, the isthmus was transferred from Russia to the Ukraine. 

Following the dissolution of the USSR, Russia and the Ukraine became successor states. Kiev let Moscow to station its Navy on the peninsula that by then housed 60% ethnic Russians - the rest being Ukrainians and Tartars. In exchange for her nuclear weapons, the integrity of the Ukraine was guaranteed by an international treaty. 

Putting the principle of self-determination before states’ rights and history, after the dissolution of the Red Empire, the Crimea should have been returned to Russia. Regardless of the complicated details, a mutually accepted plebiscite should have determined the cape’s fate. Whether and when, a stabilized Ukraine and a consolidated Russia would have felt sufficiently strong to conclude such a mutually acceptable deal, has become a mute question by the conditions created through fiat. 

What we can be certain of is; Moscow’s unilateral action has created an enemy on its doorstep. Future state relations will not reflect the moral weight of commitments but shall remain a question of relative power. Thereby the rule of mutually accepted law will be superseded by the relative might of the contracting parties. Even for Russia, this is a negative even if presently she can deliver the hardest punch. 

In a free election, for good reasons or led by illusions, the Crimea’s majority would have chosen to belong to Russia. This would have brought satisfaction with the least amount of inequity for those minorities that could not be explicitly protected. Perfect solutions do not exist in comparable situations. Therefore, neither the Tartars, nor the large Ukrainian minority, would have embraced the outcome without reservations. 

Had the Kremlin waited, a settlement in its favor would have been achievable. In this case, Russia’s reputation, the rules of the international game, treaty commitments would have been served. Additionally, the disquiet of countries that have recently been freed from Soviet domination would not have been activated. Thus, NATO would have continued the slumber that the alliance’s Western Europeans quietly welcomed. A derivative would have been a trust to deepen institutional NATO-Russia ties. Lastly, through the EU’s nudge, the area’s Russians’ deserved autonomy (along with the rights of other minorities) within the Ukraine would have been assured.

Here a matter that goes beyond the Kiev-Moscow dispute needs to be mentioned. Europe has a long-standing ailment. It is fed by territories in national states that are inhabited by ethnics that have a state of their own beyond the border. Since there is likely to be a minority within the minority, secession followed by annexation (as in the Crimea) is seldom the best solution. Autonomy –the free use of language in administration and schooling- is the right that is the “possibilitist” response. 

Eventually, Putin could have had the Crimea. That would have taken time and it would have been incremental. By virtue of its nature, the process would not have been dramatic. Instead, Putin, to cover up the weakness that flows from retarded development, opted for the glory of conquest. The achieved triumph serves to stabilize his power. However, interstate relations became murky. That means that an era approaches in which global politics become complicated by new tensions. There are consequences in this for the ability of Russia to develop a modern economy and a matching society, and to raise beyond the level the seller of natural resources. The conditions into which Russia becomes locked in mean more autocracy and that implies the preservation of the developmental lag.


Perhaps those Crimeans who are enthusiastic for union with Russia today can't or don't want to remember what life is like in a totalitarian society whereas in '91, the reality of it was still immediate.


Russia and Crimea

"In a free election, for good reasons or led by illusions, the Crimea’s majority would have chosen to belong to Russia."


I wonder if that is correct.  My understanding (based on the internet encyclopedia) is that a referendum had been held throughtout Ukraine in December 1991, prior to the disollution of the USSR, on the question of Ukraine becoming independent.  Over 90% of the population supported independence and in the Crimea the percentage supporting an independent Ukraine was 54%.