Despite all the rhetoric and bluster emanating from Moscow about dire threats to the Russian speaking minority in the Ukraine, it is worth noting that they have pretty much never been under any threat. This is largely a Russian manufactured (and organised) crisis – one that has potentially dire consequences for the Ukraine specifically and for international relations in general.
In part what is taking place, from the point of view of Russian elite perceives is not different to western intervention in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The Russians may have a point, the West’s denunciations of Russia’s actions as a violation of international law, might have slightly more authority if we were not living with the consequences of the West’s pretty much selective interpretation of international law in recent years (complete with Blair’s dodgy dossier, etc).
The Russian elite, the Russian media and perhaps a significant number of ordinary Russians (but by no means all) have never accepted that the former Soviet republics are truly independent referring to Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the central Asian stans as ‘near abroad’ as opposed to proper independent countries like Poland, Romania, etc. Western intervention in Kosovo jarred the Russian psyche badly, as did the earlier demise of the Soviet Union, the loss of prestige, status and real and defacto Empire has stung.
Unlike the Brits who had the best part of 50 years (to fail) to get over the loss of Empire, Russia lost most of its Empire in the best part of a fortnight in August 1991. The territorial integrity of the Ukraine is in peril, the Crimea (an autonomous if financially troubled republic within the Ukraine) has effectively been occupied by a combination of local Russian militia members (an ominous parallel with Bosnia in 1991) and Russian military units (most of whom were already based in the Crimea) operating from Russian bases in and around Sebastopol.
Part of the current problem is that Russia has some recent history of this sort of bad behaviour, as the Soviet Union unravelled the region of Trans-Dniester was shorn off Moldova (in 1991/1992), more recently in 2005 Russia effectively annexed the province of South Ossetia from Georgia (to add to Abkhazia which was effectively occupied by pro Russian insurgents in 1992/1993). In an ominous echo of Kosovo, the former Georgian provinces are now ‘independent’ and under Russia’s protection.
Ironically encouraging the independence of a even Russian dominated Crimea, may not be the political result that Russia actually wants to achieve. As irrational as it may seem to many in the West, Russia’s preferred choice would be to literally re-integrate the Ukraine (as a whole) into the Kremlin’s new autocratic Eurasian political creation (perhaps alongside Kazakhstan and Belarus).
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In all these previous cases the West’s response has been ineffective or somewhat mooted to say the least. At the time David Cameron (in opposition) denounced Russia’s actions, now in power his government has may not curb trade with Russia or close London's financial centre to Russians as part of any possible package of sanctions against Moscow – clearly the spirit of appeasement is alive and well in the Conservative party as it was during the Bosnian crisis.
It is worth noting that the Stop the war campaign group (with some of its members perhaps primarily but not entirely motivated by anti-Americanism) are busy condemning ‘fascism’ in the Ukraine rather than criticising this case of blatant Russian aggression. This ironically is a line that President Putin’s Russian media machine has been pumping out ever since the revolution began in Kyiv. Perhaps some of those old pro Soviet apologists have found a new home, having never really gone away.
It would be foolish to make the assumption that all the Russian speakers in the Ukraine have much time or sympathy for Putin’s autocratic vision of Russia. Those demonstrations that have taken place in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine have the appearance of being well organised rather than spontaneous. The old Soviet flags being waved to protect the largest surviving statue of Lenin (in the city of Kharkiv) and the news that some of the organisers drove down from Moscow to raise the Russian flag on Ukrainian government buildings should also be noted.
Russians make up about 58% of the population of the Crimea, historically getting the best jobs and best housing as they live high on the hog during the days of the Soviet Union. Ukrainians make up around 24.4% and the Crimean Tartars around 12.1% of the Crimea’s population. Despite all the hogwash and hot air about building Soviet man in the 50’s and 60’s from Moscow, Soviet man was pretty much a Russian speaking individual.
The Crimea, until 1954, was administered as part of Russia, before it was transferred by Khrushchev to the Ukraine. The Russian’s in Crimea, benefitted from the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Crimean Tartar inhabitants (in 1944) by Stalin who falsely accuse them of collaborating with the Nazi’s when the peninsula was occupied during the war. The Crimean Tartars were released from detention in Central Asia and Siberia following Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s brutal excesses in his famous ‘secret speech’ in 1956.
The Tartars received no aid or encouragement to return to their homeland, having to make their own way back, some illegally in the Soviet eras, and most only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many of those who came back discovered that their homes and lands had been taken over by Russian (and some Ukrainian) settlers. So somewhat understandably the Crimean Tartars (there are around 243,000 in the Crimea) have little or no love for Russia, and probably given a free choice would probably prefer to remain part of the Ukraine.
There may be no simple solution to the current crisis – the sensible most practical solution would be restoration of the status quo. Sadly it may come down to combination of brute force and pipeline politics, as much of central and eastern Europe is now deeply dependent on imported Russian gas. We may do well to hope for a mild spring, as once the lights begin to flicker, minds in various chancelleries may be concentrated, something that probably won’t help the Ukraine.
That said, if Russia’s defacto annexation of the Crimea is simply accepted and the West’s response is weak and ineffective, then were next for the Bear? And what message does that send to other potential aggressors? If the West ends up writing off the Ukraine as a larger version of a far away small country of which we know little and care even less - then so much for standing up for democratic and international values. If that happens then heaven help those Ukrainians and those Russians who would prefer to live in a sovereign free and democratic Ukraine rather than an a corrupt and autocratic one.