Crimean Geography Lesson for Liberals and Conservatives

mthrrsBoth “liberals” such as Hillary Clinton who recently compared Putin to Hitler and knee-jerk conservatives who see the crisis in the Ukraine as a Cold War II are in need of a more restrained, nuanced and intelligent view, taking into account both history and geography – two subjects that Americans traditionally disregard. The American press, radio and television have almost been unanimous in their ignorance of history and geography of the Russian-Ukrainian borderlands. The strategic value of the Russian naval base in the Crimea is the equivalent of Pearl Harbor and the Panama Canal combined.

Apart from one brief mention on the Sunday Fox News Report, I have not come across any reference to the simple fact that since Russian ejection of the Ottoman Turks from the Crimean Peninsula by Catherine the Great in 1783, the region has always been part of the Great Russian concept of the motherland and Russian language through Czarist times and including the first thirty-five years of incorporation in the USSR when it was NOT an administrative unit of the Ukrainian SSR but of the RSFSR (Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic).

Its transfer by administrative fiat in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was an act of cosmetic political farce designed purely to throw Ukrainians a bone and pretend this “generosity” would help erase long memories of the terrible famines of the 1930s (largely caused by Stalin’s policies) and the large degree of collaboration with the German invaders in World War II, thereby solidifying the “brotherhood” of the two peoples. Khrushchev was of mixed Russian and Ukrainian ancestry and was detested in the Ukraine as serving his Russian masters. His “generous’ was designed to pacify Ukrainian pride and promote his own image.

His 1954 maneuver was even more of a total repudiation of the concept of respecting “territorial integrity” and ”self-determination” than attempted by any Czar and loudly proclaimed today as “inviolate principles of international law.” In 1954, ethnic Russians were the overwhelming majority of the population and had expressed no wish whatsoever to become part of the Ukrainian SSR. Almost nothing changed on the ground as a result of this move and Russian rather than Ukrainian continued for many years to be the major official language of the Crimea.

On February 27, 1954 Pravda published a short announcement on its front page that the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR had decreed on February 19 (no need to tell the people immediately) the transfer of the Crimean “oblast” (region) from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The decree ran a mere eight lines stated that this measure “Was being taken because of the economic commonalities, territorial closeness, and communication and cultural links” between Crimea and Ukraine.” A summary of the discussion in the Supreme Soviet’s Presidium and transcripts of speeches by six of its members including the chairman, Klement Voroshilov then followed on page 2. He referred to the fortuitous three-hundredth anniversary of the “unification of Ukraine with Russia” referring to the Treaty of Pereiaslavl of 1654 concluded between Ukrainian Cossacks and representatives of the Muscovite Tsar, as if this was a fitting justification for Khrushchev’s decision. 

In 1991 with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, it was widely expected that President Boris Yeltsin, the new president of the Russian Federation, would restore Crimea to Russia but the mercurial and often inebriated Yeltsin didn’t bring it up during negotiations with Ukraine. Had he insisted on retaining the Crimea then or making it subject to a referendum, it would have been very unlikely to be the source on international tension.

According to the 1959 census, there were then only 268,000 Ukrainians and 858,000 ethnic Russians living in Crimea. As for economic “commonalities”, apart from the naval bases, the main industry of Crimea was recreation and tourism, drawing its clientele from all over the USSR. In the following fifty years the Soviet policies towards the Ukrainian language mostly varied between quiet discouragement and suppression to persecution and cultural purges.

Following the transfer of the Crime to the Ukraine, there were gradual and moderate steps at “Ukrainization” in the educational system and government affairs as well as the resurgence of the usage of Ukrainian in publishing and culture. This policy evoked a negative reaction on the part of the Russian majority and revived and then were given priority by the new independent Ukraine following independence in 1991.

On 28 October 1989, the Supreme Soviet of Ukrainian SSR changed the Constitution and adopted the “Law of Languages”. The Ukrainian language was declared the only official language, while the other languages spoken in Ukraine were assured of “constitutional protection.” Usage of Russian and other languages was permitted in local institutions and citizens were guaranteed the right to use their native language to address various institutions and organizations in Ukrainian, in Russian, or in another language of their work.

Nevertheless, there have been cases of open resentment such as a May 2008 resolution passed by the Donetsk city council limiting the expansion of Ukrainian-language education in the city only to be followed a day later by the city prosecutor’s decision that the resolution was illegal. The Russian language is currently studied as a required course in all secondary schools but the issue still occasionally ruffles sentiments although many Russians are thoroughly bilingual.

All Russian schoolchildren are taught to venerate the heroic stand of Czarist Russia to protect the rights of fellow Orthodox Christians in the Holy land thereby provoking the Crimean War in 1853. The Russian Navy based in the Crimea gained the upper hand after destroying the Ottoman fleet at the Black Sea port of Sinope. France and Britain were suspicious of Czarist motives and entered the war on the Turkish side in March 1854. Most of the fighting took place for control of the Black Sea, with land battles on the Crimean peninsula in southern Russia.

The hold Crimea has on the Russian imagination should not be denigrated or mocked. It was also the scene of important heroic battles in World War II, notably at Sevastopol in 1941 and 1944 (just as in the Crimean War) and the historic Yalta Conference in 1945. The vital well-fortified port is vital to a sense of Russian security and “leasing it” from the Ukrainians never felt adequate. They have their own major warm water port in Odessa.

The Crimea was also home to over 300,000 Muslim Tatars, descendants of the Mongol and Turkic tribes that swept across Anatolia and settled in the Crimea in the thirteenth century. Stalin suspected many of them as having collaborated with the Germans and ordered them deported to Uzbekistan and further East in May 1944. Many of their children and grandchildren managed to return to their homeland in the decades following the end of Khrushchev’s tenure in office. About 300,000 reside there today with another 150,000 still in Uzbekistan.

Most have only feelings of hostility towards the Russians and prefer to continue their attachment to the Ukraine. This only reinforces the sense of abandonment by the ethnic Russian majority that the destiny of their homeland is partially subject to the wishes of a historically disloyal element (reminiscent of the Turks), some of whom are suspected of radical Islamic ties. Even more unsettling for ethnic Russians is the presence of ultra-nationalist Ukrainian neo-Nazis who have taken a major part in the demonstrations in the Crimea leading to the ouster of the pro-Russian administration of Viktor Yanukovych.

This is NOT as dozens of commentators on American television have claimed an example of Russian “intervention” or “invasion” of “foreign countries” as in the cases of Hungary or Czechoslovakia. It is NOT a necessary prelude to Putin reneging on other agreements and border changes with the Baltic States. Nevertheless, it is a cause of international tension and can only be settled by negotiations between the Ukraine and Russia.

Some observers believe that many Ukrainians, especially in the West will feel relieved once the Crimea is returned to Russia, a step that would leave a solid pro-Western majority on a national basis and convince the population in the eastern part of the country that there is no need to further divide the country.

What does conjure up eerie images of deja-vu is the scene of a hurried “referendum” with armed soldiers from one side policing the voting. This is the point where international and U.N. pressure would be most effective to ensure that a vote is not subject to intimidation. No military maneuvers or economic pressures will deter Putin or detract from the support he enjoys at home over this issue. It could be papered over by some kind of face-saving device of a Swiss style confederation if Putin really cared, but he doesn’t. Obama already demonstrated both massive ignorance and lack of will by completely withdrawing from the proposed arrangements to place a missile defense in the Czech Republic and Poland and assuring Putin through his open-mike conversation with Russian Prime Minister Prime Minster Dmitry Medvedev that “After the election, I can be more flexible.”

We know this “flexibility” as do the Israelis, Poles, Czechs and hapless American diplomats in danger of death and mayhem from Arab mobs and Islamist fanatics. In an interview with the Washington Post, Republican frontrunner Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, stated on February 25 that…

The United States should seek respectful relations with Russia and avoid antagonizing President Vladimir Putin”…. over the ongoing political turmoil in Ukraine. “Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea.”

Paul’s comments underscore the latest foreign-policy division among Republicans where the party’s libertarian wing and hawks have clashed over Putin and the future of U.S.-Russia relations. Conservatives should think twice about the Ukraine and not be misled by old cold war slogans. They should however intensify their criticism of Obama’s refusal to take action when it is called for and make the Russians know that we really know when and where to draw a line.  

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