Ukraine, Russia and the 21st century Crimean almost-war: It’s complicated

By J Brooks Spector 3 March 2014

Seemingly out of nowhere, Ukraine and Crimea are now at the centre of the international landscape in a way that has not been so since the Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met at the Crimean resort of Yalta, just before the end of World War II in Europe, to set out the continent’s future. The overthrow of a Ukrainian president Yanukovych has made the ancient fault-line between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians a key element of the conflict in Ukraine. J. BROOKS SPECTOR tries to untangle it all.

For many years, on a wall in my father’s home was one of those hand-tinted portrait photographs from an earlier age. It was his father (and thus my grandfather) when he was about nineteen years old. He was in one of those formal poses much favoured by men in those days and he wore an Russian imperial army uniform. He stood in front of a few potted palms and was smoking a cigarette, perhaps trying to look older than he was. And his history gives a link to Ukraine’s modern history.

He embodied many of the contradictory identities layered on top of one another for anyone who came from the Ukraine at the turn of the 20th century. A Jew from the Pale of Settlement, he had been drafted into the Czar’s army for a very lengthy enlistment. He came from the area around Odessa (built by Catherine the Great to anchor Russia’s claim to lands seized from the Ottoman Empire), a Black Sea city planted in the midst of the Ukrainian lands of imperial Russia. He was a man of multiple identities.

Just to complete the tale, in 1904, he disappeared one night from a troop train headed to the Far East for a doomed fight against the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War. He then quietly headed off to a German port to board a ship for that long voyage to America and the new opportunities that might exist, far away from the Czar and all his misfortunes. And, of course, if he hadn’t done that, given all the pogroms, wars and genocides that followed in Ukraine in the years after his desertion, this writer most certainly would not have been around to write these words.

Ukraine, now independent of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was also, paradoxically, the birthplace of Russian nationality. Kievan Rus, established by Norsemen at the end of the ninth century, is now claimed by Belarus, Ukraine and Russia as the origin of their nationhood. Ukraine is a part of the world that has been fought over for millennia. It has, in whole or in part, at various times, come under the sway of the Khazars, Varangians (Vikings), Mongols, Tatars, Ottoman Turks, Poles and Lithuanians, and the Germans (several times), in addition to Czarist Russia. If one adds Crimea’s history to the mix, then the Romans, Byzantines, Genoans and Venetians had been there as well. And even this extensive roster undoubtedly will always leave out someone.

As a distinct, independent nation, however, Ukraine had scarcely ever existed (although it certainly was a discrete, recognisable ethnic group) until after World War I. In the chaos of the Russian Revolution, Ukraine maintained a few tenuous years of independence, until the Soviet Union finally consolidated its hold over most of the old Russian Empire.

But there is an interesting historical footnote to Ukrainian independence. As part of the establishment of the United Nations at the end of World War II, the Soviets successfully negotiated with the western Allies to give Belarus and Ukraine independent votes in the new UN General Assembly as ostensibly independent nations that had freely associated themselves in the confederation of the USSR. Stalin had argued that if the British Commonwealth could have separate votes each for Canada, Australia and New Zealand, in addition to the UK, the least that should be done was to give the USSR only three votes, even though it was clear to virtually everyone neither Belarus nor Ukraine were sovereign nations.

In the latter years of the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl nuclear accident had taken place inside Ukraine in 1986, helping generate dissatisfaction with the rigid rule from Moscow, and it helped in subtle ways to usher in the willingness of Ukrainians to contemplate their existence as citizens of an independent state, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Then, when that collapse happened, Ukraine became an independent republic as well as the location for two major strategic assets from the old Soviet Union, namely, a collection of nuclear missiles in underground silos and the Soviet Black Sea Fleet.

After several years of negotiations, the missiles were successfully decommissioned, together with the assistance of the US. Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia managed to work their way through to an agreement that allowed the now-Russian fleet (minus a small share that went to a new Ukrainian navy) to remain based out of Sevastopol, along with several other related military facilities on the Crimean Peninsula. Most of the Russian fleet was by now based at other ports, far to the north, but those ports are blocked by ice in winter. [Apart from Murmansk – Ed]

The Sevastopol naval base and fleet settlement was only necessary because the Crimean Peninsula and other nearby territory had been transferred from the Russian Federated Socialist Republic’s to the authority of the Ukrainian Republic in 1954, by virtue of Nikita Khrushchev’s doing. [Khrushchev was ethnic Ukrainian – Ed] This decision, although at the time relatively meaningless, apparently was meant as a kind of “sorry” to Ukraine for the damage and destruction rained down upon it from the German invasion that began in June 1941, then the horrific occupation, and then yet further devastation as the territory was painfully won back from Nazi Germany over the next four years.

The Crimean Peninsula was also, of course, the site of an important “little” war in 1853-6, pitting Russia on one side and Britain, France, Piedmont-Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire on the other, aimed at preventing the Russians from gaining control over the passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea as the Ottoman Empire continued its disintegration. This war, besides holding back the final collapse of the Ottomans, also gave the world some short stories by Leo Tolstoy, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s outrageously romantic patriotic poem celebrating the disaster of a British cavalry attack against well-protected Russian artillery, the Balaclava (a town in Crimea) as an item of winter attire, and Florence Nightingale as a medical folk legend.

In more recent years, since becoming an independent nation, Ukraine’s economy has struggled mightily to retool from its earlier place as a heavy industry, iron, steel and coal giant, to one more capable of fitting into the 21st century world economy. Most recently, as part of the negotiations to reach a closer association – albeit not membership – the EU had offered a range of trade concessions and financial aid (with conditionalities to ensure transparency in the use of this aid, as well as to help limit the corruption in the handling of the money). The Russians, seeing this as an effort to pull Ukraine further into Western Europe – and away from its previous position as a kind of “near abroad” state and potential member in its own Eurasian Union, offered the Ukrainian government a $15 billion loan, without conditions, as well as concessionary pricing on much-needed natural gas.

What seems reasonably clear is that the then-president Viktor Yanukovych, in rejecting the nearly concluded EU deal and then moving to accept the Russian one, helped set off a wave of resentment against him by more-western oriented, ethnic Ukrainians. Such people were eager for ties to the EU as a way of demonstrating their European-ness. Their anger was fuelled further by Yanukovych’s increasingly authoritarian rule (and a widespread feeling he won his 2010 election unfairly), rumours of subsequent major corruption in his administration (substantiated in part, now, by revelations of his megalomaniac personalised building projects, the kind that would have made Nkandla look modest), and a continuing anger over the imprisonment of the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko on what were widely seen as trumped-up charges.

In a long, thoughtful piece in the newest issue of the New York Review of Books, Timothy Snyder, discussing the nature of the Yanukovych’s regime has written that, despite efforts to paint it as a legitimate, popularly elected government and the revolution that has now replaced as some kind of populist putsch, wrote, “In fact, it was a classic popular revolution. It began with an unmistakably reactionary regime. A leader sought to gather all power, political as well as financial, in his own hands. This leader came to power in democratic elections, to be sure, but then altered the system from within. For example, the leader had been a common criminal: a rapist and a thief. He found a judge who was willing to misplace documents related to his case. That judge then became the chief justice of the Supreme Court. There were no constitutional objections, subsequently, when the leader asserted ever more power for his presidency.”

Snyder went on to say, “In power, this leader, this president, remained a thief, but now on a grand, perhaps even unsurpassed, scale. Throughout his country millions of small businessmen and businesswomen found it impossible to keep their firms afloat, thanks to the arbitrary demands of tax authorities. Their profits were taken by the state, and the autonomy that those profits might have given them were denied. Workers in the factories and mines had no means whatsoever of expression their own distress, since any attempt at a strike or even at labor organisation would simply have led to their dismissal.”

Several years earlier, in December 2004, there had also been the so-called Orange Revolution (for some reason, these populist revolts have all seemed to get a separate, identifiable colour designation as an easy way to identify their participants internationally) in support of the soon-to be President Viktor Yushchenko and his chosen prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, after he was poisoned a few months earlier.

Over the past month, a growing number of Ukrainians set up an occupation of Kyiv’s (the newer spelling of the historical name, Kiev) central plaza, the Maidan, in protest over Yanukovych’s shift eastward, his rejection of the EU deal and his growing authoritarianism. The protests began attracting increasingly large crowds of supporters, even including some groups that might be labelled as neo-fascist-style skinheads (with or without the shaved heads), but also many more genuinely supportive of a Ukrainian alignment westward. There were fistfights, growing hand-to-hand violence, and then shots between demonstrators and attacks by riot police. In all of this there have been casualties on both side. The pot seems to have been stirred, too, by statements by some western politicians that could easily have been read as their backing of the growing populist revolt.

Eventually, the Maidan revolt grew so hard to control that Yanukovych was forced to flee eastward, first to Kharkiv and then to a location the border regions inside Russia. At that point, the crowds “liberated” his palace – a place that had more than a passing resemblance to Michael Jackson’s Wonderland, right down to a private zoo and a very big model of a Spanish galleon for some reason, in addition to the more usual quotidian excesses of dictators everywhere.

None of this was going unnoticed in the eastern half of Ukraine, or in Moscow, of course. For that major minority of Russian speakers in the eastern third of the nation, many of these people were feeling increasingly marginalised and pushed-about by those ethnic Ukrainians now doing their victory dance in Kyiv. There was increasing talk that this portion of the nation might even break off from Ukraine and re-align itself with Mother Russia instead. Then, as Yanukovych fled the country, an interim government was identified that drew upon the leaders supported by the groups that had come to “own” the Maidan and supporters for that movement, as well as a few less salubrious choices.

The circumstances in Crimea are even more complicated. Besides its majority of ethnic Russians and a substantial minority of ethnic Ukrainians now living there, and the Russian military facilities, personnel and miscellaneous basing rights on the peninsula, the Crimean Tatars are there as well. These folks have no love for Russia – and Russians – dating back to their original conquest by Russia at the end of the 18th century, and then, more recently, their forced exile and very own ethnic holocaust during World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Tatars had been forcibly uprooted by Stalin’s government on the charge they had been sympathisers of the Germans during their invasion and occupation. Hundreds of thousands of Tatars died on their way to internal exile in Central Asia and while they were there. The remnants were only permitted to return to their original homes in the Crimea in the 1950s.

Clearly faced with an uncertain, fast-evolving situation – and one not resolving to their tactical or longer-term strategic benefit – the Russians began to make their own throat-clearing noises about their treaty rights, the rights of ethnic Russians and their responsibility to protect those people in Ukraine. In effect, the finer details of sovereignty and non-interference with the domestic affairs of Ukraine went out the window.

All of this should be seen through the lens of a Russia eager, even desperate, to reassert its role as a superpower vis-à-vis the US and to reclaim its traditional position of suzerainty in what has sometimes been called their “near-abroad”, as in the border lands of Georgia or even, potentially, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In describing how the Russians have sussed out this new dynamic, Ben Judah provocatively wrote in Politico, “The West is blinking in disbelief – Vladimir Putin just invaded Ukraine. German diplomats, French Eurocrats and American pundits are all stunned. Why has Russia chosen to gamble its trillion-dollar ties with the West? Western leaders are stunned because they haven’t realised Russia’s owners no longer respect Europeans the way they once did after the Cold War. Russia thinks the West is no longer a crusading alliance. Russia thinks the West is now all about the money….”

Judah goes on to argue, “Behind European corruption, Russia sees American weakness…. When Russia sees Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal outbidding each other to be Russia’s best business partner inside the EU (in return for no mention of human rights), they see America’s control over Europe slowly dissolving. Back in Moscow, Russia’s hears American weakness out of Embassy Moscow. Once upon a time the Kremlin feared a foreign adventure might trigger Cold War economic sanctions where it hurts: export bans on key parts for its oil industry, even being cut out of its access to the Western banking sector. No more. Russia sees an America distracted: Putin’s Ukrainian gambit was a shock to the U.S. foreign policy establishment. They prefer talking about China, or participating in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Russia sees an America vulnerable: in Afghanistan, in Syria and on Iran—a United States that desperately needs Russian support to continue shipping its supplies, host any peace conference or enforce its sanctions.”

Not a pretty picture, that.

Putting this in a slightly different way, long-time observer of the Russian system, David Remnick has just written in the New Yorker, “Vladimir Putin, the Russian President and autocrat, had a plan for the winter of 2014: to reassert his country’s power a generation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He thought that he would achieve this by building an Olympic wonderland on the Black Sea for fifty-one billion dollars and putting on a dazzling television show. It turns out that he will finish the season in a more ruthless fashion, by invading a peninsula on the Black Sea and putting on quite a different show—a demonstration war that could splinter a sovereign country and turn very bloody, very quickly.”

As things stood on Sunday afternoon, the Russians have by now sent what is believed to be an additional 6,000 or so military personnel (some without insignia or unit markings) into Crimea to make their point, beyond those stationed there originally under treaty. These new troops are apparently there to seal off access to their various bases in the Crimea, control the airspace, and take effective control of the peninsula.

The new Ukrainian government had called on the UN to somehow bring the crisis under control and then labelled the Russian troop movements an invasion. In televised remarks, new Ukraine Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk appealed for Western support saying, “This is not a threat: This is actually the declaration of war to my country…. If President Putin wants to be the president who started the war between two neighboring and friendly countries, between Ukraine and Russia, so: he has reached this target within a few inches. We are on the brink of disaster.”

Earlier, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin had conducted an hour and a half phone conversation that seems to have been less than successful in quelling the rising tension. Not particularly making things less dramatic, speaking on US Sunday TV news talk shows, Secretary of State John Kerry said the Russian troop move “Is an incredible act of aggression… really a stunning, willful choice by president Putin to invade another country. Russia is in violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine. Russia is in violation of its international obligations. Russia is in violation of its obligations under the U.N. charter, under the Helsinki Final Act. It’s in violation of its obligations under the 1994 Budapest agreement. You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext…”

Wait for Russian commentators to clear their throats and mention Iraq.

Kerry went on to add:

There were any number of choices available to Russia. Russia chose this brazen act of aggression, and moved in with its forces on a completely trumped set of pretexts, claiming that people were threatened. And the fact is, that is not the act of somebody who is strong. That is the act of somebody who is acting out of weakness and out of a certain kind of desperation. We hope that Russia will turn this around. They can. Again and again all week, President Obama and I and others have insisted that we believe there is a way to deal with this issue. This does not have to be a zero-sum game. It is not Russia versus the United States, Russia v Europe.” Commentators and diplomats alike are going to be looking for signs that this has helped dial back some of the tension – and they may not find them – at least not yet. They will be watching particularly closely what Kerry does during his just announced visit to Kyiv – scheduled for Tuesday.

Summing up where things seem to be now, Carnegie Endowment scholars Eugene Rumer and Andrew Weiss argue that for Obama, shaping and managing the Western response to the Ukraine crisis “is now arguably the biggest test of his presidency. It is a crisis that no one anticipated and that the West has been frustratingly divided over since the European Union’s original, misguided attempt to force Ukraine to make an either-or choice about going east or west. For too long we have heard U.S. officials says repeatedly, ‘The Europeans are taking the lead.’ That needs to stop….”

Rumer and Weiss add, “The break in the West’s relations with Russia is bound to be deep and lasting. The G-8 will be its first casualty with the Western powers likely to reconstitute the G-7 in its original form as a direct rebuff to Putin. Other important international mechanisms – the U.N. Security Council, ad hoc diplomatic efforts on Syria, the P5+1 process on Iran, the Six-Party talks on North Korea, and so on-will be filled with renewed acrimony and dysfunction. Some may break down entirely. Inevitably, there will be congressional calls for sanctions against Russia, which the White House will be hard-pressed to resist no matter how much it may want to preserve the shreds of cooperation with Russia on Iran, Syria or Afghanistan. The West and Russia are in uncharted waters.”

Over the weekend, on the television talk shows, on the Internet and in print media, analysts, commentators and ex-officials have been throwing around some incendiary analogies. They have been speaking about Crimea as the 21st century’s equivalent to the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne in Sarajevo in 1914 that set off World War I, or the bloody Kosovo independence effort, and, inevitably, perhaps, to the appeasement at Munich as the uber-metaphor for Western cupidity, timidity and passivity in the face of an aggressor. Such metaphors are essentially beside the point, as well as being dangerous. They are dangerous because they make international political actors see the current crisis only through the lens of a past crisis, rather than what is uniquely transpiring now. Moreover, they can encourage responses that are totally wrong for the circumstances.

To get out of this mess, what must happen – going forward – is for the Russians to find a way to extricate themselves from a direct confrontation with the entire West, even as they protect the interests they feel they must embrace. (There is a little issue of some 40% of Western Europe oil supplies coming from Russia, mostly through the pipelines crossing Ukraine territory.) At the same time, the West must figure out some way to accept a Russian sense of responsibility for all those ethnic Russians in Ukraine. As for the actors within Ukraine’s borders, they are either going to find a way to live with each other within the nation’s current boundaries, or they will have to come up with a Czechoslovak-style divorce that does not lead to open warfare, or give revanchists on every side cause to find new ways to keep upsetting the applecart, over and over again. Ultimately it should be in no-one’s interest the Ukraine become a collapsed, failed state, right between the EU and Russia. DM

Photo: People march during a procession in central Moscow, March 2, 2014. People gathered on Sunday to support the people of Crimea and Ukraine including Russian speakers, and to protest against the policies conducted by Ukraine’s new authorities recently elected in Kiev, according to organizers. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

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The Charge of the Light Brigade”

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson

(The quintessential poem about glorious military failure – on a battlefield in Crimea)

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

“Charge for the guns!” he said:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Was there a man dismay’d?

Not tho’ the soldier knew

Someone had blunder’d:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Volley’d and thunder’d;

Storm’d at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of Hell

Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,

Flash’d as they turn’d in air,

Sabring the gunners there,

Charging an army, while

All the world wonder’d:

Plunged in the battery-smoke

Right thro’ the line they broke;

Cossack and Russian

Reel’d from the sabre stroke

Shatter’d and sunder’d.

Then they rode back, but not

Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon behind them

Volley’d and thunder’d;

Storm’d at with shot and shell,

While horse and hero fell,

They that had fought so well

Came thro’ the jaws of Death

Back from the mouth of Hell,

All that was left of them,

Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?

O the wild charge they made!

All the world wondered.

Honor the charge they made,

Honor the Light Brigade,

Noble six hundred.

  • Why Russia No Longer Fears the West in

  • US official: Obama might skip Sochi G8 summit if Russia intervenes in Ukraine in the Jerusalem Post (from Reuters)

  • Russian troops take over Ukraine’s Crimea region at the AP

  • 5 Things You Should Know About Putin’s Incursion Into Crimea at Forbes

  • Putin’s Reckless Ukraine Gambit at Politico

  • Russian forces seize Crimea; Ukraine’s interim president decries ‘aggression’ at the Washington Post

  • Russia and Ukraine – Edging closer to war at the Economist

  • Analysis: Limited US, European options in Ukraine at the AP

  • U.S. Diplomatic Efforts Failing to Resolve Crisis in Ukraine at Foreign Policy

  • Obama to Putin: ‘There Will Be Costs’ To Invading Crimea at Foreign Policy

  • Ukraine Finds Its Forces Are Ill Equipped to Take Crimea Back From Russia at the New York Times

  • Putin Goes to War, an essay by David Remnick in the New Yorker

  • Obama, Putin: Starkly differing views on Ukraine at the AP

  • A History Lesson That Needs Relearning at the New York Times

  • Ukraine crisis tests Obama’s foreign policy focus on diplomacy over military force at the Washington Post

  • Amid More Signs of Russian Force in Crimea, Delight Mixes With Dismay at the New York Times

  • Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda at the New York Review of Books



Fudging, obfuscation and misdirection hobble the route to the nitty-gritty of expropriation

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"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer