March 13, 2014
It is hard sometimes amidst the constantly recycled photos and opinion clutter of the 24-hour news machine to discern what is actually going on in the Crimea or in the Ukraine. But this much is clear. Fearing that all or much of the present Ukraine might unite behind a strongly pro-Europe regime, Putin has sent troops into the Crimean Peninsula to hold an area of strategic and historical importance to Russia. He has then lied about whether the troops are Russian and told the world that the soldiers are instead spontaneously armed citizenry who want to protect ethnic Russians. That can hardly be true. The soldiers are wearing the same field combat uniforms and seem to be protecting only air force, naval and army bases.
Is this the common Russian bear hug so indicative of Putin’s foreign policy? It is certainly bare aggression, and we can make no mistake about it. What is promising in the situation for the moment is that bullets are not flying. That is a tremendous achievement. Let us not forget that World War I started not that many miles away from the Crimea, and over some of the same“sacred causes”: Pan-Slavism, protecting Russian Orthodox worshippers, ethnic minorities, strategic access to naval ports and protecting historical influence areas.
The Crimea has long been seen by Russia as crucial geography and as the gateway to the Mediterranean. The area has an infamous war named after it in which thousands died for little geopolitical advantage for the western European powers.
Since that time, the ethnic mixture in the Crimean Peninsula has continued to shift with Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians and Russians all competing for power in the various governments that have held sway in the area. At times the ethnic composition of
Crimea has been artificially adjusted, as happened when Stalin exiled thousands of Muslim Tatars to Uzbekistan and other areas. Many of those people were never able to return, and roughly one third of the Crimean Tatars still live outside the Crimea. Thousands died in Stalin’s forced relocation.
The importance of the Crimea to Russian armed forces is well known. Russia views their Crimean bases as their access point to the Mediterranean, the Middle East and all of North Africa. Very large and modern air fields and naval bases are held by Russia in the area, even though the surrounding country is part of the Ukraine. The famous submarine base camouflaged inside a mountain that was celebrated in the James Bond classic is located not far from Sebastopol. Today that is a tourist attraction and not an active base, but it is clearly a symbol of the strategic military importance that Russia attaches to the Crimea and has
since the time of Catherine the Great.
We must be clear that Russia has long been extremely sensitive to any Westernization of the Crimea. It is to be celebrated that Putin and Obama are trading words and not missiles, but it is necessary for all of us to militate for the idea that posturing and threats of economic sanctions do not escalate into armed confrontations and then into war. We should acknowledge that sanctions are likely to be a weak and ineffective response. US allies in Europe are highly unlikely to agree to sanctions. If Putin cuts or even interrupts the natural gas supply from Russia to France and Germany, the circumstances for both countries would be catastrophic, driving the price of energy in Western Europe very high and limiting production of goods. More than a third of the energy supply in both countries comes from Russian gas, so Merkel and Hollande will talk bravely but act very slowly to back up President Obama.
For now, Russia and the US are slowly backing away from the confrontation, and we are instead seeing Lavrov and Kerry trade verbal broadsides. Let us actively encourage the retreat and accept that a special status must be accorded the
Crimea, even if Kiev turns solidly to the West – which is by no means certain. A bear hug leaves one with crushed ribs and bruises. A bullet hole is much harder to get over.