West wasting breath huffing and puffing over Crimea


Charge of the Light Brigade PaintingThis week's Crimean crisis is more than a storm in a teacup, but it won't threaten world peace. In a tense and diplomatically fascinating week, Russian, US and EU statements have so far been carefully measured to stay well short of any danger zone, and Putin's de facto re-incorporation of Crimea back into Russia is now pretty much complete. The new Ukrainian government and its Western supporters will huff and puff, but they can forget about Crimea: it is Russian again now.

The mountainous Crimean peninsula is virtually an island in the Black Sea. It is joined to the mainland by a narrow swampy neck of land. It is about half the size of Tasmania with a population of around 2 million mostly living in several large coastal cities and resort towns. Its warm climate and beautiful scenery attracted many Russians to visit and live during the 19th century. Crimea ('Krim') became Russia's Riviera. Its original Tartar population is now a 12 per cent minority. Ethnic Russians are 58 per cent and ethnic Ukrainians 24 per cent. The local language is Russian.

Crimea, originally part of the declining Turkish Empire, was annexed by expansionist Tsarist Russia in 1783. It has been of huge military significance to Russia ever since.

The ice-free port of Sevastopol soon became Russia's main naval base and strategic window into the Mediterranean. Britain's disastrous attack on Russia in 1854 was through Crimea. The White Russian forces' final capitulation to the Red Army in the Civil War was in Crimea. It was the scene of bitter fighting in WW2. Armed resistance continued in the Crimean mountains throughout that war. Yalta was the site of Stalin's dacha, and the crucial 1945 conference that decided the boundaries of postwar Europe.

In 1954, at a time when Ukraine was firmly part of the seemingly permanent Soviet Union, Khrushchev rashly redrew Soviet internal boundaries to make Crimea part of Ukraine. When the SU broke up and Ukraine became independent, a special status was negotiated for Crimea as an autonomous republic within Ukraine, with special protections for its Russian majority and unimpeded shared occupancy of the naval base: an uneasy compromise that lasted as long as pro-Russian governments ruled in the Ukraine.

Now, with the forced removal of pro-Russian President Yanukovich in Kiev in what Moscow has condemned as an illegal coup, and with anti-Russian elements now in the ascendant in Kiev, Putin moved quickly to reassert Russian control of Crimea. With overwhelming local public support in Crimea, small Ukrainian army and naval units were confined to quarters and Russian forces quickly dug in across the peninsula. Russians are now talking of building a new bridge across the Strait of Kerch to join Crimea to the nearest Russian mainland region.

The West has given strong diplomatic support to Kiev, penalising Putin by boycotting a forthcoming G8 meeting in Russia. There is talk of trade sanctions, but high-level exchanges continue. At worst, Russia's continued membership of the G8 may be a casualty. There is a UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday. But outside the circle of loyal Western allies, global reaction is muted to say the least. Crimea's history and strongly Russian character are well understood.

Could Russia use Crimean events as a beach-head to try and break up Ukraine, reincorporating the historically Russian-leaning eastern half (with its major Russian-speaking industrial cities like Kharkov and Donetsk) and leaving Kiev with the historically Polish-leaning Western half?

Possible, but unlikely. Putin is not reckless, however much this radical agenda might appeal to some Russian geo-politicians. He would prefer to try to keep Ukraine united, with whatever government it elects, as long as that government retains good-neighbourly relations and strong economic links with Russia.

Russia has learned to live with the three fully independent Baltic nations. Its relations with Poland are cautiously cordial. Russia has accepted that these four nations are now firmly in the EU. But it won't be happy if Ukraine tries to join the EU, because of that country's proximity, huge size and natural resources, and substantial Russian-speaking populations in the East. Post-Soviet Union Russian-Ukrainian relations will always require careful handling, and outsiders also need to tread carefully here.

Tony Abbott's 'We warn the Czar' statements were ludicrously over-the-top. Clearly he was responding to a Washington appeal to friendly allies to say something; he said far more than was necessary. I hope Australia will not continue to overplay its hand in the Security Council: there is no point in gratuitously offending Moscow on an issue that is outside our strategic area of interest and raises no human rights concerns whatsoever.

Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin served as an Australian diplomat in Moscow 1969-71 and in Poland 1991-94. He has visited Kharkov and Poltava the scene of a decisive Russian defeat of Swedish invaders in 1709: sadly, he never got to Kiev, the cradle of Russian civilisation.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Crimea, Russia, Ukraine



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Existing comments

How refreshing to read commentary on the unhappy situation in Ukraine that is informed by history, and not the simplistic 'rebels good, power bad' analysis of the popular media, and, sadly, most Western politicians. The strange, blustering rhetoric of these Leaders of the Free World, with their insistence that all peoples "must be free to determine their own future", comes across as childish, unrealistic and impotent. To be consistent they would have to also advocate the freedom for the Crimean people to determine their own future. What chance that the mainly Russian Crimeans would choose a future in Ukraine, transformed from breadbasket to economic basket-case in two decades? If the Ukrainian nationalists expect to end up with control of Crimea they might find that they've caught a Tatar.

John Vernau | 04 March 2014  

Here we go again! I cannot see any of the professional protesters making a noise about Russia invading another country. It seems whatever “the West” is doing is evil and anybody else is full of good intentions. I am sure Russia has “good “ intentions in breaking international treaties and to invade other countries. Here we have the Chardonnay Marxists solving the worlds problems all over again.

Beat Odermatt | 04 March 2014  

Beat, you failed to mention the "do-gooders". I believe they, too, have been spied drinking chardonnay.

Janet | 05 March 2014  

I strained to find any note of sympathy for the Ukrainians in this article. Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale gives a more understanding account of what is going on. in this article 'Rascism, Russia and the Ukraine'. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/mar/20/fascism-russia-and-ukraine/

Skye | 05 March 2014  

Seems to me this sums up the situation concisely. How it will all play out as time passes is any body's guess. If USA and EU implement ecenomic sanctions it could go very badly for the world. I suspect this situation will ultimately show how weak the USA has become.

Harry | 05 March 2014  

We all seem to forget that the US considers Cuba to be in its sphere of influence and to thus have a say in what happened there many years ago; and, without mentioning the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the repercussions continue. We Australians do not have to blindly follow the Americans when they have an opinion which ignores history and the will of the people.

william | 05 March 2014  

The information here is useful, in terms of putting the conflict into some historical and cultural perspective. Still, there is one further issue. With the end of the Soviet Union, many people who knew Russia well said that a non-Communist Russia would still be an aggressive and authoritarian Russia because that is Russia's culture of leadership, whether the leadership was Czarist or Communist, whether the leadership was (nominally or enthusiastically) atheistic or (nominally or enthusiastically) Orthodox. After Russia's brief experiment with democracy under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, I fear this those sage warnings many of us heard in the late '80s were true.

Bob Faser | 05 March 2014  

Thanks in particular for Bob Fazer's thoughtful comment. In support of my analysis,. A study of C19 Russian history shows Putin is drawing on very familiar Russian ideologies, going back to long before Communism See this article by David Brooks which appeared first in NY Tiimes and was reproduced in Canberra Times, : Putin enlists Russian philosophers for backup on world stage Date March 5, 2014 http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/putin-enlists-russian-philosophers-for-backup-on-world-stage-20140304-343sz.html David Brooks Read more: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/putin-enlists-russian-philosophers-for-backup-on-world-stage-20140304-343sz.html#ixzz2v2NjR55Y

tony kevin | 05 March 2014  

To Janet: Yes, I forgot to mention the “do-gooders”. I did believe they would oppose bullies like Putin, after all bullies are cowards seeking out the weak.

Beat Odermatt | 05 March 2014  

Thank you for the voice of reason on international affairs. One quibble - I have visited Stalin's dacha (built 1934), it is in Sochi not Yalta.

John Nicholson | 05 March 2014  

By the time human rights violations happen it will be too late, and if you think Poland is not very wary of the Russian bear you are mistaken Poland will never trust Russia .

Irena Mangone | 05 March 2014  

At the moment Putin is using threats and brinkmanship to achieve his ends in the Crimea rather than direct force. That region has had a chequered history and once the majority population were Tatars. How strategic the Crimea is to Russia given this quote from an article in Monday's SMH is a moot point: "... since 2008 Russia has been pumping money into building a new base further along the Crimean coast on its own territory at Novorossiysk, with plans to move the region's new and flagship vessels there. "There are certainly political and ethno-cultural reasons for Moscow to desire continued influence in the Crimea, but the purely military-strategic importance of Sevastopol ... has in fact weakened in recent years," Christian Le Miere of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies..." (Ukraine crisis: why Crimea matters). From what I know of Ukraine and Ukrainians they are first and foremost Ukrainian and have resented both Russian and Polish rule. For them this is a matter of national pride: forget the demographics of the peninsula. I would not like to see Vladimir Putin - not a great human rights advocate - be allowed to automatically incorporate the territory into Russia. It would set a dangerous precedent for other nasty dictators to follow.

Edward Fido | 05 March 2014  

I think you're correct in your analysis, Tony. It will take a long time for the former Soviet Union to get used to the idea that the second Byzantium is no more; that it has to deal with a world that no longer exists except in the national myth, that the world is no longer shaped by it or its agenda. The czar needs a warm water port but he'll have to sail through Nato waters to break loose into the NATO 'Mare Nostrum.'

David Timbs | 05 March 2014  

It is interesting that Tony Kevin states 'there is no point in gratuitously offending Moscow'. Wasn't this the attitude towards Hitler prior to WW2? I certainly prefer Synder's analysis and credentials on the subject.

Annyshka | 05 March 2014  

The question has been raised whether Putin would have been quite so precipitate if the Ukraine still possessed the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the former USSR and gave up.

Edward Fido | 06 March 2014  

I note that commenters here seem to have swallowed the popular media - and ABC - line that the Kiev protesters were freedom-loving democrats peacefully pursuing sweetness and light. Never mind that Yanukovych, for all his faults, was democratically elected. Mr or Ms Odermatt asserts that Russia has broken 'international treaties' but doesn't name any; Russia has 25,000 troops in Crimea by treaty with Ukraine. The well-credentialled Timothy Snyder's analysis is mentioned. One might have thought his previous work, particularly 'Bloodlands', would have given him more insight into Russia's fear of Germany (and the EU which it dominates). He holds the typical US view that Russia is synonymous with the old Soviet Union. Oddly his greatest fear about Russian nationalism seems to be that it might affect Holocaust history. David Brooks' piece, republished in the Canberra times, is also mentioned. Mr Brooks is much concerned with Russia's sense of 'exceptionalism', by which he seems to mean national identity -- anathema to western academics to an internationalist man, and woman. I recommend, for some background, Roderic Braithwaite's 'Ukrainian Crisis' article in 'The Independent' but most of all, for what's happening 'on the ground', the many blogs and posts of Ukrainians themselves.

John Vernau | 06 March 2014  

Nice summary - its clear that the Crimea is Russian.

Dave Thompson | 11 March 2014  

Events around Crimea have unfolded pretty much as I predicted 16 days ago. Putin's public and great-power diplomacy has been cool and impeccable. This has been a bloodless transfer of power by democratic decision of the province population. As to these ridiculous sanctions Australia is now embarking on - I would like to see consideration given to similar sanctions against key supporters of the Coalition government here, following the UNHCR's strong criticism on human rights grounds of Australian Govt cruelty towards boat people asylum seekers. Now, there's a cause for Eureka Street readers to discuss ...

tony kevin | 20 March 2014  

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