Postscript, 2014

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

Karl Marx

In 1954, the Soviet Union legally transferred the Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Nikita Khrushchev believed that the “gift” of the Crimea would help to solidify Ukrainian support for the communist regime, which had been tenuous from the beginning. However, Khrushchev had not counted on the Soviet Union crumbling into the “ashbin of history” less than four decades later, leaving the whole question of Russian-Ukrainian solidarity a moot point. Instead of wistful notions of Slavic Brotherhood, the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 enabled the Ukraine to make a break for the open prison door in order to gain its independence and seek a different course. The new government in Kiev retained control over the Crimea, and Russia was too overwhelmed by internal chaos at the time to press its interests. Ironically, after using force to acquire the Crimea in 1920 and 1944, the Russians lost control over the region by peaceful means in 1991.

When Russia regained some of its internal stability in the mid-1990s, its leaders’ first order of business was not territory, but to take back critical military assets that had been abandoned in the Ukraine. In December 1994, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum, in which all signatories guaranteed the territorial integrity of the Ukraine in return for Ukraine returning Soviet-era nuclear weapons to Russian control. Leaders in Moscow were also concerned with the fate of the Black Sea Fleet and the naval base at Sevastopol, which had been languishing in limbo for years. Although the Black Sea Fleet was reduced to a worn collection of rusting and obsolescent warships, with very little military value and no mission, it retained an outsized political and ideological value to the leaders in the Kremlin. For the leaders in Moscow, the Black Sea Fleet is a status symbol, just as it was for the tsars. In May 1997, Ukraine and Russia signed the Partition Treaty, which divided the fleet between the two, and allowed Russia to maintain a lease on the base until 2017. Gradually, economic ties developed between Ukraine and Russia, with the former becoming very dependent upon Russian natural gas.

Ukraine’s claim to the Crimea was based strictly upon Khrushchev’s 1954 executive decision, not upon historical claims or demographics. In 2001, the bulk of the population in the Crimea were ethnic Russians with little love for the government in Kiev, and ethnic Ukrainians comprised less than a quarter of the region’s population. The Crimean Tatars, numbering some 243,000, were in an even worse position. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the remaining Tatars to return to the Crimea in 1989, but it was soon evident that they would be reduced to a despised minority. After returning to the Crimea, the Tatars found that all their former land had been appropriated by the state and given to others, often Red Army veterans or local Communist Party bureaucrats, leaving them to settle as squatters on the outskirts of Simferopol and Bakhchysaray. Local officials did everything they could to prevent returning Crimean Tatars from acquiring land or employment.1

Despite the appearance of peaceful coexistence between Russia and the Ukraine, many Russians never reconciled themselves to the loss of the Crimea and the former empire, and with the ascendancy of Vladimir Putin to the presidency in 2000, Russian irredentist aspirations found their champion. In the mindset of Putin – a hardcore Chekist – and his Russian nationalist supporters, the Red Army’s liberation of the Crimea in May 1944 has been tarnished by the zeal of Ukrainian nationalists to lay claim over land bought and paid for with Russian blood. Initially, Putin hoped to reduce Ukraine to a vassal state by using the threat of natural-gas embargoes to weaken its economy, and by providing assistance to former communists such as Viktor Yanukovych, who became Ukraine’s prime minister in 2002. Yanukovych favored close ties with Russia, and sought to keep Ukraine away from membership of NATO. When Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, he hurried to sign the Kharkov Accord with Russia, which extended the lease on the Sevastopol naval base until 2042. Putin could live with an independent Ukraine as long as it was run by a compliant pro-Russian such as Yanukovych, but everything changed when the Ukrainian people rose against his corrupt regime and the parliament deposed him on February 22, 2014. Yanukovych fled to Russian territory.

Without an ally in Kiev, Russia could no longer count on Ukraine staying out of NATO or maintaining access to Sevastopol. Putin suddenly began claiming that the Crimea was never really integrated into the country and should never have been part of an independent Ukraine – marking Khrushchev’s gesture as a historic mistake.2 He also regarded the political vacuum in Kiev as an excellent opportunity to correct this mistake. Only five days after Yanukovych was deposed in Kiev, ethnic Russian agitators – acting on Moscow’s behest – seized control of the provincial capital of Simferopol. Once the locals had seized a base of operations, the first Russian airborne and Spetsnaz troops – without national markings – began entering the Crimea in order to reinforce the local Russian groups. The 18,000 Ukrainian troops stationed in the Crimea were caught completely by surprise and were quickly surrounded in their garrisons; lacking orders from the interim government in Kiev, they passively watched as Russian forces occupied the entire peninsula. Within three weeks, Russian forces were able to starve out the Ukrainian garrisons in the Crimea and seize the bulk of the Ukrainian Navy, with minimal bloodshed, but provoking a crisis with the West. On March 16, 2014, the new pro-Russian regime in Simferopol declared its independence from Ukraine, and on the next day formally joined with Russia. Two days later, the new Russian regime in Simferopol took immediate steps to target the remaining Crimean Tatars for ethnic cleansing, as their removal is a necessary prerequisite to stabilize the Russian claim to the region.3 In short order, Russian-sponsored violence encouraged many Crimean Tatars to begin relocating to the Ukraine or other countries. Once again, Russian territorial acquisition has been accompanied by ruthless ethnic cleansing.

However, the seizure of the Crimea was only the first step in unleashing a new confrontation between East and West that is likely to persist for many years. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, we are witness to another confrontation at the Perekop Isthmus and Chongar Narrows, with Russian troops on one side and Ukrainian troops on the other. Suddenly, in the era of the Internet and GPS-guided bombs, an 18th century ditch dug by Crimean Tatars is again a relevant military feature. Once again, the Perekop Isthmus is mined and troops are on guard against a sudden assault. History is truly odd at times. Ukraine’s leaders are resolved to regain the Crimea some day, and the West refuses to recognize this Russian land-grab, which sets the stage for a future East–West crisis, with the Crimea at the center of the storm.

Putin openly violated the Budapest Memorandum and risked a confrontation with the West in order to regain control over the Crimea and to ensure a future for the Black Sea Fleet. However, in order to make the Black Sea Fleet really viable, Russia will have to reclaim the shipbuilding facilities in Nikolayev and Odessa, as well as direct land access to the Crimea through the Nogai Steppe – something that would cause the collapse of an independent Ukrainian state. Consequently, the occupation of the Crimea was only a half-measure, and Putin is now intent upon dismembering Ukraine by any means necessary, which can lead only to conflict and bloodshed at some point. NATO is hardly likely to acquiesce to large-scale land grabs or the destruction of independent states, and the consequences may be very unpalatable for Russia in the long term. Poland will likely arm itself to the teeth, and Germany – if it sees no clear US commitment to prevent further Russian aggression – may also embark upon serious rearmament, including acquisition of a nuclear deterrent. A NATO that was nearly superfluous at the dawn of the 21st century has been given a new lease on life, thanks to Putin’s decisions in the Crimea. A new Cold War beckons, and all hopes for greater East–West cooperation now lie dashed to pieces.

Despite the fact that competing efforts to gain control over the Crimea have yielded negligible strategic benefit to anyone for the past century, the idea that owning the Crimea is worth shedding copious amounts of blood and oppressing others for is going to retain ideological saliency for some time. Putin has learned nothing from the tragic history of the Crimea from 1917–45, and appears poised to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors. Amazingly, the Crimea is going to remain as a cockpit of war, with ancient fortifications refurbished and pressed back into service so that new generations of heroes can be asked to make sacrifices for an arid peninsula that has consistently proven to be an empty prize.

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