Russia's Darwinian fight to regain Crimea

For Putin, countering the threat of a Ukraine strongly aligned with the West is do or die

March 13, 2014 8:00AM ET
Soldiers not displaying any identifying insignia took up positions around a Ukrainian military base stand near the base's periphery in Crimea on March 2, 2014. The new government of Ukraine has appealed to the UN Security Council for help against growing Russian intervention in Crimea. World leaders are scrambling to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to refrain from further escalation in Ukraine.
Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

When Russian troops invaded the part of Ukraine known as Crimea, the world was shocked and surprised. The world was right to be shocked — God help us when we cease to be shocked by anything — but it shouldn’t have been that surprised. What is happening in Crimea is in fact a variation on a very old theme, a template that is some 200 years old. What world leaders must do now is try to understand Russian President Vladimir Putin’s psychology in order to predict and influence his behavior. And in Russia that can’t be done without some sense of the history, because unlike Americans, Russians tend to have long memories.

In 1831 the Poles rose up against their ruler, the czar of Russia. It was a brave move, but a doomed one. Politicians and journalists in Western Europe vociferously protested the crushing of the uprising. In response, Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, who had had his own problems with the czar, wrote a poem titled “To the Slanderers of Russia.” In it, he called the situation an old domestic quarrel among Slavs, a tribal conflict with shifting victors and, in any case, a problem that Western Europeans could never solve.

Russia’s relationship with Poland was always one of mutual enmity. In centuries past the Poles had routinely trounced Russia, even seizing Moscow in 1610. In the mid-1600s the Ukrainian Cossacks felt under such pressure from Poland that they placed themselves under Russian protection, essentially becoming part of Russia, as stipulated by the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654. To mark the 300th anniversary of the Russian-Ukrainian union, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made Ukraine a present of the Crimean Peninsula in 1954. It was a grandiose but largely meaningless gesture. For Khrushchev it meant no more than taking money from one pants pocket and putting it in another: Crimea and Ukraine would continue to be ruled from Moscow, and the USSR, with history and time on its side, would last forever. Forever, however, turned out to be only 37 years long. After the USSR collapsed in 1991, the Supreme Council of the new, independent Russia ruled that the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine had been illegal. But, too weak and chaotic to do anything about it, Russia was glad to settle for the right to lease its former naval base in Crimea, home to the Black Sea Fleet.

There is an enormous difference between Russia’s attitude toward Poles and its attitude toward Ukrainians. Poles were always the enemy — haughty, perfidious, Catholic. The Ukrainians were seen as “brother Slavs” who shared a religion and a common origin in Kiev, though there is bitter controversy over when, if ever, the countries’ historical paths diverged. In Russian eyes no such division ever really occurred. Soviet schoolchildren learned by heart two phrases that defined the relationship: “Kiev is the mother of Russian cities” and “Ukraine is the breadbasket of Russia.” It’s more than “brother Slavs” — Kiev is the mother of Mother Russia, the nation’s babushka.

When Putin reportedly said to U.S. President George W. Bush in 2008, “Ukraine is not even a state,” he was hardly alone in that sentiment.  I have heard it expressed on numerous occasions by members in good standing of the Russian progressive intellectual class, who, like Pushkin in his poem, can wax quite chauvinistic when the situation warrants. For example, there is remarkably little protest today coming from Russia over the invasion of Crimea.

Some now say that Russia, unlike the USSR, is too intricately bound to the global economy to make open conflict a real option. That is most likely nonsense.

Over time the Russian-Ukrainian relationship went bad. Ukrainians came to see Russia more as an oppressor than a protector. The Ukrainian language was banned in schools in the 19th century. The absolute low point was the artificial famine created by Joseph Stalin to break the recalcitrant, conservative peasants of Ukraine. Millions died. That led some Ukrainians to welcome the invading Nazi army in 1941 on the assumption that no one could be worse than Stalin.

Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis only reinforced the Russian view of Ukrainians as nationalists leaning toward anti-Semitism and fascism. In fact, the Cossack leader Bogdan Khmelnitsky, who signed the unification accord with Russia in 1654, is a hero to Ukrainians but remembered by Jews as an evil slaughterer, an almost biblical villain. In the 20th century the worst pogroms took place in Ukraine, in Kiev and Odessa.

When the USSR collapsed in 1991, independent Ukraine found itself with more nuclear weapons than Britain, France and China combined. Ukraine surrendered those weapons voluntarily in exchange for vaguely worded security assurances of its territorial integrity, codified in the Budapest Memorandum, signed in 1994 by the U.S., Great Britain and Russia. Russia has undoubtedly broken that promise.

But for Russians, the promise that matters most is the one the U.S. government made to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. In exchange for a withdrawal of Soviet troops from East Germany, thus allowing the country’s reunification, Secretary of State James Baker, on behalf of President George H.W. Bush, promised Russia that the purview of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would not move “one inch east.” That promise was clearly, and spectacularly, broken. NATO moved hundreds of miles east. If Ukraine were ever to become associated with — or even a full member of — NATO, Russia would be ringed by NATO from the Baltic to the Black seas. Russia sees this as a threatening gesture on the part of the West and one that must be met and countered. To regain Crimea thus becomes a matter of survival, a Darwinian do-or-die crisis. Everything else — from laws and treaties to concern for Russian citizens living in Ukraine — is secondary at best, if not outright irrelevant.

For the time being, the Kremlin will be satisfied by an independent Crimea or one that rejoins Russia. That will leave a good number of Russians behind in cities like Donetsk and Odessa. That will make for ongoing conflict, and NATO does not like to admit nations as members that have not resolved their domestic conflicts. Russia can fan those flames if it looks as if NATO might make an exception and allow Ukraine membership.

Putin must have a Ukraine that is not strongly aligned economically or militarily with the West. He is willing to take up arms to prevent that. Some now say that Russia, unlike the USSR, is too intricately bound to the global economy to make open conflict a real option. That is most likely nonsense. Commentators have been too busy comparing Putin’s invasion of Crimea to Hitler’s of the Sudetenland to remember World War I, when trading partners drifted into war over tangled disputes in Slavic lands.  

Richard Lourie is the author of the forthcoming book “King of the Wolves: Vladimir Putin and His Russia.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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