The successful revolution last weekend in Ukraine that overthrew the government of Viktor Yanukovych quickly sparked fears of Russian military intervention. Realistically, however, despite the Kremlin’s disparaging references to “fascists” and “armed mutiny”, there is no prospect of Russia trying to conquer a hostile population in Kiev and western Ukraine.

The danger has always been more limited, while still serious: that Russia would be complicit in splitting the country by giving support — perhaps by force of arms — to secessionists in the east and south. That danger became more live yesterday when a band of pro-Russian gunmen seized Crimean government buildings, in what The Guardian‘s reporter described as “a well co-ordinated military operation.”

Eastern and southern Ukraine are Yanukovych’s power base. A glance at the geography of recent Ukrainian elections shows the divide (the maps have been widely circulated since December — The Washington Post‘s version is here:

But even in that context, Crimea is something of a case apart.

Crimea was not Yanukovych’s strongest region electorally — the Donets basin, his home base in the east, deserves that honor — but it is consistently the most Russian-leaning. Historically, it is not even part of Ukraine at all, having been transferred from Russia only in 1954, in Soviet times.

That came after Stalin had ethnically cleansed the peninsula by deporting the Crimean Tatars and other minorities to central Asia. Although many have since returned (and will strongly resist incorporation in Russia), most people in Crimea now speak Russian and identify as ethnically Russian, not Ukrainian.

Moreover, Crimea is prominent in the Russian imagination. Its strategic location on the Black Sea, with the major Russian naval base at Sevastopol has given it a dramatic history, including the Crimean War against France and Britain in the 1850s and an epic siege by the Germans in 1941-42.

A partition in Ukraine along the line of the 2010 election result would be nightmarish; it would split the country in half, cutting the capital off from most of the Ukraine’s industrial base. It would dismember what is, despite its chequered history, a distinct cultural territory.

But the secession of Crimea on its own would have no such implication. The new authorities in Kiev will be less worried about Crimea for its own sake and much more for what it might say about the fragility of the country in general, and the meddlesome intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Although the circumstances are very different, it’s hard not to be reminded of the question of Scottish independence, to be decided in a referendum later this year. The strongest defenders of Britain’s unity, the Conservatives, are also the ones who have most to gain if Scotland should break away. Scotland invariably gives a solid electoral bonus to their opponents; without it, putting together a Tory majority would be a much easier task.

In the same way, a Ukraine without Crimea — provided the move could be accomplished peacefully — would be politically much more manageable for Ukraine’s new pro-Western leaders. On a smaller scale, the Serbs of Kosovo are a similar example: the Albanian authorities seem determined to keep them, but logically they would be better off without them.

Perhaps it is comforting to realise that politicians don’t always act from a calculation of electoral self-interest, but the sort of chauvinist nationalism that takes its place is no improvement.

The best way forward in Ukraine, it seems to many, would be for the new government to discreetly send a message to Putin that, if he’s willing to rein in his Ukrainian allies, then Ukraine would look favourably on the idea of letting Crimea vote on its future and would be willing to negotiate its return to Russia if that were supported by a referendum.

At the moment the chance of that looks remote, as both sides have too much invested in national prestige. Putin may even feel that if he wants Crimea, he has the military power to get it directly without having to negotiate — as he did with the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.

But Ukraine is a much bigger adversary to take on. And if the only alternative turns out to be a full-blown civil war, both sides will probably realise that some sort of compromise is inevitable. When they do, the future of Crimea will be one the main items on the table.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.