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Feb 28, 2014

The battle for the Crimea: Ukraine v Russia in bloody tug-of-war

Ukraine is split, and the Russians are lurking. The history and political context of the Crimea is the source of much of the current conflict. Crikey explains the background.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

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.

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9 thoughts on “The battle for the Crimea: Ukraine v Russia in bloody tug-of-war

  1. Grumpy Old Sod

    There is much about this uprising in the Ukraine that is not being reported. For example, one of the main proponents of this is a group known as Svoboda, a neo fascist group whose leader, Oleh Tyahnybok once called the Ukrainian born US actress Mila Kunis a ‘dirty Jewess’ along with another top Svoboda member, Yuriy Mykhalchshyn, a deputy in the parliament who regularly quotes Goebbels, Ernst Rohm and Gregor Strasser. Obviously, given the Russian experience with the forces behind these three in World War 2 Putin has cause to be alarmed.

    In addition, Svodba has traceable links to the pro Nazi partisans who not only caused great damage to the Russian war effort but also supplied some of the most brutal guards within the Nazi concentration camps. It is for this reason that Russia calls this a ‘Brownshirt Revolution’, a fact not reported at all within the Western media.

    With the corrupt government of Yanukovich overthrown leaving a power vacuum reportedly being filled by Svoboda, it is not too hard to predict that the Western Ukraine could become a semi fascist state, something which I’m sure Putin would not find acceptable. Given that the USA has been pushing this subtly in the background and that their aim is the alienation of the Ukraine from Russia and its eventual integration with the EU, then it is not too hard to envisage the Ukraine being a potential flash point to a far larger conflict.

  2. crawfordyorke

    fascinating, please add more of this writers articles to the daily mail

  3. paddy

    Thanks for that input GOS.
    Always good to have more info on what is obviously an immensely complex and fragile situation.

  4. AR

    yet another “far away country of which we know little” and hasn’t that attitude worked out well in the past. And future.

  5. Liamj

    Another Ukraine article failing to mention the very relevant fact that US has spent 5bil (US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland to National Press CLub) formenting unrest. There are also many reports of protesters being paid daily stipend. Then theres there critical matter of Russian gas piped via Ukraine to EU.

    I can cope with thin news days, but Crikeys habit of parroting US propaganda is hard to stomach. Tell us subscribers how much they pay to advertise and we can judge if its worth it.

  6. R. Ambrose Raven

    “That came after Stalin had ethnically cleansed the peninsula by deporting the Crimean Tatars and other minorities to central Asia.”

    Wasn’t there a war on at that time, in which such groups tended to collaborate with the Nazis, or have I misread the history?

    I was under the impression that the U.S., for instance, likewise deported Japanese to camps after Pearl Harbour, or have I misread the history?

    I am most certainly under the impression that once again the “coverage” we receive from a supposedly independent mainstream western media is every bit as biased towards Western Imperial interests as anything that Pravda would have produced for the USSR. Glavlit was an amateur.

  7. Peter Hannigan

    If people are going to pick on bits of Ukranian history they should put it in the context of the wider regional situation and over a longer period. Ukrainian history tends to read like a list of imperial masters and boundary changes. Part of the current situation results from the western part of Ukraine having been Polish until 1939.

    Those with simple views of ‘goodies and baddies’ in the second world war might remember that this was anything but simple in eastern Europe. The current western boundary of Ukraine is the one established in 1939 as a result of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the Soviet invasion of Poland in collaboaration with the Germans.Stalin kept all his gains from that pact at the end of the war. He simply moved Poland west so it took on significant amounts of former German territory.

    So much of the anti-Russian sentiment comes from areas annexed to Ukraine by its imperial overlord.

    As for associating with bad people – the west went along with Stalin as an ally despite almost going to war with the Soviet Union over Poland and then the invasion of Finland. The Finns ended up fighting for every side in the war – as a simple necessity for national survival.

  8. Charles Richardson

    Thanks everyone for the comments. Some responses:

    @Grumpy: that’s certainly what Russia wants us to think, but the actual evidence for any significant far-right role in the revolution is very thin. The new government doesn’t look at all like a bunch of fascists, it looks like mainstream pro-European Ukrainians. Yes, of course there were some thugs among the Kiev protesters, just as there are among some of the pro-Russian mobs in eastern Ukraine; I don’t think we should judge either movement on that basis. Whether Putin’s fear of Ukrainian “fascism” is genuine or contrived is another question, but I’d opt for the latter. Certainly he dealt happily with Tymoshenko in her day.

    @Liamj: Not sure what you’re talking about there. I don’t think the US govt advertises at all in Crikey, and even if it does it certainly doesn’t tell me what to say.

    @Ambrose: Yes, the US interned Japanese on the west coast, but it released them when the war was over (and later apologised and paid compensation); the Tatars weren’t allowed to return to their homeland for more than 40 years. Hardly comparable cases.

    @Peter: Thanks, all very true and important. For western Ukraine, I suspect that what matters most is not the Polish rule between the wars but the much longer period of Austro-Hungarian rule before World War I.