Ukraine is experiencing its third revolution since 1991. Russian troops have invaded a European neighbor for the first time since 1968 in Czechoslovakia. How should we understand this new flashpoint of international conflict?
The lands of current Ukraine have been fought over for centuries among Poles, Lithuanians and Russians. Passionate Ukrainians look back to the Cossack Hetmanate established in 1649 as a historical precursor of their current state. Within a few years, the Hetmanate became subservient to the Russian Tsar. It did not include the Crimea.
Crimea has a completely different history. Italians briefly controlled the peninsula in the 13th century, which eventually became part of the Turkish Ottoman empire. The Romanov Empire first conquered the Crimea in 1783, keeping it administratively separate from Ukrainian regions.
After the Revolution swept away the Tsarist empire in February 1917, Ukrainian revolutionaries tried to create a separate socialist state. The victory of the Red Army led by Leon Trotsky meant the end of Ukrainian dreams of independence, although the young Soviet state allowed Ukraine unprecedented autonomy, especially in language and culture. Crimea was not part of the newly formed Ukrainian SSR.
Ukraine suffered as much as any part of the Soviet Union for the next three decades. A famine in 1921 caused by seven years of war left hundreds of thousands dead. Under Joseph Stalin’s perversion of Russian revolutionary aims, agricultural collectivization followed by agricultural robbery after 1928 created another famine, this time consciously directed at Ukrainians who resisted Stalin’s forcible Russianization of Ukraine. No region was more devastated by the Nazi occupation than the bloodlands of eastern Europe. Over 5 million Ukrainians died during the war, at least one of every eight people. Nearly one third were homeless after the Nazis’ wholesale destruction in retreat: Seven hundred cities and town were destroyed and 28,000 villages.
Only in 1954 was the Crimea attached to Ukraine, at that time a meaningless administrative move, since all decisions were still made in Moscow. About two-thirds of the Crimean population was ethnically Russian.
The argument over who should rule Ukraine was apparent at the moment when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. That August, the Ukrainian parliament adopted the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine. A national referendum in December on independence was passed by 92 percent of voters. In western Ukraine, under 4 percent voted against independence, but this percentage rose to 10-13 percent in the far eastern districts. In the Crimea, on the other hand, 42 percent voted no. Only a slim majority of ethnic Russians, who are concentrated in the east and especially in Crimea, favored independence, 55 percent to 45 percent. Thus Ukrainians in Kiev, as opposed to Russians in Moscow, have ruled Crimea only since 1991.
Since 1991 Ukraine has whipsawed between pro-Western and pro-Russian leadership. Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian, won rigged elections in 2004, was deposed by the popular Orange Revolution, and then reelected narrowly in 2010. Popular protests over the past four months against Yanukovych’s pro-Russian policies again forced him out in favor of a pro-Western government.
Russian reaction to this defeat of their man in Ukraine has focused on taking control of Crimea. Over the past week, official and unofficial Russian military forces have occupied Crimea. A referendum on Crimean “autonomy” is scheduled for this weekend.
Over the past 5 years Ukrainian popular sentiment has been gradually moving further away from Russia: in 2008-09, over 20 percent said that the two nations should unite; last month it was only 12 percent. Such sentiments came mainly from older people: 17 percent of those 55 and over, but only 5 percent under 30. About 32 percent of ethnic Russians wanted one unified state, but only 9 percent of Ukrainians. In the Crimea, however, 41 percent wanted one state.
The military crisis in Crimea is the latest chapter in centuries of Russian efforts to control the Black Sea. The potential loss of their naval bases in Crimea if Ukraine turns away from its close relationship with Russia would be major blow to Russian military power. Russia might go to war if any Western power tried to put a navy in the Black Sea.
Maintaining Ukrainian control over Crimea would provide Russia with a constant justification for intervening in Ukrainian affairs and a constant threat of military action. The Ukrainians have a formidable job ahead of them: to remake their political system and economy so that they can follow the path of the other eastern European states, like Poland, which has tripled its economy since it became free of Soviet control in 1989.
I am not suggesting a policy of appeasement toward Russia aggression in Crimea. But the US will never fight for Ukraine’s control over Crimea, and neither will any of our European allies. The shift of Ukraine’s perspective from east to west, the uncoupling of Ukraine from Russia for the first time in centuries, would be a major blow to Russian power and prestige. Let us focus on that, an opportunity created for themselves by the Ukrainian people. If the loss of Crimea is the price for Ukrainian independence from Russia, that would be well worth paying.
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