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Crisis in Crimea not as simple as we think
In all the coverage about the crisis in the Ukraine, there is hardly a mention of the two most important factors, history and geography.
Leaders today talk about human rights and respecting international law. But what they mean is that’s what the other guy should do, although we are not bound by such restrictions. When we tell Putin to keep his hands off Ukraine, he just laughs and calls us hypocrites, and he is right. But when Putin says that he is protecting ethnic Russians, that claim has no merit. Russia had several far more powerful reasons to annex Crimea, and we would do well to keep them in mind.
Russia has always been an imperialist country throughout its various incarnations. In this, it is no different than any other country; they do whatever they can get away with. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was imperialist, but it was defensive in nature. That is, Russia was not increasing its territory, but rather was maintaining its territorial integrity.
The history of Europe has always been a history of war and redrawing of borders. Crimea is no exception, but it has been continuously controlled by Russia since 1783. At that time, it was taken from a Mongol successor state, by force of arms, of course. It was transferred to Ukraine in 1954, but that still left it in the Soviet Union. The recent breakup of the Soviet Union may have changed the map again, but we ignore the previous 200 years at our peril. If it is legitimate for Ukraine to separate from Russia, then it is also legitimate for Crimea to separate from Ukraine and rejoin Russia.
But questions of legitimacy are irrelevant in this situation. What actually matters is what Russia will do. Throughout its long history, Russia has seen its share of war. France under Napoleon almost conquered Russia, and inflicted over 200,000 casualties in the process. Germany under Hitler almost conquered Russia, and inflicted about 20 million casualties in the process. Since then, Russia has made sure to surround its core territory with a buffer region, and will by no means tolerate a small but hostile state next door. Specifically, if Ukraine were to join NATO, that would provoke an extreme response from Russia.
Notwithstanding any of the other considerations, the one that is far more important is the naval base of Sevastopol. This is the only place where Russia can park its Black Sea fleet, and it is being treated as irreplaceable. Russia was blindsided by the collapse of the Soviet Union, but found a solution in paying Ukraine for the use of Sevastopol. Russia was blindsided again by the recent political upheaval in Ukraine, and this time, facing the complete loss of Sevastopol, simply took it by force.
This action was by no means morally pure, but it needs to be recognized that, from the Russian perspective, it was the only possible reaction to an existential threat. It should also be recognized that most of the people of Crimea support the annexation.
Lest we think that the United States, the supposed bastion of human rights and respect for other nations, would not respond with extreme force to an existential threat, we need only remember the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Closer to home, and actually quite relevant, think about what Canada would do if Quebec were to separate and perhaps join France.
Would Canada simply accept it, or would we send in the troops and seize the St. Lawrence Seaway or even the whole province?
The bottom line is that none of us is as pure as some of us claim to be.