Sunday, November 23, 2014

Russia’s Crimean Shore?

MOSCOW – In his 1979 novel The Island of Crimea, Vasily Aksyonov imagined the region’s flourishing independence from the Soviet Union. Aksyonov, a dissident writer who emigrated to America shortly after the book’s samizdat (underground) publication, is now lauded as a prophet. But his prophecy has been turned on its head: Today’s Crimea does not want independence from Ukraine; it wants continued dependence on Russia.

Traditionally the gem in the imperial crown, a lavish playground of czars and Soviet commissars – and, more important, the home of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet – Crimea became part of Ukraine under Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin apparently forgot to claim it back, so Ukraine kept a territory in which nearly 60% of the two million inhabitants identify as Russians.

In defense of Khrushchev (my great-grandfather), whether Crimea was part of Russia or Ukraine hardly mattered. After all, they were all part of the Soviet empire. But in the last 20 years, Russia has sought to retake the peninsula. The Kremlin has been rumored to expedite passport applications for Crimean residents, and its allies – for example, Aleksei Chalyi, Sevastopol’s new mayor – populate its political offices.

And now Ukraine’s fugitive ex-president, Viktor Yanukovych, is reported to have taken refuge there as well. Busy with the Sochi Olympics and wary of an international debacle, Russian President Vladimir Putin maintained almost complete public silence as Ukraine’s crisis reached its bloody crescendo. In fact, Putin’s manipulation of Yanukovych – forcing him to renege in November on Ukraine’s plan to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, and to enact a harsh anti-protest law the following month – ended in disgrace for the Kremlin: Kyiv is now firmly in the hands of pro-Western forces.

But the seemingly spontaneous resolve of some Crimean Russians to rejoin Mother Russia is allowing Putin to wipe some of the egg off his face. After all, pleas from Crimea for fraternal Russian support appear to justify Putin’s backing for the dithering, venal, and now widely despised Yanukovych. So the big question now is whether Putin will seize on the restiveness of Russians in Crimea (and eastern Ukrainian cities like Kharkiv) to recover parts of former Soviet territory, as he did with Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions after the 2008 war.

If so, the long-term strategic costs could be enormous. The Northern Caucasus and its vicinity already is a tinderbox; acquiring more territory with disaffected Muslims would undoubtedly yield further security challenges.

After all, the formerly Ottoman Crimea has long been home to the Tatars, who bear a massive historical grudge against the Kremlin, owing to their forced removal by Stalin to the Central Asian steppes. Today, they compose 12-20% of the Crimean population (depending on who is counting); but, threatened by Putin’s repressive policies toward other Muslims, they might well renew their call for all Tatars to return. If more Tatars do settle in Crimea, Russia’s neo-imperial project, already facing an Islamist insurgency in Chechnya and Dagestan, would become all but untenable.

That much should be clear to virtually everyone, if not to Putin, whose obsession with short-term tactical victories – which usually take the form of poking the United States in the eye – can also be seen in Syria. Putin’s gains there – arranging for chemical disarmament by June of this year, or orchestrating the Geneva talks on ending the civil war – have no beneficial endgame for Russia.

The Geneva conference ended earlier this month in a stalemate between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its opponents. The regime’s request to delay the elimination of its chemical-weapons arsenal has created a new disagreement, with Russia, China, and Iran calling for a flexible timetable, while the US and the European Union continue to insist on the June deadline. In the meantime, Russia is increasingly loathed across the Middle East, including in strategically important Turkey, for backing the murderous Assad.

Investing in incompetent or brutal partners is Putin’s signature diplomatic trait. But perhaps even he has come to understand that backing such people is doomed to failure. A breakthrough of sorts may have come this past weekend when, after vetoing three previous resolutions, Russia finally agreed with Western and Arab-backed calls for Syria’s government and opposition forces to provide immediate access to humanitarian aid. Or perhaps the possibility of regaining full sovereignty over Crimea has led Putin to reconsider the value of retaining Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus for the Russian Navy.

But Putin’s greatest strategic derangement concerns China. Voting with Russia against the West to keep Assad in power does not make the world’s most populous country a reliable partner. If China concludes that its geopolitical interests, particularly in dealing with the US, would be best served by detaching itself from Putin, it will not hesitate to do so.

Moreover, China still regards large chunks of Russian Siberia as its own stolen territory. If there is one objective that unites the Chinese political establishment, it is recovery of lost territory, no matter how long it takes. President Xi Jinping may smile and tell Putin how similar they are, but he will happily move to subordinate Russia with every passing year.

If anything, Russia needs Europe and America if it is to confront successfully its many challenges, particularly that posed by China. Instead, Putin takes perverse pride in his persistent efforts to alienate the West. His former Ukrainian proxy, Yanukovych, could attest to the catastrophic stupidity of this policy.

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    1. CommentedDoğan AKTAŞ

      I wonder what made the author compare Abkhazia to Crimea. Both has seen Slavic racism (which the author doesnt need to hide) ending with their ethnic cleansing in their native lands in the last 3-4 generations. Apart from that Abkhaz are still majority in their lands while Tatars are not. Abkhazia is an independent country, seeking recognition, Crimeans want to unite to Russia.

      Why does not the author compare Crimea to Angola for example, or a modern one Scotland instead she chooses to whitewash policies of her ancestors ( not unusual with the racist apologists.). Another point in the same line is demonizing Stalin. Well If she doesnt know, most of the population of surviving Crimean Tatars are living in Turkey, just like us Abkhazians. They came here long before Stalin took his first breath. Who are you referring to when talking about those stolen lands I simply fail to understand (especially with the Georgian one).

    2. CommentedFaruk Timuroglu

      Ms. Khrushcheva cannot convince President Putin because; his priority is Russia’s interests. She does not need to convince Americans, though, might please. Tatars want independence from Ukraine as – at least some – Ukrainians want it from Russia. Independence from Ukraine could be the first step towards total Independence for Tatars. Americans and Europeans’ main concerns are their own interests rather than Ukrainians, Tatars or Syrians as Russians’ is. Putin lost his proxy Yanukovich may find another and discard the European one.

    3. Commentedhari naidu

      History has a way of teaching us a lesson about ex-Soviet Union and Russia today.
      First, Finlandization more or less became a cause celebre end of WWII. Sweden was forced to declare itself *neutral* during the cold war era in order to preserve the sovereign frontier and national integrity of Finland after Soviet invasion in 1939 and 1940 in the Russo-Finnish War. Finland was ruled by Sweden until 1809. In 1917 Finland became an independent republic. Finland declared its policy of foreign neutrality after WWII. Swedish post-war foreign policy of neutrality was an excuse, as I defined it, to enforce the status quo and stability of Finland.
      The last war Sweden fought was against Tzarist Russia (Catherine the Great).
      Second, case of Latvia (i.e. Baltic States) with its ethnic Russian population after collapse of Soviet Union. The Baltic States finally became independent and have now emerged as sovereign members of EU.
      Gulf of Finland and Gulf of Riga represented strategic waters for ex-Soviet Navy. However Odessa and Crimea are ancient citadels of springtime in Russian literature and culture….
      There is a good argument to replicate post-war Finlandization policy - in the case Ukraine - recognizing the national security interest of Russia. Ukraine national sovereignty and integrity including Crimea will ultimately depend on mutual recognition and respect of ethnic Russian culture and its language.
      The US + EU must seek to facilitate and accommodate a strategic policy perspective with a view to (finally) transforming Russia into a de jure European state with formal treaty links to EU.

    4. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Ms. Nina Khrushcheva is highly critical of President Putin's foreign policies. In the Ukrainian conflict she doesn't seem to offer Putin an advice, as how he should deal with sessionist sentiments harboured by the Russian-speaking population in the East and South.
      In recent months, amid the turmoil in Kiev, President Putin had raised eyebrows in the West, when he seemed to question Ukraine's territorial integrity. After the fall of Yanukovich's regime, tensions rise in Crimea, as pro-Moscow protesters urge Russia to help defend their territory from the new leaders in Kiev. This could offer Moscow a perfect opportunity to reclaim the region, which many Russians see as theirs. Crimea was handed over to Ukraine in 1954 by the author's great grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, who, then Soviet leader, was an ethnic Ukrainian himself.
      Both the West and the new authorities in Kiev vow to preserve Ukraine's territorial integrity and warn Russia against any military action in Crimea. Although ethnic Russians are still a majority (58.5%), there are also a significant Ukrainian (24.4%) and a Crimean Tatar population (12.1%). These two groups will unite to resist any secessionist attempts of the Russian-speakers.
      Does Ms. Khrushcheva believe the Kremlin should reclaim "Russia's Crimean Shore"? Since Empress Catherine the Great annexed Crimea in 1783, it remained part of Russia until 1954. The region was so important, that Odessa in Southern Ukraine on the Black Sea coast was the fourth largest city of Imperial Russia in the 19th Century after Moscow, St. Petersburg and Warsaw.
      Crimea had been the "gem in the imperial crown". Today Russians see the Crimean coastline as their "Riviera", a destination for tourists attracted by sun, sea and history. Russia's own Black Sea Fleet has its base in Sevastopol, whose controversial presence is a thorn in many Ukrainians' side. As Moscow will not give up Crimea and nor does Kiev want to lose it, both sides have to find a peaceful solution to settling this bone of contention.

    5. CommentedAlexander Shilyaev

      If you want to seem conclusive but do not have arguments robust enough, just to lump everything together. That is the case with this scribbling. As a result - spiteful balderdash.