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.