John McCain and Lindsey Graham were quick to jump into the fray! Republican provocateurs are prodding Obama once again. In response, our President, who managed to get us out of Iraq and is disengaging from Afghanistan, now uses confrontational words. The sabers are rattling.
Make no mistake. I’m no great fan of Putin. The wily old KGB agent has his own agenda to be sure. But he knows how to play the global chess game.
Being no master of Eurasian politics, I am humbled by the complexity of this situation. So I did research. To my dismay, I discovered that the current Crimean crisis is a chronic repetition of a conflict that began some time in the Middle Ages.
Crimea is a peninsula that dangles off Ukraine in the Black Sea. It’s population is a mixture of Ukrainians (about 60%), Russians (about 25%), and Tatars (about 15%). There was a time when Crimea was autonomous and the Ukrainian region was “New Russia”.
The Tatars descend from Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde. The Crimean Khanate (1441-1783) was a vassal of the Ottoman Empire. After the Russo-Turkish War, the Crimea was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1783.
“The Ruin”, a thirty-year war, involving Russia, Poland, Turks, and Cossacks, for the control of the Ukraine, concluded with the “Eternal Peace” of 1686. Russia and Poland divvied up the Ukraine. When Poland was partitioned several times in the eighteenth century, battles for control of Ukrainian regions ensued. Yeah, you need a scorecard!
This takes us to The Crimean War (1853-1856). Russia claimed it had the right to protect Orthodox Christians (sound familiar?). The war was initially between Russia and The Ottoman Empire. But, when Russia destroyed the Turkish fleet in 1854, concern about control of The Black Sea brought France, Britain, and Sardinia into the conflict.
Remember “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson? It immortalized “the noble six hundred” who charged into a blunder and were terribly defeated. But, I digress. The 1856 treaty kept The Black Sea neutral.
Let’s move on to the Russian Revolution. Crimea became a stronghold for the anti-Bolshevik White Army. Also during the Revolution, several different Ukrainian states emerged. Of course, that led to civil war. Poland defeated western Ukraine but lost to the Bolsheviks in Kiev. Nonetheless, the treaty of Riga, made western Ukraine a part of Poland!
The status of Crimea has been a contentious issue for over a century. An autonomous Crimea was established in 1921. But, later in 1920s, Stalin changed course and the terror began.
During World War II, despite heroic and bloody resistance, the Nazi Axis occupied Crimea. In 1944, falsely accusing the Tatars and other ethnic minorities of collaborating with the Axis powers, Stalin and his henchman Beria, initiated the “Surgunlik” (exile). Crimean Tatars (plus Greeks, Armenians and Bulgarians) were deported in boxcars. In 1945, Stalin changed the status of Crimea and made it a semi-autonomous “oblast” in the Soviet Union.
When Stalin died in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev took the reins. Khrushchev was Ukrainian! In 1954, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Russian-Ukrainian union, he transferred Crimea to Ukraine. Most people saw the transfer as only “symbolic”.
In January 1991, the Crimean Oblast was upgraded to an autonomous republic within the USSR. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Crimea became part of Ukraine. However, on May 5th, 1992, the Crimean parliament proclaimed self-government. That didn’t last long. The next day, the same parliament declared that Crimea was part of Ukraine. But the push for autonomy or merger with Russia continued.
Crimea had only one independent President and only for one year. Yuriy Meshkov (1994-5) advocated closer ties with Russia. He even suggested annexation. He wanted to use Russian currency (sound familiar?) and issue passports separate from Ukraine (yeah, familiar). He did manage to get Crimea on the same time zone as Russia.
On March 17th, 1995, the Ukrainian parliament abolished the Crimean Constitution and removed Meshkov. The office of Crimean President was dissolved! Meshkov went to Russian and served as a professor at Moscow University. He has been banned from Ukraine for five years.
A conflict flared up in September 2008, when Ukraine claimed that Russia was giving out Russian passports in Crimea. On August 24th, 2009, anti-Ukrainian demonstrations were held in Crimea by ethnic Russians! They called upon Russia to act as it had done in other breakaway republics! Were these demonstrations staged? Who knows?
On July 7th, 2011, Meshkov made a brief return to Crimea and called for restoration of the Crimean Constitution, which declared Crimea a sovereign state. He was deported on July 13th, 2011 and not allowed to return for five years.
Seen in this historic perspective, I have to ask: Is Putin just repeating an old cycle? His call for the use of Russian currency, his gesture to offer passports, and his rationale that he’s protecting a Russian population, are all old hat. Maybe there is an eastern and western Ukraine. Maybe Crimea should be a separate autonomous state. It is not a new conflict.
Perhaps this conflict boils down to money, resources, and political posturing. In reality, it’s a complex dilemma that requires a negotiated resolution. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it left a lot of loose ends.
To manipulate this crisis for cheap photo ops is unconscionable.
Let’s remember: The Charge of the Light Brigade was a terrible loss based on incorrect intelligence information.