Not to Reason Why: A New Crimean “War”?

(Juan Cole)

The Russian-speaking population of the Crimean Peninsula in the Ukraine is upset by the popular movement in the west of the country that has overthrown president Viktor Yanukovych and is said to be forming militias. On some government buildings, Ukrainian flags have been replaced by Russian ones. Sevastopol is an important Black Sea port of call for Russian naval vessels, and Moscow has a base there.

Of all the ways in which Russian President Vladimir Putin will see the revolution in the Ukraine as dangerous to Russian interests, the potential loss of Crimea as a Russian ‘near abroad’ is among the more serious. Crimea was given to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine by Nikita Krushchev (himself Ukrainian) in the 1950s, but more Russians think they have a claim on Crimea than think they have a claim on Chechnya.

US national security adviser Susan Rice has already warned Russia against sending troops into the Ukraine. But what about the sailors at the base in Crimea? They’re already there.

From about 1050 Crimea came under Turkic rule, later Mongol, and later Turkic again. From 1441 until the late 1700s it was a Muslim Khanate that became an Ottoman vassal state. In the late 1700s it was annexed by the Tsarist Russian Empire. By 1900 Crimean Tatars, previously the major population, had been reduced to half of residents. After the Soviet revolution they were reduced to a quarter. Then Stalin forcibly deported many of them to Central Asia. So Crimea was over the two centuries after its incorporation into the Russian Empire largely russified and its indigenous Muslim population swamped or displaced. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Tatars remained or have returned, but they are still a minority.

What Crimea is best remembered for in the West is the Crimean War of the 1850s. Is there a parallel to today’s tensions? The conflict was initially between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire. In some ways some roots of the conflict lay in Ottoman Jerusalem in the 1840s and early 1850s, where Russia perceived that its claim on dominance of the holy places there through its Eastern Orthodox clients were being set aside by the Sultan in favor of those of the French and their Roman Catholic clients. Russia also coveted the Balkans and Istanbul (the Byzantium of the Eastern Roman Empire). When a conflict broke out between the princes of the Principalities (now Romania), who were nominally Ottoman vassals, and the sultan, the Russian backed the princes and sent in troops. Then it seemed Russia might fight all the way down to Istanbul and take it.

Britain and France did not want the Russian Empire to take over the Middle East, as it might have done if Istanbul fell to the Tsar. Britain reached India from the Mediterranean through Egypt and the Red Sea or through Syria-Iraq and the Persian Gulf. London did not want St. Petersburg to have the ability to cut it off from its rich Indian possessions. Likewise the French had clients in Lebanon and were a major power in the Mediterranean, and did not want Russia supplanting it.

Instead of trying to fight on land in the distant Balkans, the British and French proposed to the Ottomans a joint expedition across the Black Sea to the Crimean Peninsula.

At the time there was no railroad linking the Crimea to St. Petersburg, and the Tsar could not easily get troops down there at short notice. In essence the Franco-British and Ottoman forces took Crimea hostage to forestall further Russian advances in the Balkans. Although the British Empire got the poem “Charge of the Light Brigades” out of the war, actually it was predominantly and Ottoman and French campaign– the British forces supplied were smaller.

Tennyson wrote:

“Half a league, half a league,
  Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death,
  Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
  Rode the six hundred.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldiers knew
  Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
  Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
  Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
  Rode the six hundred.”

The Crimea ploy worked. The war came to a halt. The Great Powers signed the Treaty of London of 1856. It was an important document in diplomatic history. It foreshadowed the United Nations Charter in guaranteeing the Ottoman Empire against any further Russian aggression, with France and Britain pledging collective security. It also pledged the Ottomans to make their Christian subjects equal to the Muslim ones, setting the stage for Ottomanism as a national imperial ideal (it didn’t work in the long run).

As in the 1850s, Russia is claiming as its sphere of influence a territory in eastern Europe (Ukraine today, Romania and other Balkan lands in the 1850s).

As in the 1850s, the West has an interest in seeing Russian power blocked from that part of Europe (today because of their desire to incorporate Ukraine into Europe and possibly ultimately NATO; in the 1850s because they wanted the weak Ottomans to control the Middle East and to give them passage rights through it, rather than having to drive a similar bargain with a powerful Russian Empire).

As in the 1850s, one flash point in this geopolitical struggle is Crimea and its Russian naval facilities. Today, the Russian fleet based at Sevastopol plies the Black Sea and goes through the Bosporus Straits to Tartus, Syria’s Mediterranean naval port.

As in the 1850s, the West worries about Russian hegemony in the Middle East, with Syria being today’s flashpoint. Russia supports the Baath government of Bashar al-Assad, whereas the West largely supports the Free Syrian Army (but not the al-Qaeda affiliates among the rebels). Russia also has better relations with Iran than does the West.

The parallels are hardly exact. But the place of a major Black Sea port in contests between Atlantic powers and Russia has remained a stable feature of geopolitics for over a century and a half.

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Related Video:

Channel 4 News: “Is Kiev’s revolution the doorway to democracy?”

21 Responses

  1. Think you may have left out “Tsar” after Russian, second-to-last sentence, sixth paragraph. Without it, simply reads “the Russian backed the princes.” Pretty sure that was not phrase intended. Cheers.

  2. Nice historical parallel, and surely no reason in Great Game theory for considering the interests of a handful of little people — the Ukrainians.

  3. Coupled with the author’s post about the Diyanet, written after this one, it reminds us of the extent to which there’s also a intra-faith squabble built into this war. The next couple of weeks will be interesting in this regard, ad Tayyip has reintroduced the bill to shut down the dersaneler and as of 2 March the lists for the election will be set beyond change. the AKP state today released its finding on wiretapping, but Murat Yetkin speculates that after the lists are set there may be another release of conversations revealing more about corruption within AKP.

    What’s clear, anyway, is that reports of emergent democracy in turkey under AKP have been greatly exaggerated; the doubters in the EU were, in retrospect, quite wise not to trust Erdogan’s early pronouncements. Particularly as we remember that the Cemaat was for most of his years in power Erdogan’s partner in establishing a new Deep State and the battle now is over who holds the keys.

    What’s still unclear to me is why Erdogan chose last November to move against the Cemaat with the dersaneler bill.

    • sorry about that; obviously, it should have been a response to
      Turkey: Legislating the End of Democracy – 3 Laws for One-Party Rule

  4. KRMCN’s decsion to post his comments about Turkey here on the post about Ukraine was a wise stroke of genius. What this bold action demonstrates is that the future of the masses of people in Turkey and the masses of people in the Ukraine are best served by not becoming part of the European Union.
    As it presently operates the European Union is bad news. If it were not for the existance of the United States and Iran everyone would recognize the EU leadership for what it is,
    an Axis of Finanicial special interests collaborators ruling a confederation with an aging population a few natural resources.
    The people of Turkey and Ukraine would be best served by joining economic blocs of countries that are loaded with natural resources. In the case of Turkey that means Iraq and Iran, and Kurdistan. In the case of Ukraine that means Russia and Kahzikstan and Azerbijan.
    Of course no one can say for sure how history will play out. None the less even if these countries join these other resource rich nations and things do not work out well they would never be able to say that things would have worked out better if they had joined the EU. So, the populations of these countries should ask this question, do I want to marry a young country with a large endoument or do I want to marry an old country with lots of wrinkles.
    I am so glad that KRMCN moved the discussion in this direction before I did. She/he is a real radical pioneer.

    • “If it were not for the existance of the United States and Iran everyone would recognize the EU leadership for what it is,”
      Please elaborate how Iran’s existence is putting blinders on the people of the world.
      Iran of course would love to trade with all the worlds. But chooses not to be a domain of the central bankers and toady of some far off centers of power. Which has a price, she is paying dearly.
      Iran has survived the Mongol, the Arabs, the Russians, British and the cultural juggernaut of Hollywood and is pretty wrinkled.
      If your point is that Ukrainian should look out for itself, I agree. But if you are suggesting some perverted economic, political, military and cultural interdependence, please count us out.

  5. If there’s to be a new Crimean War, it will be the fault of Czar Vladamir. They have already begun beating the drums:

    link to online.wsj.com

    Let’s hope they don’t act precipitately. Given Russia’s history of imperialism and intervention in Eastern Europe, it’s hard to have much faith.

    • Although there are certainly potentially war-causing issues here, the WSJ’s neutrality is rather suspect, given corporate America’s history of imperialism and intervention all over the planet.

      • Thank you for your reply Gus. Democracy is not what the WSJ is about, it’s interests are mainly economic and it has supported many a dictator as long as that dictator followed the interests of western corporations and banking interests.

  6. Matthew G. Saroff

    My concern right now is not the Russians in the Ukraine, it is the right wing hyper-nationalist elements that were a minority of the protests, and what will they do

  7. Two points:

    1) Khrushchev was an ethnic Russian, even if he came out of territory now part of Ukraine.

    2) The real and not publicized bottom line on why he delivered this one territory where actual ethnic Russians totally outnumber ethnic Ukrainians, who are near zero there, although there are many other nationalities including controversially a lot of Tatars, fifth largest language group in Urkaine, with most of them in Crimea, is that Krushchev had a Ukrainian mistress at the time when he rather arbitrarily made the transfer of Crimea from the Russian Repubic of the USSR to the Ukrainian Republic of the USSR, which as long as there was a USSR was not a big deal. Now, since the breakup of the USSR the main interest of Russia was the Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol, and the willingness of Russia initially to accept the independence of Ukraine involved the latter accepting ongoing Russian control of that naval base, which continues until today. But, who knows, what did not matter before matters now. K made a mistake, and Crimea really does belong to Russia, but it is probably impossible to undo this ridiculous historical mistake.

    BTW, I may be biased since my wife is a descendant of the last tsarist governor of Crimea, who was ethnically Greek, just to note further complications of the ethnic history of that area.

  8. Complexity = unpredictability. On the net I rather like the map Juan posted recently a bit better than this one:

    link to ethnologue.com

    But, it does show what seems to be a tiny enclave of some Greek language group (dialect) on the Southeast coast?

    Isn’t Russia in a position to do whatever it really wants here? Which doesn’t need to be a lot as long as the place is essentially Finlandized and they keep that base.

  9. Russia gave up any territorial claims to any part of Ukraine as part of the deal whereby Ukraine surrendered/disabled it’s nuclear ability.

    Any backtracking on that for any reason will send the message to other countries to not get rid of their nuclear capability for any reason.

  10. The answer in the Ukraine, as elsewhere, is local autonomy. If the Crimeans want to forge an independent state so that their President isn’t driven out by street mobs, that seems reasonable, no?

    The US bifurcated Sudan on less defensible grounds, here I am sure the US will seek anything but local autonomy.

    Can we have a new elite now?

    • The US has supported the violent overthrow of _legitimately elected_ officials in Egypt, Venezuela, and now Ukraine.

      One has to wonder at what point will everything be to Washington’s liking? After only 6 more coups? Maybe 13 more? Or more likely, this will never end?

      Of course the Yanukovych opposition had many legitimate grievances. But imagine if the US insisted on elections to change unpopular leadership, instead of supporting violent insurrections? Oh, wait…that might mean they’d have to be consistent…sorry.

  11. Mikhail Margelov, who is the Russian equivalent of the Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was just interviewed on RT News.

    His comments were very unequivocal, that Russia is operating on the assumption that previous agreements maintaining the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol signed by the then “legitimate authorities” from Ukraine are still in effect. He said he sees no reason for Russia to send additional troops, since they’re “already there.”

    He also explained that the fleet will eventually leave Sevastopol for a yet to be completed port on the Russian coastline.

    He pointed out what a large melting pot Ukraine is, especially the Eastern area, and how horrific it would be if Right Sector extremists were to continue to grow, with support from political figures. He cautioned that anti-Semitism is growing within the anti-Yanukovych movement.

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