A New Crimean War? (Update: Stuff’s Getting Real)

(Juan Cole)

Tensions have continued to build in Ukraine’s Crimea since I wrote about it a few days ago.

On Saturday, The Russian parliament authorized President Valdimir Putin to send troops into Ukraine to defend Russian Interests. . A pro,-Russian premier has been installed in the Crimean autonomous region, who may call a referendum on seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.

On Friday, shadowy armed men, apparently pro-Russian, began patrolling Crimea’s airports .The interim Ukraine government, meanwhile, is charging that Russian troops are trying to take control of the peninsula (where ethnic Russians now predominate, though it had earlier been a Turkic, Muslim area).

I had written:

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 On some government buildings, Ukrainian flags have been replaced by Russian ones.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 them.

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 an 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.


Related Video (updated):

Reuters: “Ukraine prepares for face-off with Russian in Crimea ”

32 Responses

  1. .
    poor, poor CIA.
    for all the effort expended in Ukraine,
    nary a mention by Dr. Cole.

  2. I have a question: Would the crisis in Ukraine, in a roundabout way, affect, or even disrupt, the Iran nuclear talks?

  3. Thank you very much for this timely and necessary historical perspective about a part of the world with a very complex background. Although clearly President Putin’s action in Crimea has been rather crude and heavy-handed, nevertheless, one should also remember the equally crude activities of the neocons over a number of years. link to consortiumnews.com
    After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the neocons have found it difficult to move on and have continued the fight, this time against Russia. Robert Gates described that approach by quoting Dick Cheney: “When the Soviet Union was collapsing in late 1991, Dick wanted to see the dismantlement not only of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire but of Russia itself, so it could never again be a threat to the rest of the world.”

    Contrary to the promise given by President Reagan to Gorbachev that NATO would not push to Russia’s borders, we have seen the expansion of NATO to many former Soviet territories, even the failed attempt to incorporate Georgia and now Ukraine. As you rightly warn, if the situation is not handled with care it can easily lead to a major confrontation with unpredictable consequences. The only solution seems a non-aligned federative state of Ukraine with friendly relations with both Russia and the EU.

    • Very well said. We should be concerned about Putin’s actions but probably more concerned about official and neocon efforts emanating from the US. There is little reason to have confidence in the leadership of the Obama administration.

  4. Perhaps more than ever, the American public need access to all press, including the dissenting voices. If the USA goes to war again it should be based on the people’s INFORMED CONSENT.
    It looks to me that Russia would not be intimidated by the threat of military action because Russia can not afford to loose the naval base in Crimea which gives access to the Mediterranean and Atlantic.

  5. “As in the 1850s, the West has an interest in seeing Russian power blocked from that part of Europe (…).”

    The West ? I think it is rather the US, not so much the Europeans. The EU, Germany in particular, are more interested in having good relationships with Russia : we want their gaz/energy and we want that they can flow smoothly through the pipelines in Ukraine. Further, Russia is helping the crawling economy of Ukraine, while the EU has enough economic problems without helping the Ukrainians out. The EU has a very high quote of joblessness. They don’t need to add the jobless Ukrainians to that quote due to the free movement of people in the EU. Why do you think that the US ambassador mouthed that F..ck the EU famous sentence ? There is visibly a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the EU. We don’t need to add Ukraine to the EU. It is in sphere of influence of Russia and why should we object ? It has been so since such a linguistic time, as you write.

    “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.”

    I don’t even understand why the US is trying to change that fact. Unless it was looking for a war. Isn’t the Cold War over since decades ? As US power us diminishing she is becoming more and more aggressive, but that will only hasten its downfall.

    “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 West ? No the US. the EU is perfectly happy with a balance of power in the ME and a multipolar world. If the US thinks that the Europeans will follow them in their aggressive way of dealing with the rest of the world, they are seriously mistaken. Germany in particular has no interest in confronting Russia and reactivating a Cold War. The US is creating havoc wherever it goes, encouraging even the most reactionary forces, both in Syria and in Ukraine. After the US intervention there is only failed states left (Afghanistan, Iraq, Lybia etc.. And now they are on their way to achieve the same thing with Syria and Ukraine).

    • As you mentioned, 40% of Europe’s imported oil runs through Ukraine. Some of the most important pipelines lead to Slovakia, which in turn head to Germany, Austria, and Italy.

      Ukraine is ethnically divided, as we all well know. With the Russians getting involved, the split is widened as the Russian-majority east generally supports the incursion, while the ethnic Ukrainian west opposes the Russians. If this situation is allowed to escalate, an all-out civil war could develop, which would certainly disrupt these valuable gas pipelines.

      While it’s certainly attractive to paint the attention on the U.S., this situation is very relevant to all of Europe, including Germany. In the end, everyone is happy with peace, but ignoring Ukraine at this time could be a fatal mistake.

  6. Its interesting and very informative. But, the opinion I’ve heard that seems to resonate best is that Mr. Putin’s a fellow who likes to create problems and then solve them.

  7. My thoughts hearken back to 1914.

    My read is that the realists in power (Obama, Hagel, Kerry, Dempsey) are content with a split of the Ukraine along ethnic lines. The resultant states would be much easier to govern and more prosperous. The region less dangerous, not like it is now a super-flash point! They cannot cheer it on, nor even be silent given the controlled media frenzy that would erupt in the West, so they will speak of costs, and even impose some costs, but not really stand in the way of the bifurcation of Ukraine.

    All that aside, the real question for Americans is why the hell are “we” fomenting revolutions on Russia’s doorstep? Why do we want “Yats” in there at the risk of stability and peace? “Yats” ran for President in the Ukraine AND LOST! We have no business interfering with their sovereignty! Especially considering our 1994 statements. It’s time to clean house, Mr President.

    • The Ukrainian revolution was inevitable once Yanu began to deploy violence against protesters. The decision by Putin to order Yanu to attack protesters and disperse his opponents ensured that the situation in Ukraine was almost certain to escalate.

      Attempted to shift the focus onto the United States will not change that. Putin erred badly and was scorched by the fires he helped to create. No reason to feel sorry for that cretin.

      As for historical analogies. Be worried about scenarios somewhat akin to Hungary in 1956 and the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion. Putin may be entering his Brezhnev phase.

      • Aside from simply indulging in the dopamine rush that comes with regurgitating banal soviet analogies, what evidence do you have, at all, that Putin ordered Yanukovich to attack protesters or do anything for that matter?

        • Every time that Yanukovych met with Putin during the time of the protests in Kiev there quickly followed a significant escalation in the amount of force used by the Berkut and other police forces against the protesters. The bloodiest days of police attacks on the Maidan square occurred very shortly after Yanukovych met with Putin.

          These police crackdowns ordered by Yanukovych were often followed with sudden motions towards (often limited) conciliation with the opposition (or parts of it). This zig-zag policy fits the model that Yanukoyvch faced heavy pressure from different circles as to how to handle the situation and did not stick to one course consistently. The details of the Yanukovych-Putin meetings were not made public, of course, but the correlation and timing of the crackdowns is strong.

          Virtually all evidence suggests that Putin was attempting to guide Yanukovych on how to handle the surge of dissent and this guidance favored severe means to quell opposition. Putin invested a huge amount of political capital in Yanukoyvch’s political survival with the 15 billion aid package.

        • The pieces of evidence suggesting that Putin told Yanukovych to crackdown on the protests has been available on news sources and articles since shortly after these events occurred and can be found by diligent searches.

          Yanukoyvch had to make the decisions for himself, but it is rather obvious what Putin pressed him to do.

        • There are several sources about this, but here is an excerpt from one: Link- link to news.yahoo.com?.tsrc=tmob

          “It seem absolutely clear that the three attempts Yanukovych has made to bring harsh pressure on the protesters occupying Kiev’s Maidan square over the past three months, with the toughest being last night, were discussed and agreed in advance between Putin and Yanukovych,” says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “Unlike most Ukrainian players, whose interest is mainly in maintaining the status quo and muddling through without any radical breaks, Putin wants to win. He is absolutely interested in the scenario we see unfolding, with the opposition being crushed by force.”

  8. Christiane, are you aware that there are Russian soldiers and military equipment invading the Ukraine? They’re not American. And those were real Ukrainians bleeding and dying in Kiev. Your “all things start on the Potomac” logic is more than a little tortured. And if it hasn’t been mentioned, sorry for bugging the chancellor’s phone.

  9. Four points.

    1) While indeed Crimea was long ruled by Muslims including Ottomans, local khans, and so on, it is not precisely to refer to the Tatars as “indigenous,” although they have been there for a long time. But there longer and supplying governors of the place are the Greeks, although they were also mostly removed by Stalin, along with the long-present Armenians. The original name of the place was Taurica, which is Greek, with “Crimea” being of Tatar origin and only adopted later..

    2) It is not true that Khrushchev was “Ukrainian.” He was an ethnic Russian who rose through the Ukrainian Communist Party. There is an old tale in Moscow that the real reason he gave Crimea to the Ukraine was that he did it for a Ukrainian mistress he had in 1954.

    3) Certainly the Russians are violating international law, but this is not the first time that they have militarily occupied an area against international law to support locals who wanted to separate from a new state independent with the fall of the USSR. This applies to both Transdniestria, still recognized internationally as being part of Moldova, and Abkhazia, recognized internationally as being a part of Georgia. Nobody did anything about either of those occupations.

    4) There is a special problem in all this for the US and UK. They signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 with Ukraine and Russia, which involved removing nuclear weapons from Ukraine to Russia, who was to dispose of them Part of that memorandum was that Ukraine’s sovereignty was guaranteed, and no way Russia would be invading if Ukraine still had those nukes. As it is, due to their signatures on that, the US and the UK are both on the hook regarding resisting this incursion into what is now officially Ukrainian territory, even if a majority of the population in Crimea now favors either independence or becoming part of Russia.

  10. The Guardian (UK) has a very sensible opinion on this situation: “The Ukraine crisis: John Kerry and Nato must calm down and back off: The hysterical reaction to Russian military movements in Crimea won’t help. Only Kiev can stop this crisis becoming a catastrophe” by Jonathan Steele – link to theguardian.com

  11. This quote by John Kerry on CBS is cited in the Guardian (UK): “It’s an incredible act of aggression,”

    And that is from someone who voted for the illegal and immoral war on Iraq. It would be difficult to trump that for an Oscar for hypocrisy.

    • And today at the AIPAC fest, McCain was horrified at barrel bombs Russia is purportedly introducing in the Ukraine. He didn’t seem to have any problem with cluster bombs and depleted uranium introduced by US forces in Iraq.

      Unfortunately, McCain isn’t the only one in Congress spouting this hypocritical claptrap, but that is no surprise. It’s okay for the US to commit war crimes but wrong for others to do so.

    • Really great comment, Bill. As a Vietnam veteran, I find both John Kerry and John McCain pathetically disappointing having forgotten or perhaps never having learned the painful lessons I experienced as a medical corpsman in Vietnam.

      • The difference between you, George, and Kerry and McCain is that you learned from your experiences; whereas, Kerry and McCain decided to cash in on theirs.

  12. Putin, though the Russian government, is wrecking havoc in Ukraine (after having supported the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria) in an effort to destroy the new authorities and disrupt the election. It is both cynical and vindictive. Putin could not accept a defeat of the magnitude he suffered by backing a loser in the form of Yanukovych.

    Putin is directly and personally culpable in the problems of Ukraine in many ground. First, he ordered Yanukovych to attack and kill protestors and pushed for a violent crackdown against expression of political views by opponents of Yanukovych in Kiev. These actions actually worked against Yanukovych’s political survival and thus Putin inadvertently help to destroy his own vassal.

    Now, Putin is attempting to subvert the country to retaliate for his political humiliation. Putin wants to “show” that those he transgress his will pay for it dearly.

    The military adventure in Crimea is meant to restore Putin’s political image and cover up the damage done to his reputation.

    One extremely alarming possibility is that Putin will not stop at Crimea and will begin to subvert and even occupy parts of Eastern Ukraine. Such potential deeds should not be obscured by propaganda against Ukraine or efforts to redirect attention onto the United States at the expense of what Putin is doing. Additionally, appeals to the specialness of Putin or his alleged “great” status are both false and irrelevant.

    To oppose the world trends against authoritarianism will gradually yield setbacks as more and more autocrats and semi-autocrats face increasing levels of opposition. The rapid and sudden defeat in Ukraine will not be the last time that those who bet heavily on a dictator are burned.

  13. What Crimea is best remembered for in the West is the Crimean War of the 1850s.

    And that is the problem, by the West I suppose you mean the US in this case. Crimea was the scene of one of the most deadly battles of WWII and in Russia today that battle is certainly better remembered than the war in 1850. Russia is a great power today, like it or not, and no great power will give up their only warm water port for its’ fleet. That is how they operate and always have.

  14. Before the US gets too hyper about the Russian response to the events in the Ukraine, we need a full accounting of American efforts to foment unrest against the democratically elected government there.

    Ray McGovern former CIA analyst said, “It would have been a no-brainer that Russia would use military force, if necessary, to counter attempts to use economic enticement and subversive incitement to slide Ukraine into the orbit of the West and eventually NATO.” McGovern is now a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). link to commondreams.org

  15. I love patriots where ever they are. So gullible, so naïve and simplistic. Putin’s heavy handiness? What’s new? So we ignore US involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and countless other involvements we know nothing of. But of course, no heavy handiness there. The reality is the powers pick at each other in ways the commoners aren’t interested in. But it is the commoners who buy the patriotic fever and die in the trenches. Old, old story played one more time.

  16. Following up on the matter of Khrushchev and his mistress, I have posted on this at http://econospeak.blogspot.com , but ill note that she was Yekaterina Furtseva, not a Ukrainian, but the first woman on the Soviet Politburo, put there by Khrushchev i n1956. She had been an oblast CPSU chief after being personally appointed ion 1949 by Stalin, and then Khrushchev brought her to Moscow after Stalin died where he first made her Moscow City party chief. It was at this time that he made the decision, and there were many rumors, with BBC reporting these, of their affair. She would have supported the plan to bring in “loyal” Ukrainian peasants to replace the expelled Tatars, Greeks, Bulgarians, and Armenians, who were trying to return, but were still viewed as German sympathizing “enemies of the people.” Also, Khrushchev almost certainly had some Ukrainian ancestry, a mixed bag.

  17. Dr. Cole, the media is abuzz with news that Merkel called Putin as out of touch with reality. The quote is “he lives in another world”.

    Problem is, if you translate this word by word into German: “Er lebt in einer anderen Welt” means something rather different.

    If a German uses this phrase it means “he sees the world entirely different”.

    Very reminiscent of the mistranslated Ahmadinejad quote.

    And jut like in the latter case this kind of bad translation can do some real damage.

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