Thursday, February 27, 2014

Putin and Ukraine’s Ultranationalist Russians Light the Fuse: Second Crimean War Begins

In 1991, when ethnic Russians stranded in a newly independent Moldova (formerly Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic) declared independence as Transnistria—a Kremlin-funded pseudo-state which survives to this day—that was just warming up.  Later, in the early 1990s, when an uprising by Cossacks around Ust’-Kamengorsk, in newly independent Kazakhstan, seemed almost surely encouraged by Russia’s government, that was just testing the waters.  In 1999, when Boris Yeltsin signed a treaty with the formerly-Soviet Republic of Belarus to create a “Union State” with Russia—without consulting any of the country’s citizens—that was mere practice.  When, in 2008, the Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia (formerly part of Czechoslovakia) declared an independent republic for its ethnic Russians and “Rusyns” (Ruthenians), Kiev called it a Kremlin plot; if it was, that was Vladimir Putin just sharpening his sword.  And when, also in 2008, Putin responded to the Republic of Georgia’s attempts to retake two rebel provinces with a Russian invasion and the “liberation” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as “independent” Russian puppet states, that was a full-dress rehearsal.  But right now, as you are reading this, in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, this is the Main Event.  The second Crimean War has begun.

How things went in the 2010 election.  Crimea, in dark Yanukovych blue, is at the bottom.
Reports out of Ukraine this morning are sketchy, but it seems as if armed men have taken over the pro-Kremlin “soviet” (yes, its parliament calls itself that) of the ethnic-Russian-dominated Autonomous Region of Crimea in southern Ukraine.  Two people have been killed in related street battles.  The Russian flag is flying out front, and other government buildings in Simferopol, the Crimean capital, are also reportedly occupied by armed Russian-speaking men.  Two days ago, Putin ordered the Russian Federation’s armed forces into a state of readiness in the areas around Ukraine, and by now this includes ground exercises on the Crimean peninsula itself.  Already, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet—in a special deal made after Crimea’s Russians tried to declare independence the first time, in 1992—is permanently housed on the Crimean Peninsula.  There hardly even needs to be an invasion if the Russian military is already an honored guest.

The Black Sea fleet
A week ago ago, with the Winter Olympics in the nearby Russian city of Sochi still in full swing, the crisis in Ukraine was still a months-old, long, grinding street-politics uprising, the “Euro-Maidan” movement—escalating in violence but still a standoff between the corrupt authoritarian pro-Klemin president, Viktor Yanukovych, who squeaked into power mostly with the votes of his fellow ethnic Russians, and a vast “people politics” movement led by Ukrainian nationalists and others furious with Yanukovych for reorienting his country’s foreign relations away from the European Union (E.U.) and toward Russia.  The movement had escalated into a revolt against Yanukovych’s corruption and Putin-type authoritarianism in general.  Then, a wave of fatalities in a desperate violent government crackdown on the street protesters raised the stakes, and only steeled the resolve of those calling for Yanukovych’s resignation.  Despite what at first looked like a calming deal to hold elections this year, on February 22nd Yanukovych’s own parliament impeached him, and released from prison Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been jailed on possibly-trumped-up corruption charges after narrowly losing to Yanukovych in the 2010 election.  Two days later, the freshly installed interior minister, a member of the old opposition, issued a warrant for Yanukovych’s arrest, sending the toppled leader on a mysterious meandering flight, from Kiev to Kharkov (former capital of the old Bolshevik Ukrainian republic in the days of the Russian civil war, when ethnic Ukrainians had their own Menshevik republic in the west) to Donetsk, in Yanukovych’s home region known also as “Little Russia,” where Ukrainians are in a minority, and finally to Crimea, where it is believed he may be right now.  Maybe he is even directing some of these new events.  Other reports say he is already in Moscow; Putin has offered him protection and regards him as still the president.

“Heil Putin!”  Yanukovych in happier times.
It is not surprising that it has all come down to Crimea.  It was here, in the 1850s, that the Russian Empire was defeated by the British and French, as a way of beating the Czar back and keeping him from filling the political vacuum created by the weakening Ottoman Empire.  But Russia held onto the Crimea in the treaty that ended the war and later regrouped for a series of brutal wars pushing Czarist influence farther south in the Black Sea and Caucasus regions.  Crimea itself was Muslim, populated by Turkish-speaking Tatar people.  After the Second World War, Josef Stalin deported Tatars to Siberia and Central Asia, as punishment for supposed collaboration with the Nazis.  Crimean Tatars shared this fate with other Muslim groups like Meskhetian Turks, Kumyks, and Chechens.  But then when Nikita Khrushchev allowed many of the hundreds of thousand of deportees to return in the 1950s, the Tatars were not on the list.  By now, you see, Crimea was full of ethnic-Russians, even though on a whim, and supposedly while drunk, Khrushchev had with a stroke of the pen transferred the Crimean oblast from the Russian republic to the Ukrainian one in 1954.

Sergei Shuvainikov, a Crimean parliamentary deputy, feels more Russian than Ukrainian.
He is not alone.
Tatars have trickled back home in the post-Communist era but still make up only 12% of the population.  Russians are 58%, Ukrainians less than a quarter—and Russian nationalists with warm feelings toward Putin and Yanukovych dominate the regional parliament, which even said recently that it reserved the right to secede if Yanukovych was toppled.  And make no mistake, Russia and Russians regard what happened in Kiev on the 22nd as an unconstitutional coup d’état—which, very arguably, of course, it was, even if a majority of Ukrainian residents seem to back it.  The embattled Tatars, in their own toothless mini-parliament, are siding with the Euro-Maidan movement and the E.U.

Crimean Tatars, a minority in their own homeland, feel European, not Russian.
Russians in their hearts have never accepted the loss of Ukraine, which they see as part of Russia.  Kiev, after all, was the capital of Kievan Rus’, the medieval state which both Ukrainians and Russians regard as their ancestral polity.  And Putin, far more than his mostly pro-autonomy predecessor, Yeltsin, has itched to re-expand the old Russian Empire.

Vlad the Impaler plots from the sidelines.
And, in a sense, who can blame him?  He really does think that Crimea is a Russian territory which has been under foreign occupation—and this week suddenly unelected foreign occupation—since 1991.  For Putin, the main point is that Yanukovych, the elected leader, wanted Ukraine to join Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia in a new “Eurasian Union” trading bloc to rival the E.U.  And Putin really believes that that would be better for Ukraine as well as for Russia.  (Ukraine is the most prosperous Soviet successor state, and it is across its territory that Russia delivers oil to western European consumers.)  Putin believes that, if the Crimean parliament declares an independent Crimea (as, in one way or another, it surely will), a Russian invasion will be a way to defend democracy; it wouldn’t even be “separatism” in his mind, only “repatriation,” the righting of an old wrong.  And the Russian electorate really does want ultranationalist “strong leaders” even if they are authoritarian and brutal; old habits die hard.

Pretty much the current scene outside the Crimean parliament.  Lots of Russian flags (center), some Crimean ones (the similar blue-white-red tricolor in back), and a smaller number of (blue and yellow) Ukrainian ones.
And, most importantly, Putin knows that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is terrified of the possibility, which has never yet occurred, of its troops facing Russian (or Soviet) troops on the battlefield.  For decades, that was thought to be the kind of thing that would lead to World War III, an exchange of nuclear missiles, and the end of civilization or even of all life on Earth.  Thus, when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008—Georgia, a strong ally of the United States and NATO but not in the alliance’s mutual-defense pact—Western leaders fretted, wagged their fingers in mock scorn, and shook their heads in disappointment, but lifted not a finger to intervene and save lives or defend their ally.  In Putin’s view, the dress rehearsal had gone very well.

Russian tanks rolling into Georgia in 2008.
In the case of Crimea, Russian tanks are already there.
Talking heads this week keep pointing out how better it will be for everyone if Ukraine tilts west—this is mostly true—and conclude that Putin must realize this also and in the long run will not light a fuse in Crimea.  But Putin’s reasoning is his own, and it exists in the tiny ultranationalist echo chamber inside his pointy little head.  Perhaps he has already decided that he will invade Crimea and it is merely a question of when, or perhaps he has not made his mind up.  But with a thousand paramilitary Cossacks out of a job in the greater region now that the Olympics are over—with armed ethnic Russians in Crimea believing that they are agents of Russian national will—and with ordinary Ukrainians, nationalist Ukrainians, and ultra-nationalist Ukrainians—some of these last confirming Russian prejudices by waving red-and-black fascist flags from the Second World War era—armed too and ready to defend their country, all it takes is a spark.

The Second Crimean War seems to have arrived.  Whether it will spread and become a new east–west war in Europe at large remains to be seen.

The Russian flag flying outside the occupied Crimean parliament building is not even the standard national flag:
it says “Russia” on it and features a Czarist heraldic device.  Not a good omen.
[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

Members of the Ukrainian feminist political collective Femen give their opinion of Yanukovych.
Related articles from this blog:
“Minuscule Gagauzia Votes 99% to Declare Independence If Moldova Attempts Romanian Reunification” (Feb. 2014)
“Partition Lines in Ukraine Sharpen as Crimean Russians Call for Separate ‘Malorossiya’” (Jan. 2014)
“Will Ukraine Crisis Become Second Crimean War? Tatars and Russian Nationalists Take Sides” (Jan. 2014)


  1. I hate to be the one to point this out, but there are some small details that you got a little wrong. The Crimean Tatars aren't really Tatars like the (Kazan) Tatars; they've just been stuck with the name because Russian explorers indiscriminately applied the name "Tatar" to any Muslim, Turkic-speaking people. Finally, the Crimean Tatars speak a Turkic language that isn't (Anatolian) Turkish. Otherwise, good article.

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