So is Russia just reconquering the Soviet Union?

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For those who haven’t kept up with the ongoing developments, Russia is in the midst of invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea, a prized region contested for centuries by Bulgars, Greeks, Italians, Mongols, Turks, among maybe a dozen others, and, most recently, Russians.

I’ve visited Crimea, and after seeing this Black Sea peninsula for myself, it’s easy to see why it’s such a popular spot for prospective world conquerors. They’ve not only been enjoying the scenery, but they’ve also built all sorts of palaces over the centuries that have added greatly to its historical significance.

Livadia Palace, Crimea, Ukraine
The Livadia Palace, site of the famous Yalta Conference, where the fate of Europe was decided after World War II.

And like the Tsars of old, Putin is invading the region to bring this jewel in the crown back into the Russian fold.

Make no mistake about this; these are not “peacekeeping” forces. It was peaceful before the invasion. This is just plain and simple annexation, under the pretense of “self-determination” and “protection of Russian citizens.”

But let’s back up for a moment, shall we?

What’s going on in Ukraine?

I can only give a basic summary of all the events that have emerged from Ukraine in the last several months, but each and every chapter has been increasingly dramatic (follow the BBC’s Ukraine timeline for ongoing details).

What started as a relatively small protest over the decision to align Ukraine more closely with the European Union or Russia has turned into a full-blown revolution.

Kiev protests of 2014
The source page for this photo includes a detailed timeline of the protests.

Here’s what’s happened so far:

  • Protestors gather in November to protest the deal that would align Ukraine more closely with Russia, with major events drawing 800,000 people.
  • Ukrainian government declares protests illegal. Protestors protest more.
  • Violent clashes eventually kill dozens. Reports emerge of police abducting and beating protestors. Protestors protest more.
  • Protests grow so massive that President Yanukovych flees the country. Protestors take over government buildings and set up an interim government, with elections scheduled for May 25th.
  • Interim government frees Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s arch-rival, who had been imprisoned under dubious claims, largely seen as mere political imprisonment.

One could say the Arab Spring has spread to Ukraine…but remember that Ukraine had its own massive Orange Revolution back in 2004, when pretty much the same thing happened, instigated by allegations of rigged elections.

The main square in Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev has been transformed:

Maidan before and after 2014 protests, Kiev, Ukraine

So what about Crimea?

As if Ukraine’s problems weren’t deep enough, Russia has invaded Crimea. They’ve taken over strategic areas, and have scheduled a referendum for March 16, when the population of Crimea will vote on whether or not they want to become part of Russia.

Map of Ukraine, Crimea highlighted
That’s Crimea in red.

Given the demographics of the region, they probably will.

How can part of Ukraine not want to be part of Ukraine?

See that river cutting Ukraine in two? That’s the Dnieper River, and it essentially symbolizes the divisions between eastern and western Ukraine, which cut along ethnic, linguistic, and political lines, which is a big part of the reason why Ukraine has had such divisive problems.

Plenty of intermingling has complicated the issue, but for the most part, western Ukraine is mostly ethnically Ukrainian, speaks Ukrainian, and favors closer ties to Europe, and eventual EU membership. Eastern Ukraine (including Crimea) is mostly ethnically Russian, speaks Russian, and favors closer ties to Russia.

Lviv town square, Lviv, Ukraine
This is Lviv, where Ukrainian culture is on proud display, and utterly distinct from Ukraine’s Russian influences.

What’s more, Crimea actually did belong to Russia, until 1954, when the head of the Soviet Union simply transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian population in Crimea (and the rest of Ukraine) suddenly found themselves in a brand new country, and Russians inside and out lamented the loss of this beloved region, and sometimes yearned for its return.

Ukraine’s political, cultural, and linguistic divisions have prompted calls for partition, which would split the country approximately in half, along the contours of the Dnieper River. Western Ukraine would retain the title of Ukraine, and the eastern half could pursue its own interests. It sounds like a tidy solution, but partition would not be without its own problems.

Ironically, Russia’s invasion of Crimea will obviously make Ukraine even more distrustful of Russia, as well as demographically less Russian, which means its political future will see it drift further and further away from Russia. If Russia’s goal was to keep Ukraine as an ally or puppet state, they have already failed.

What happens to the Tatars?

A significant part of the reason Crimea has become predominantly Russian is that Stalin decided to ethnically cleanse the region of the Crimean Tatars, who had been the native inhabitants of the peninsula since the middle ages. Stalin deported each and every one of them to Uzbekistan, where half of them died.

Kul-Sharif Mosque, Kazan, Russia
Russia’s Tatar heritage is on full display in Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, where the Kul-Sharif Mosque is the centerpiece of town.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were allowed to return home. Crimea is now home to 250,000 Crimean Tatars, who form about 12% of its population. As you might imagine, they are adamantly opposed to Russian annexation.

To complicate matters even further, Russia itself is also home to millions of Tatars, particularly in the region known as Tatarstan, despite a certain amount of ethnic divergence. Imagine how this would play out if Russia were to violently crack down on Crimean Tatar protests.

So what now for Crimea?

Crimea is probably going to become part of Russia. And no one can do anything to stop it.

Russia has already proven that it’s willing to use force, while Ukraine, Europe, and the US have already proven they are willing to do nothing but voice their disapproval. Talk of sanctions has emerged, but does anyone see Russia going home empty-handed because of a few sanctions? Me neither.

Since a referendum would likely result in Crimea’s majority Russian population voting in favor of Russian allegiance, and since Russia and Ukraine have already seen plenty of pro-Russian vote rigging, I think the vote might as well not even take place. Ukraine won’t be capable of retaliating militarily, and since Ukraine isn’t part of NATO, no one else will bother with military intervention. It’s over.

Allegations have already emerged that Russia is digging up the natural land bridge between Ukraine and Crimea, cutting the peninsula off from the mainland, after which it will become entirely dependent on Russia.

So what is Russia really up to?

I can’t see this as any more than just a blatant land grab. And if anyone has forgotten, this isn’t the first time this has happened. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, “liberating” (annexing) the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, using similar arguments of protecting ethnically Russian populations and offering them a chance at self-determination.

Georgia and contested regions
Georgia, with its contested regions highlighted. Source.

And long before that, Russia has a history of “liberating” countries who then “voted” to join the Soviet Union, after which Russia would import Russian citizens by the millions, which is why so many Russians found themselves in newly independent, post-Soviet states throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which has caused all manner of ethnic tensions in the decades since.

This has given Russia ample excuse to invade those countries to “protect” Russian citizens. I expect they’ve already started eyeing the resource-rich wonderlands of Central Asia, home to millions of ethnic Russians who are quite likely in need of “protection.”

Putin is on the record as calling the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. This would of course imply that he is of the opinion that rebuilding it would be the greatest geopolitical event of the 21st.

I’m not saying he will. But it would be stupid to think he doesn’t want to, or that he doesn’t have the means, or the excuses, as have been used in the past and present, to do so.

So what can anyone do?

There’s actually a pretty great way to reduce Russia’s ability to conquer its neighbors. Since a huge portion of Russia’s state revenue is dependent on oil and natural gas, all anyone needs to do is abandon the use of fossil fuels in favor of clean and renewable energy.

And since global warming is such a looming disaster for everyone, we’ve obviously been working hard at fixing this problem and developing sustainable alternatives to ensure a clean energy future, right?


Aw, fuck.

In summation…

I can only hope this has offered some insight into a thoroughly complicated issue that, up until the Ukrainian political and Crimean territorial crises, has gotten little attention outside of Ukraine and Russia.

And though I preferred to be impartial here, I would have loved to have shared some thoughts and experiences on my time in Ukraine, particularly in light of neighboring Poland, whose 20th century history has seen similar scars. Poland has moved on from its tumultuous past, and joined Europe, in what appears to be a promising future. It felt like what Ukraine could have been, and could still become, but Ukraine’s public spaces now resemble war zones. Any promise of a brighter future has, at best, been greatly postponed.

For now we have this:

Gas Man of Kiev, Ukraine
The so-called “Gas Man of Kiev.” Source unknown.

To be honest, I felt the same way about Russia. Its post-Soviet collapse gave way, at least for a while, to its once-cordial relations with the West. It might have turned out rather differently if it weren’t for its ex-KGB vote-rigging president who seems more concerned with nationalist power than real problems. It’s true of all history, of course; none of it ever needs to be as bad as it actually is, particularly when it comes to the tragedy of arbitrarily drawn international borders.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. Not in Russia, nor in Ukraine. But I’m rather confident that although it might not get any worse, it’s certainly not going to get any better for quite some time.

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