What is going on in Crimea and why should we care?
By John D. Turner
24 Mar 2014

They took a vote in Crimea, and it looks like 95.5% of voters support joining Russia. Now what?

You can say, well, this isn’t the proper way to do things at all. You don’t invade a country, then hold a referendum (while occupying the place) to see if the people back you, and if they do, it’s yours. And you would be right. You can also say, how valid is a vote anyway when backed up by the barrel of a gun? And once again you would be right.

And of course, there is also the fact that the voters had but two choices; join Russia or become independent. Staying part of Ukraine wasn’t an option. It would be as if the US were to invade the border states of Mexico on the pretext of saving them from the evil drug cartels and restoring order, holding a referendum, and telling them they had two choices; independence or joining the US while at the same time telling Mexico to pound sand.

Not that such a scenario is even remotely possible.

You could also question the validity of the vote itself. What percentage of the population actually voted? We just had a primary election here in Texas. 7% of registered Republicans and 2% of registered Democrats bothered to show up. I know that the media is showing mobs of happy, excited Crimean’s apparently welcoming Putin like the second coming, but we all know how easy it is to stage such spectacles.

And who knows? Maybe they are excited to become part of Russia – again. It isn’t as if the Crimea has historically belonged to Ukraine. I know history isn’t something we in America are that into these days, but bear with me.

The area known as the Crimean peninsula, aka the Crimea, has been occupied by all sorts of folks for the past 2000 years. Focusing on the past several hundred or so, it was part of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th to the 18th centuries, when control passed to the Russian Empire, then to the USSR in 1921. Under the Soviets, the area was part of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR); the part of the Soviet Union that included “Soviet Russia,” the “Russian Federation,” or simply “Russia.” This area was the largest, most populous, and most economically developed republic of the Soviet Union, which at the time consisted of 16 autonomous republics, five autonomous oblasts, ten autonomous okrugs, six krais, and forty oblasts. Don’t worry if you don’t understand all that – it’s all Russian to me as well.

The important thing here is that the Crimea was part of Russia, and had been since 1783 when it was annexed by the Russian Empire; the same year, incidentally, that the US and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the revolutionary war that made us an independent nation.

So how, you might ask, did it become part of the Ukraine? Well, glossing over a lot of fractious history that occurred in the mid 1800’s when the European powers were fighting for influence over territories belonging to the declining Ottoman Empire, much of which were fought in the Crimea, and events that happened during the Russian Civil War period of 1917-1921, from which was born the USSR, and then again WW II, which saw the area occupied by the Germans (with ethnic Tartars supporting them, for which they paid dearly when Russia reoccupied the area in 1944), we move our timeline up to 1954.

On 19 Feb 1954, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (led by Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union) issued a decree transferring the Crimean region of the RSFSR to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, also an “autonomous republic” of the USSR. Why did Khrushchev do this? There are many theories. And it probably didn’t seem like a big deal at the time since both were part of the Soviet Union. It would be as if the Congress, for some reason, decided to award a piece of California to Oregon or something like that. (Or perhaps, like the recent EPA decision which transferred the city of Riverton and surrounding area from Wyoming to the Wind River Indian Reservation). Of course, after the Soviet collapse things seemed a bit different.

Ukraine held a referendum on independence in December 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time, 54 percent of Crimean voters favored independence from Russia, the lowest majority of any area in Ukraine. In fact, they weren’t all that certain they wanted to be part of an independent Ukraine either. They agreed to stay part of Ukraine, but with significant autonomy, including their own constitution, legislature, and briefly, their own president. Ethnically, the area is predominately Russian, but only because the area was “ethnically cleansed” by the USSR.

The area is strategically significant to Russia, as their Black Sea fleet is based in Sevastopol. In 1994 they signed a memorandum pledging to uphold the territorial integrity of Ukraine, including the Crimea. This memorandum was also signed by the US, UK and France. The agreement to uphold the territorial integrity of Ukraine was made in exchange for an agreement by Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons (a legacy left behind by the Soviets). The latter was no small thing; at the time Ukraine had the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, boasting 176 ICBMs armed with over 1800 nuclear warheads, and an additional 2600 tactical nuclear weapons as well.

But, as another famous Russian, Vladimir Lenin once said, “treaties are like pie crusts; they are made to be broken.” And this wasn’t even a treaty; only a “memorandum.”

There has been significant unrest in Crimea, and the issue of who owns the area has been churning for quite a while among the people who live there. The Crimean Parliament declared the area a “NATO-free territory” in 2006 after a joint Ukraine-NATO military exercise resulted in US Marines arriving at the city of Feodosiya to take part in the exercise; even though the exercise was authorized by Ukraine, which, fearing Russian aggression, has been trying to join NATO for some time.

In September 2008, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister accused Russia of giving out Russian passports to the population in Crimea, which, given Russia’s declared policy of military intervention abroad to “protect Russian citizens,” was significant cause for alarm. Indeed, Russia followed the same tactic in Georgia, using it as a pretext for military intervention in 2008.

In 2009, anti-Ukrainian demonstrations were held by ethnic Russians. Things have been simmering until this year, when thousands of pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters clashed in front of the parliament building on 26 Feb, leading to the current state of affairs; Russian military forces occupying key areas of Crimea on 28 Feb, the Russian parliament granting President Putin the authority to use military force in Ukraine on 1 March, the Crimean parliament voting to join Russia on 6 March, and the above mentioned referendum.

The US and the EU have, as expected, condemned the Russian move. However, there really isn’t much we or they can do about it. Any action that might be contemplated in the UN will certainly be vetoed by Russia –so that is out. And while Ukraine has applied to become part of NATO, and has been considered a candidate since January 2008, and has even joined NATO in military exercises (like the aforementioned one in Crimea), it is not at this time part of the alliance. So the actions of Russia do not automatically trigger a NATO response.

Military response is pretty much off the table anyway. The US, is “weary of war,” as has been publically stated by our president. In fact, we are in the midst of a significant drawdown of our military forces, to levels not seen since before the Second World War. We have pulled out of Iraq, and will no doubt be out of Afghanistan before the end of the year. Europe is no more ready for military conflict that we.

Mr. Putin, is in a strong position here. He apparently is prepared for war – at least against adversaries like Ukraine. He obviously does not expect any military action from the US or the NATO allies, and in actuality, the only blowback so far has been a lot of posturing and hot air. We have stated that we “will not recognize Crimea as part of Russia,” placed sanctions on certain individual Russians that are part of the government (not including Mr. Putin) and have announced the possibility of additional sanctions if they don’t withdraw. It doesn’t seem to have affected Mr. Putin or actual affairs on the ground in Crimea (and in Russia) one whit.

Additionally, most of the oil and natural gas that fuels Europe gets there from Russia via pipelines that cross Ukraine. And Russia has control of the pipelines.

The US could have significant impact with regard to the oil and natural gas issue, as our production of natural gas and oil has been rapidly ramping up due to fracking. However we do not have the infrastructure in place to get it to Europe quickly in significant quantities, and besides, the current administration is on an all-out campaign across multiple fronts to end the oil boom in the US at the earliest opportunity as it conflicts with its established goal of weaning the country off “dirty” petroleum products and on to “clean, renewable” sources of energy such as wind and solar.

Indeed, the administration is on record as being against exporting natural gas to Europe. According to them, such a move is “not the answer.” Just as, during the past two election cycles, drilling for more oil was “not the answer” to skyrocketing gasoline prices.

While it is true that the infrastructure is not now in place, this administration’s reactions to such “challenges” is not to call for the building of said infrastructure (which would lead to more jobs for Americans and perhaps allow for more options in the future), but rather to point out that building it (which of course, takes time) would not immediately help the situation, and therefore should not be done.

This would be akin to saying that we can’t go to the moon today because we lack the infrastructure to do so and we shouldn’t build the infrastructure because doing so will not enable us to get to the moon today. The logic is somewhat circuitous and self-serving, designed to serve an ideological purpose (dislike for fossil fuels) vice a practical one (jobs, enhanced security, energy independence, and an additional diplomatic/political tool that can be used to reduce the influence of inimical nation-states whose economies are largely based on petrochemicals; aka Russia, Iran, etc).

It also would not be in keeping with the “war” that the administration currently is fighting and for which “weariness” will never be an issue; the “war” on anthropomorphic global warming. That, like the "war on poverty" and the "war on drugs" is a sinkhole that we can throw money down ad infinitum, and use to justify lots of nifty new taxes and provide means to “redistribute wealth” for generations to come. Something more to the liking of the left than responding to Mr. Putin’s boorish land grab with any meaningful US policy.

Mr. Putin has also announced that should the US decide to impose sanctions (presumably, something more serious than the weak sanctions Washington recently issued, which caused one of Putin’s top officials to refer to the President as “a prankster”), Russia will retaliate by “turning to other currencies.” In the past, such a threat could have been laughed off with impunity. In today’s world however things are very different than they once were. Other countries have already begun doing this; wide spread rejection of the dollar as the world’s “reserve currency” could have catastrophic economic impact here in the US.

And of course, just incidentally, Russia has casually mentioned that they could turn the US into “radioactive ash.” This is not the first time since the fall of the USSR that we have heard sources in Russia threaten us with nuclear weapons. Lately however, the focus has been primarily on EMP instead of actual surface or air bursts over US cities. Much more elegant to take down the entire country with 3-4 warheads and just watch as we wither on the vine.

So what is likely to happen? Are we going to watch another “line in the sand” dissolve as our president backs water and claims he never drew it in the first place, like he did with Syria? Perhaps. The fact is we are in no position to do anything about it. Nor, likely, does this administration really have any desire to do so. Instead, we will probably demonstrate some of that “flexibility” the president told Mr. Putin he would have after the election and which we, the electorate, granted him by his re-election.

The easiest out (and perhaps the most palatable for the administration) would be to simply say, however irregular the action might be, the people of Crimea have stated their desire to join with Russia and thus, the will of the people must stand. Sorry Ukraine, suck it up. If the Russians try anything else with you we will of course stand behind you, but Crimea is a special case. At this point, Obama has drawn another line in the sand, saying that the US and its allies “will never” recognize Crimea’s vote. However, Obama has drawn red lines before and disregarded them; Putin has to wonder what makes this occasion any different.

Perhaps what should happen here is that the President should put away his etch-a-sketch and quit “drawing lines” that he has no intention to (or increasingly, ability to) enforce. Nobody believes him anymore. His administration has made the decision, for better or for worse, to disengage; to draw down the military, and to concentrate on wasting money fighting “anthropomorphic global warming” and funding giveaway programs at home vice policing the globe. He now needs to match his rhetoric to his actions.

If America is to become “just another nation,” then we have to behave as “just another nation.” You can’t throw away all the trappings of a superpower and still pretend that you are a superpower. It doesn’t work like that.

Nature abhors a vacuum. If America wants to pick up all its marbles and go home, the world will be fine with that. And other countries, Russia among them, will be quick to rush in and fill the opportunity vacuum that America has left behind. That’s the way the world works; it’s the way the world has always worked and the way it always will work, despite how Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry and others of their ilk fondly imagine the world should work.

Mr. Obama, Mr. Kerry, nations haven’t acted this century the way Russia is acting now, not because this is the 21st century and everyone has somehow become “enlightened,” but rather because the United States hasn’t allowed them to act in such a manner. The last attempt of a country to annex another nation was Iraq trying to forcibly annex Kuwait in 1990 (only 24 short years ago, not back in the 19th century as Mr. Kerry seems to think). That failed because of a coalition of nations led by the United States that prevented it. Now that the United States has announced in so many ways that it is unwilling (and unilaterally making itself unable) to do so any longer, expect to see more of such behavior in the future.

And here we see the difference between Iraq in 1990 and Russia today. A different administration notwithstanding, Russia has nuclear weapons and has indicated a willingness to use them. Iraq did not. Forcing Iraq out of Kuwait was therefore thinkable, particularly absent any countervailing threat from Russia. Forcing Russia out of Crimea? Not so much. This also explains Iran's determination to acquire nuclear weapons of her own. No one said the Iranians were stupid - just fanatical.

So, Russia takes back Crimea, based on “historical ties.” What about other such regions in the area, like Transnistria, another area that most Americans are unfamiliar with. Transnistria is an area about the size of Rhode Island, part of Moldova, that proclaimed its independence in 1990, during the breakup of the Soviet Union, and which, in a 2006 plebiscite, voted to seek eventual unification with Russia (although none of this was recognized internationally). Pro-Russian sentiment runs high there, and there are already 1200 Russian troops stationed in Transnistria. There are many similarities between this area and Crimea, and "South Ossetia" in Georgia. Of course, should ethnic Russians there "require assistance" from Mother Russia, Russian forces would need to cross Ukraine to get there...

It bears remembering that Alaska used to be part of Russia as well, from 1733 until 1867 when we purchased it from them for $7.2 million, an event that at the time was labeled “Seward’s folly” by the press. Russia has, from time to time evidenced a desire to reverse that decision; indeed, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a Russian politician, Colonel in the Russian Army, leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party, Vice-Chairman of the State Duma, has publicly advocated, during one of his Presidential campaigns, forcibly retaking Alaska from the US.

Today Odessa, someday Alaska?

UPDATE: Mr. Putin has now formally annexed Crimea. He has stormed Ukrainian military bases in Crimea, and taken them over, planting the Russian flag. On Monday, 24 March, the ruble becomes the official currency. Mr. Putin has ordered that police, civil defense, domestic intelligence and other governmental structures in Crimea must follow Russian law and procedures by Saturday, 29 March. It is, as far as he is concerned, a done deal and he is moving on. The US is talking about “additional sanctions,” and Europe and the US have officially dropped Russia from the G8, canceling the upcoming conference in Sochi. Mr. Putin’s concern over US actions is monumentally absent.

While the US natters on about “sanctions” and Mr. Kerry attempts to make current history fit his world view and the world view of others on the left, Mr. Putin has gone on the offensive, negotiating military bases for Russia in, among other places, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, spitting in the face of the Monroe Doctrine and all prior administrations have done to keep Russia far from our shores. And why not? The current administration ripped up the Monroe Doctrine years ago.

Russian military bases in our hemisphere? No problem! The US is just another nation after all, and the Monroe Doctrine was just an imperialistic rag penned by a saber-rattling, war-mongering, slave-owning dead white guy. I am sure that Russia can think of something to do with that missile base Venezuela has been building, the one that was supposed to be fitted with Iranian missiles that could barely reach Florida. With Russian missiles, they can cover the entire United States. And wouldn’t Cuba make a jolly base for Russian submarines? How about land forces and strategic bombers in Nicaragua?

The US is chasing its tail while being studiously ignored by Russia as irrelevant, a picture that unfortunately the Obama Administration seems to be framing and setting into place on the world mantelpiece for all to view and admire.

If Russia moves into Ukraine proper, Ukraine will fight. They remember all too well what it was like to be dominated by Russia in the past. The question is – will we support them? That doesn’t necessarily mean American boots on the ground; but it has to be more than “sanctions.”

We can send arms. We can reverse our current military drawdown. We can send the missile defenses we promised Poland under the Bush administration to Warsaw. We can provide intelligence and logistical support. There is a lot we can do other than sending actual troops if we want.

But will we? Or will the President continue to demonstrate that “flexibility” he promised Mr. Putin in his second term, blaming our inaction on the US citizenry being “tired” of war while the citizens of Ukraine are once again crushed under the Russian boot?

More on Crimea than you probably want to know…