In 1938 Adolf Hitler prepared to send troops into the Sudentenland, the western predominantly German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia, on the grounds that the ethnic Germans there were being mistreated. At the infamous meeting in Munich, to which the Czechs were not invited, France and Britain agreed to German annexation of the area, easing Europe a bit further down the road to war, which broke out a year later when the western powers refused accept the same justification for Hitler’s claim on Danzig and the Polish Corridor. Vladimir Putin, czar of the reborn Russian empire, has now done the same in Ukraine, occupying the Crimea and threatening the Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine. Unlike Hitler, however, he did not wait for permission from the west.
The history of Ukraine is to a large extent the history of Russia, and both groups trace their origins to the Kievan Rus’, the first great Slavic state, which took shape in the late ninth century. Ironically, the initial ruling elite was not Slavic but Scandinavian, the Varangians, a Viking group that had settled the region via the great rivers from the north. They quickly disappeared into the Slavic majority, but it was under their leadership that Kievan Rus’ was established, and under the Rurik dynasty it became in the tenth and eleventh centuries easily the most powerful state in Europe, controlling territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The state began to disintegrate in the twelfth century, and in the thirteenth the Mongols showed up, devastating the land and destroying Kiev itself in 1240. Kievan Rus’ fragmented into separate principalities, the most powerful of which was the kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, which in the fourteenth century fell under the control of the grand Duchy of Lithuania and the kingdom of Poland. This complicated matters inasmuch as the new rulers were Catholics, and in 1596 they introduced the Uniate Church, which employed eastern rituals but was under the Pope, thus creating a sectarian divide.
The southern area, along the Black Sea, became the Crimean Khanate, ruled by the Crimean Tatars, descendants of the Mongols. At the same time a principality on the northeastern periphery of Kievan Rus’, Vladimir-Suzdal, grew into the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which would become Russia. And there was of course the growing power of the Cossacks on the Dnieper and the Don, leading to the emergence of the Cossack Hetmanate, which dominated much of southern Ukraine.
In the seventeenth century the Ukraine experienced its own Thirty Years War, when from 1657-1686 the Poles, Russians, Cossacks and Turks (and a dash of Tatars) fought for control of the area. The result was the “Eternal Peace,” which gave the land west of the Dnieper to Poland and the land east to Russia. This divided the Cossacks, who nevertheless remained a powerful force in Ukraine, and in the early eighteenth century they joined Poland and Sweden in a war against Russia. They were crushed, and the Hetmanate was abolished by Catherine the Great in 1764. The last Hetman, Kirill Razumovsky, declared Ukraine a sovereign state in 1763, the first to do so. When Poland was partitioned at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia and Austria divided Ukrainian territory west of the Dnieper. The Crimean Khanate was annexed by Russia in 1783.
A relatively backward agricultural area, Ukraine was of little concern to St. Petersburg and Vienna in the nineteenth century. The western half, Galicia, enjoyed a greater degree of freedom under the Hapsburgs, producing a nationalist movement, while the eastern half suffered under a program of Russification, which attempted to eradicate Ukrainian culture and literature and even language. Ukrainians fought on both sides in World War I, and the entire nation was swept into the chaos and violence following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. In the period 1917-1921 several Ukrainian “states” came and went, and while the bulk of the territory became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, parts of the west went to Poland, Belarus and the new republic of Moldava.
Then came suffering not seen since the days of the Mongols. Some million and a half Ukrainians died during the Russian Civil War and the War with Poland, and an unknown number followed them into the grave during the famine of 1921. During the twenties the Soviet government actually encouraged a revival of Ukrainian culture and language, but that changed with the triumph of Stalin at the end of the decade. As a result of the forced collectivisation millions died of starvation in the early thirties, and during the purges more than a half million people were murdered, eliminating 80% of the Ukrainian cultural elite. In the wake of this horror many Ukrainians in the west welcomed the Nazis as liberators, but German atrocities turned most to the unpleasant course of supporting the USSR, and during the war Ukraine actually regained territory previously ceded to others.
To the destruction caused by the war was added the deaths of tens of thousands during the famine of 1946-1947 and the deportation of hundreds of thousands prior to Stalin’s death in 1953. Familiar with Ukraine and interested in establishing better relations, in 1954 Khrushchev transferred the Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, thus establishing the circumstances for the present crisis. During the post-war period Ukraine enjoyed tremendous economic growth and influence, producing many prominent figures, including Leonid Brezhnev.
On 24 August 1991 Ukraine declared itself to be an independent democratic state, freeing itself from foreign control for essentially the first time in almost a millennium, and in December Ukraine, Belarus and Russia formally dissolved the USSR. The Ukrainian economy suffered massively during the wild days of the nineties, but by 2000 real economic growth had been established. Unfortunately, as with virtually all the former members of the Soviet Empire democracy did not come easy, and increasing fraud, corruption, concentration of power and the plundering of the national wealth led to the Orange Revolution in 2004. Viktor Yanukovych, winner of rigged elections, was thrown out by Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko. Two years later Yanukovych was back in power only to be replaced by Tymoshenko the following year. In 2010 Yanukovych was elected president in a questionable election and had Tymoshenko thrown in prison.
Corruption was rampant under Yanukovych, who established a kleptocracy supported by the country’s oligarchs and became a puppet of Vladimir Putin, who, as is perfectly clear, wanted Ukraine in the new Russian empire. This led to the current revolution and Yanukovych’s flight to Russia. Having lost his stooge, Putin stirred up trouble among the majority Russians in the Crimea and sent in troops (with no insignia) to “protect” them and the Russian naval base leased from Ukraine. This was a blatant violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed by Ukraine, the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom, which guaranteed the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state.
Vladimir Putin in not just the latest autocrat of all the Russias, he also a thug, nurtured in the bosom of the KGB. Knowing that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was terrified of dogs, he deliberately had his large dog present when they met for the first time in Moscow. He may be the most buff ruler of Russia in centuries, but he is a thug, with a Mussolini-like propensity to bare his chest. But then, he is the ruler of Russia, a country filled with a greater than average number of vulgar and cruel people. He is also a liar and a hypocrite, but what national leader is not? He constantly touts national sovereignty (“stay out of Syria”) and then promptly invades Ukraine. Of course US protests about violating sovereignty also ring a bit hollow, since we do it constantly, especially in Pakistan, and give unqualified support to a state, Israel, which seems to have no concept of national sovereignty beyond its own.
So what can the west do? Western leaders are of course “closely monitoring” the situation, expressing “grave concerns” and calling for calm, all while wondering what the hell they can do. Who actually controls the Crimea is hardly a major security interest for the west (good luck with all those Tatars, Vlad!) and places like Germany are far more concerned about Russian natural gas supplies, but from the beginning of time major powers have been concerned about losing face. And there is substance to the notion that if aggression is not countered, the aggressor will seek more.
Still, we hardly want an actual war with the Russians, despite the fact that their military is a shadow of its former self. It is mighty risky policy to get into a shooting contest with someone who has nuclear weapons, and if Hungary was not worth getting nuked for in 1956, the Crimea certainly is not in 2014. Of course there is John “Why Are We Not Still in Vietnam” McCain advocating activating NATO junior partner status for Ukraine and Georgia, failing completely to understand that this is exactly the sort of thing that drives paranoid dictators over the edge. Look at the virtual wall of American bases encircling Iran, and one gets a better idea of why they are belligerent.
On the other hand, Barack “Everything Is Secret” Obama has hardly been inspiring in his relatively placid response to the crisis. It certainly does not take an expert in foreign affairs to see the only options available and to begin to implement them. Immediately pump money into Ukraine to stabilize the economy and provide relief if Putin turns off the gas. Ratchet up the diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia. Prince Vlad probably does not care that much about world opinion, despite the big Olympic splash, but his country is a relative economic wimp and might have serious trouble enduring major sanctions, although his people are well accustomed to enjoying a low standard of living. Throw Russia of the G8, freeze her foreign assets, place a travel ban on her leaders and surround the country with a fence of economic sanctions. The problem here of course is those trading with Russia are likely to be far more concerned with the money to be made trading with Russia than who controls the Crimea.
And how did this crisis take the US by such surprise? We are able to monitor every phone call on the planet – to little apparent end – yet our intelligence agencies could not catch troops and equipment being slipped into the Crimean peninsula? Once the revolution against Yanukovych began last year did no one in the government consider what might happen if he fell from power? Is that not basic foreign policy planning? Are we not supposed to mistrust characters like Putin and expect the unexpected? And this in a country where the Pentagon is rumored to have gamed wars against zombies? Perhaps the President and Congress were too busy raising money? I’ll bet there are contingency plans to invade the Russian Commonwealth if they injure Israeli interests.
Well, too bad there is a nuclear component. A naval battle in the Black Sea would be very cool. Where is the Wehrmacht when you need them?