Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why Exactly Should We Worry About the Russians Taking Crimea Back?

Ukraine is not all Ukraininans.  More than a a quarter of the population speaks Russia and identify themselves as Russians.  Much of the east of Ukraine has Russian speaking majorities ranging from 55% to the high 90's% in places like the Crimea.  The west and center of the country is all Ukrainian-speakers, the majority of the population.  Until a 1954 decision by Nikita Kruschev, the Crimea was part of Russia, not of the Ukraine.  The reasons if any for this decision are lost in the maze of byzantine post-Stalin succession politics.

Election maps follow the language and ethnic identity maps closely.  In the recent election Russians voted for Yanukovich and most Ukrainians voted for Yulia Tymoshenko.   The election of Yanukovich was marked by Russian financial support, by Putin campaigning in person in Ukraine, and by widespread vote fraud.  When Tymoshenko cried foul and denounced the election as fraudulent, Yanukovich put her in jail on trumped-up charges.

Ukraine had been well on its way to being delivered economically in a package with a bow on it to the European Union and politically and militarily to early recruitment into NATO.

Yanukovich promptly voided the agreements that were to begin the long period of integration of Ukraine into the EU and instead signed agreements binding Ukraine economically to Russia, particularly of import of Russian oil and gas at below-market prices.  This was very much the opposite of what the Ukrainian majority, longing to escape the centuries-long domination by Russia, wanted.

Protests among the Ukrainians grew and grew, inspired perhaps by Tahrir Square in Cairo.  After a massacre of more than a hundred people, they overthrew Yanukovich and established a Ukrainian government.

Within days Russian troops entered Ukraine and occupied its southern peninsula, the Crimea.  Crimea is almost all Russian-speaking.  The minority there are not Ukrainians but Tatars, descendants of the Mongol invaders of the 13th Century.

On the face of it the Russian invasion and occupation of the Crimea is an outrage.  It is an aggression against an unaggressive neighbor.  And most important in Washington it is a breach of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum under which Ukraine gave up its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal in return for its borders being guaranteed by the US, Britain, and Russia.

With Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus all governed from Moscow, the Soviet Union was a world-spanning colossus.  Russia alone without the Ukraine and Belarus is still a major power but not a rival of the US.   Most of its economic clout comes not from the productivity of its economy but from its ability to export oil and gas.  This makes it powerful but only in the way that OPEC countries are powerful - with only a single lever to push.

Belarus today is much smaller than Ukraine in both area and population and under its retrograde Lukashenko dictatorship is an economic basket case that is a major liability to any country seeking influence there.

Ukraine however is five times as populous as Belarus and about a third as populous as Russia itself.   It has enormous resources of coal, iron, agricultural lands, and Black Sea ports.  Much of Soviet heavy industry was concentrated in Ukraine's Donets Basin - the Ruhr of the Soviet Union.  It is still there though increasingly obsolete.

Russia and Ukraine together can be a major world power that could rival even the US.  Russia alone cannot.  So the stakes are very high.  One might even say that as Ukraine goes, so goes the future of the world.  Europe, the US, and the world generally all have reason to care deeply what happens in Ukraine.  Our interest is not just the sympathy we would have for any people trying to overthrow an oppressor.

But what is our interest in the Crimea?  As the current train of events shows the presence of a large Russian minority which in many places constitutes a territorial majority, destabilizes the Ukraine.  A Ukraine in which a large majority are Ukrainians and those owing loyalty primarily to Russia are a small majority, is more likely to be stable and unified than a Ukraine riven by ethnic and political divisions.  The more Russians Ukraine can unload, the more likely it is to succeed as a a stable nation-state.

While territorial dismemberment is not what any country wants, it is likely in Ukraine's long term interest for the Crimea to return to Russian control.  Without a large disaffected minority within its borders it can join the European Union and NATO.  Without a large Russian minority it will be less subject to interference in its internal affairs by Russia.  Ukraine needs more Russians the way Israel needs more Arabs.

Russia already has a large military presence at the port of Sebastopol in southern Crimea, both troops and a navy base ceded by treaty.  One way to get the Russian military off Ukrainian soil is to cede them the territory they are on and be done with it.

Ukraine does not need the Crimean port because it has a much bigger Black Sea port at Odessa, itself a half-Russian city


  1. Exactly right. This was a first impression and has since been proven naive and uninformed.