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7 answers to tough questions about Russia, Ukraine and Crimea

by Jared Sichel

March 4, 2014 | 5:28 pm

Map from Global News

Map from Global News

As dinner conversations, news shows, and water-cooler talk have turned from Oscar selfies to, well, real news, one topic has dominated  the Twitterverse and the airwaves (Russia! Ukraine! Russia invaded Ukraine!). 

As often happens, though, with complex stories that become part of the national conversation (see: Bitcoin), people forget to ask the basic questions, and either don't dialogue out of fear of being suspected of ignorance, or particpate and confirm people's suspicions.

To help improve the level of water-cooler discourse, here are the 10 basic questions you need answered before engaging in conversation on Russia's quasi-invasion of quasi-Ukraine, AKA Crimea.

1. Why does Russia care so much about its relationship with a country that is a fraction of its size and a shadow of its strength?

For two reasons, the first of which is sentimental, the second of which is pragamatic. Vladimir Putin regards the collapse of the Soviet Union as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." Putin, along with, don't forget, many Russians, wax nostalgically for the days when Russia shared the world stage with the United States. It was just so fun! To further the aim of becoming as important as it wants to be in global affairs, Putin acts sttategically and pragmatically towards reaching that aim. 

A necessary ingredient for recapturing global prominence is a close relationship with Ukraine, which aside from having a wealth of mineral deposits and millions of ethnic Russians, serves as a geographic gateway to Western Europe, and comprises the northern edge of the Black Sea, which is the only body of water that gives Russia military and economic access to the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, and Syria, where Russia has a naval port. A non-allied, or worse yet, hostile, eastern neighbor, would make Russia's standing in the Black Sea trickier.

As Daniel Drezner writes in Foreign Policy, "Russia without Ukraine is a country; Russia with Ukraine is an empire."

2. What was going on in Ukraine before Russia took over Crimea?


Riot policemenare hit by fire caused by molotov cocktails hurled by anti-government protesters during clashes in Kiev on Feb. 18. Photo by Stringer/Reuters 

One word: Euromaidan. In late 2013, it looked almost certain that Ukraine's government was inching towards Western Europe's cozy economic umbrella, with its anticipated signing of an Association Agreement with the European Union. Well, that unnerved Putin, who lobbied hard to keep his ally, Ukraine's democratically elected Viktor Yanukovych, under a Russian thumb. Walter Russell Mead writes that "after heavy lobbying from Russia, which appears to have consisted of a mix of major threats to Ukrainian exports, promises of a better deal from Gazprom and undisclosed private offers to leading Ukrainian political figures and industrialists, Ukraine’s government rejected the EU deal." 

Yanukovych's EU snub blew the cover off the Ukrainian teapot, which has been simmering for years. The western and northern regions are native Ukrainian speakers. The eastern and southern regions are more mixed, with millions of people who identify as ethnic Russians. The country is split between a Western faction and an Eastern faction. One of which wants EU integration, while the other wants to remain close to Russia. The context of Putins quib that the Soviet Union's collapse was a "tragedy" is that he was referring to the millions of ethnic Russians who lived outside Russia but inside the Soviet Union. When the USSR collapsed, they were no longer living in their home country; in this case, Ukraine.

When the streets of Kiev filled with mostly peaceful protesters calling for Yanukovych to accept the EU offer. Yanukovych refused, the EU would not change the terms, and Putin pledged billions in aid to Ukraine so as to give it a carrot for remaining loyal, and maintained its offer for Ukraine to join a customs union with itself, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. As David Herszenhorn writes in the New York TImes, the outrage displayed by street protestors "made it all but impossible for Mr. Yanukovich to take the alternative offered by the Kremlin." Yanukovych, a corrupt autocrat by all accounts, was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Move towards the EU and risk Putin's wrath. Cozy with Putin and watch the streets go up in flames.

As November and December turned into the early months of 2014, the protests continued, and eventually, things turned bloody, with police using live ammunition, protestors using molotov cocktails and rocks, and dozens of civilians and police officers lying dead in the streets after the smoke cleared.

On Feb. 22nd, Yanukovych read the tea leaves and fled Kiev after his own guards abandoned him. Parliament declared him unable to fulfill his duties as president, and installed an interim government, scheduling elections for May 25th.


Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on Feb. 28. Photo by Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

3. And after all that happened, how did Crimea pop into the picture?

First, let's address the question you should have asked: "What and where is Crimea?" Good question.


Map from Global News

Crimea is an autonomous region within Ukraine. It has its own parliament and prime minister, but is subject to Ukrainian law. It's largely comprised of ethnic Russians and its leaders, if it had to choose, would rather be a part of Russia than a part of Ukraine. Until 1954, Crimea was part of Russia. But Nikita Khruschev "gifted" Crimea to Ukraine as a token of his appreciation for its being part of the Soviet Union. Losing Crimea was one of the "tragedies" of which Putin spoke.

Russia's Black Sea Fleet is docked at its Crimean port. Ukraine's navy is also based in Crimea, which makes that slice of land particularly valuable to both countries. Russia's Crimean port is its only naval port that has access to ice-free waters year-round, and its the only part that gives Russia access to the Mediterranean sea, which allows it to project (a shell of its old) power in North Africa and the Middle East. And considering that it also has a port in Tartus, Syria, losing access to its Crimean port would make life more difficult for Putin, since the ships docked in Syria likely sailed from the Black Sea.

Although Russia has an agreement with Ukraine that allows it to legally dock its ships in Crimea, Yanukovych's fall and the surge in Ukrainian (anti-Russian) nationalism must have seriously alarmed Putin and Russia's military leaders. Although the interim Ukrainian government would not attempt to kick Russia out of its Crimean ports, Putin determined that he would eliminate all possibility of that by sending in thousands of troops, arming pro-Russian militias, and effectively seizing Crimea for the time being. Putin knows that losing his Black Sea port would mean losing a good deal of relevance on the global chess board. As unlikely as losing it is, his determination to keep Russia relevant is what's behind his decision to quasi-invade Crimea.

4. Is Russia occupying Crimea?

Yes, but it's not the type of occupation where the population is hostile. Putin has no intention of occupying a hostile population, which is why he's not expected to send troops into Ukraine's mainland. Crimeans are overwhelmingly pro-Russian, aside from its Tartar population, which is overwhelmingly anti-Russian. 

5. Why isn't Ukraine defending itself against Russia's aggression?

Because that would be useless and self-destructive. Ukraine has no chance, none, of forcing Russia out of Crimea. Which is why it has kept its troops inside their Crimean bases, aside from allowing dozens of unarmed soldiers to march on the Belbek airstrip, which Russian forces have held for days. Additionally, how could Ukraine even be so sure who of its military personnel in Crimea aren't siding with Russia? On March 2, Ukraine's top navy commander Denis Berezovsky, swore his allegiance to pro-Russia forces in Crimea.


Ukrainian navy chief Denis Berezovsky swears allegiance to the pro-Russian regional leaders of Crimea in Sevastopol on March 2. Photo from Reuters TV

If, though, Russia invaded mainland Ukraine, the underdog would certainly use any means necessary to defend itself. 

6. What next? 

It's useless giving predictions, but there are a few options, with varying probabilities. A Russian invasion is unlikely, as is a Ukrainian counterstrike against Russian forces in Crimea. Matters will likely proceed as far as Russia is willing to take them. With the United States talking big and carrying a small stick, as James Mann writes in the New Republic, Russia has little to fear, aside from (maybe) some economic and travel sanctions. Even so, the current White House is too intent on its Russia "reset" to risk fraying its imaginary relationship with Moscow by pushing hard for sanctions.

The real question is whether Russia moves to annex Crimea, which would possibly come with the cost of damaging economic sanctions, allows Crimea to become an independent nation, which is unlikely, removes its forces from Crimea, and allows it to fall back into semi-Ukrainian control, or maintains the status quo for as long as it wants.

7. Is there a way to remember Russia's motives behind all of its geopolitical moves?

Yes, here it is: Russia always does what it thinks will make it more powerful. Always. No exceptions.


Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on  March 4. Photo by Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

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