A recent article in The Onion, that pillar of journalistic excellence, described how Americans are bitterly divided over the ongoing crisis in Ukraine between the grossly misinformed and the wholly apathetic. While there is some justification for being apathetic, being misinformed – especially if you want to have some influence in the matter – cannot easily be forgiven.
As the situation continues to develop, it might behoove us to reflect on the history of the area. Because if the United States is going to get drawn in to the conflict, we had better know what we are getting ourselves into.
Back in the 800s, eastern Scandinavians (go ahead and call them Finns, it’s close enough) went a-Viking along the great rivers of what would become Western Russia – the Dneiper, Donets, Don, and Volga. They found a nice spot on the Dneiper and said, “This is a good place for a trading post”, and founded the city of Kiev. The settlement would grow and expand into the Keivan Rus, and then the Grand Principality of Kiev.
The region would get absorbed into Imperial Russia, with parts shifting back and forth amongst Russia, Austria-Hungary, Poland, and even the Ottoman Empire. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the area tried to make itself independent by setting up the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It didn’t last. Almost immediately, Poland and Russia fought over it (and in it), with Russia coming out on top. It was assimilated into the USSR in 1922, and there it stood until the USSR’s breakup. Its borders shifted a bit, mostly as a result of the border realignments due to WWII. The last shift was Krushchev’s transferrence of the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.
1991 was the first time the country got to have a real go at independence.
Now Putin, as part of his revanchist ideas, is hoping to take the Crimea back.
While you don’t have to sympathize with him, it’s kind of easy to see where Putin is coming from. Thirty years ago, well within the memory of the present population, Russia (as the Soviet Union) was one of the two global superpowers. They could bend smaller, weaker countries to their will, and scare the crap out of their opponents. Then their entire system collapsed, and the nation fragmented. Now Russia is a shadow of its former self, a victim of cronyism and corruption.
It has got to hurt that the land that was the birthplace of Mother Russia, and the birthplace of some of her greatest cultural icons (Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, to name two), is now a separate and independent nation. Putin must be thinking that the only way to easily restore some of that greatness is to snatch back whatever bits of the former empire he can. The Crimea, which historically isn’t a natural part of Ukraine, is a ripe target.
As to what the United States should do, keep in mind that we have very little interest in the region. We have no strategic assets or concerns in Ukraine, nor is it really important to us from an economic standpoint. It’s not yet become a significant humanitarian crisis, so we don’t have that rationale. The only reason we have for getting involved is diplomatic. Thou Shalt Not Violate The Territorial Integrity Of Another Sovereign Nation. Something in which we have recently been given another lesson.
Frankly, European nations ought to be taking the lead in this, with us coaching from the sidelines, giving moral and financial support as needed. Europe is a lot closer to the action, and has stronger ties to Ukraine than we do. Keep an active eye on the situation, and another eye on the long-term. Putin is already showing signs of pulling back. He’s not going to be running Russia forever, and the Crimea is likely to be a bigger bite than he can chew.
More on the Crimea and Putin here: