Are Russia’s actions in the Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine illegitimate or did Moscow have cause to intercede? Demography and history suggest Russian President Vladimir Putin has more of a case than North American media and politicians would like to believe.
This question becomes even more pertinent, as the Crimean Parliament has announced that a referendum will be held on March 16, offering citizens a choice of remaining part of Ukraine, becoming independent, or joining the Russian Federation. Western countries have declared the referendum illegal.
In his March 4 press conference, Putin provided his own interpretation of what has transpired in Ukraine, and his viewpoint cannot simply be written off as self-serving propaganda.
He defended Russia’s actions as a response to an “orgy” of violence by nationalists, fascists, reactionaries and anti-Semites who are now in control of an illegitimate government. He was referring to members of groups such as Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) and the All-Ukrainian Union Svoboda.
Svoboda won 10 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections in 2012 and holds four positions in the interim government in Kyiv. Its leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, and many party members, have made many anti-Semitic statements.
Putin added that he would not recognize a new round of elections “if they were held under the same terror which we are now seeing in Kyiv.” Putin also compared the desire for Crimeans to “determine their own future” with that of Kosovar Albanians in the 1990s.
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs a few days later went on to catalog nine past interventions by the United States and NATO, stretching from the 1958 invasion of Lebanon to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, making the case that Washington “doesn’t and can’t have the moral right to lecture us about compliance of international norms.
“Nevertheless, they dare to reproach Russia for ‘armed aggression’ when she stands up for her countrymen, who constitute the majority of the Crimean people,” the statement continued,
Ukrainians in the western part of the country are quite different than those in the east; because both groups are called by the same name, we sometimes gloss over that fact. But a parallel case would be that of Croats and Serbs in the former Yugoslavia. Those two peoples, too, are very similar in ethnicity and language, yet deeply divided by religion and history.
Croats, like many western Ukrainians, are Catholic, Serbs are Orthodox. Croats, like western Ukrainians, lived under Austro-Hungarian rule before the creation if Yugoslavia; Serbs were under Ottoman Turkish domination.
The Russian Orthodox Church, to which most eastern Ukrainians belong, has endorsed Putin’s stand.
Meanwhile, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the same day as Putin’s press conference compared the Russian leader to Hitler.
At a fundraising event in California, she told her audience that Putin’s concerns for ethnic Russians in Ukraine is reminiscent of Hitler’s desire to protect ethnic Germans “in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they’re not being treated right.”
This statement betrays an incredible ignorance of history; Germans in those countries were not being mistreated by new regimes that had overthrown the established political order. It is also, for a former diplomat, most undiplomatic language.
“You keep drawing up these analogies, they hurt more than they can help,” remarked Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Whatever Putin is, he wasn’t like Hitler. He didn’t massacre thousands of non-Russians in Georgia or anything like that.”
Should she ever again hold high office, how would Clinton be able to speak to the Russian leader – whose country, by the way, suffered more than any other from Hitler’s aggression in the Second World War.
Western politicians fail to understand the intense feeling Russians have for the Crimea. In the 19th century Crimean War, Russian troops withstood a brutal artillery bombardment for nearly a year in Sevastopol, and during a second siege in 1942 in the Second World War, the Red Army held out for eight months against the invading Germans.
“Yes, Crimea is part of Ukraine, but psychologically Russians do not accept that,” explained Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of Moscow’s Centre for Political Technologies. “So much Russian history took place there. From society’s point of view, Russia was correct to defend its right to this territory.”
Sergey Kiselev of Tavrichesky National University in Simferopol said that Russians have not forgotten that one of every 10 soldiers in the Red Army who died during the Second World War was killed there.
When Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin met in Yalta, in the Crimea, in February 1945, to discuss the post-war world, they were not meeting in Ukraine.
Actually, the most likely outcome of this crisis will be a vastly more autonomous Crimea, technically still part of Ukraine, but to all intents and purposes a de facto state controlled from Moscow.
– Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.