The surging crisis in Ukraine is a dramatic example of how wars begin. Take arrogance, toxic nationalism, tribalism, moral outrage and profound miscalculation, mix thoroughly, and, voilà !, another great leap forward in the march of human folly.
Russia just mobilized its western regions armed forces, an inevitable response to the growing turmoil in Ukraine. Most westerners are unaware that Ukraine is the cradle of Russian civilization and, when properly run, one of the world’s great producers of grains.
Now that western Ukraine has fallen to anti-Russian, nationalist groups, Russia-oriented eastern Ukraine is also threatening to explode. This nation of 44 million is already de facto split into two parts. How Ukraine’s armed forces respond remains an important question. On Thursday their command vowed to resist any incursion by Russian troops, but loyalties remain uncertain.
Unrest and some violence have now erupted in Crimea. Though 80% ethnic Russian, this highly strategic peninsula was given by the Soviet leadership to the Soviet Ukrainian Republic in 1954. The result, some say, of a grandiose, drunken gesture by Kremlin leader Nikita Khrushchev, a former Ukraine party boss. Back then it mattered little.
Today, Khrushchev’s gift has become a poisoned chalice. On my last assignment in Crimea, it was clear that most of its people desired reunification with Russia.
Equally important, Sevastopol is Russia’s second most important naval base, and its gateway to the Mediterranean.
Adding complexity, Crimea’s remaining Muslim Tatar population is now calling for their own state independent of Russia. Crimea was once primarily Tatar, the descendants of the 13th century Golden Horde of primarily Kipchak Turkic nomads. The Khanate of Crimea lasted five hundred years until crushed by the expanding Russian Empire.
In the 1940’s, under Stalin’s orders, southern Russia’s Muslim peoples suffered a holocaust in which 3 million were murdered by NKVD secret police firing squads or from starvation and disease in the gulag.
Tatars who survived Stalin’s murderous reign, filtered back to Crimea, only to find their homes and land had been seized by ethnic Russians. Tatars remain a partly homeless internal refugee population calling for redress from the uncaring Russian state. Many Tatars want no part of Russia – like their fellow victims of Stalin, the Chechen.
For Russians, Crimea is not only the principal base of the Black Sea Fleet, the peninsula also was the scene of the epic 250-day siege siege of Sevastopol in 1941.
In a brutal battle for the port and rest of Crimea, the Germans employed monster 800mm and 600mm guns against Sevastopol’s forts that fired 6-7 ton shells that had been built to destroy France’s Maginot Line forts. Sailors of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet played a notable role in the defense. Sevastopol was rightly proclaimed a Hero City of the Soviet Union.
Sebastopol has been Russia’s gateway to the south since the days of Catherine the Great. Crimea is renowned for its sweet wines and the historic resort of Yalta where the doddering fool Franklin Roosevelt, surrounded by Soviet spies and hidden microphones, gave half of Europe to the gleeful Stalin.
Crimea was the epicenter of the 1853-1856 Crimean War in which Britain, France and Turkey combined to block Russian expansion into the Balkans. Most famous, of course, was the disastrous charge into the face of massed Russia guns of the British Light Brigade near Balaclava. Just to the south is a remarkable former Cold War Soviet submarine base hewn into a mountain large enough to hold six-eight u-boats.
The Cold War seems to be resuming, at least in Ukraine. Unrest is also brewing in neighboring Belarus, a nasty Stalinist dictatorship closely aligned with Moscow.
The West and Moscow are trading accusation of meddling in Ukraine. In truth, both are busy stirring the pot, a dangerous game that has brought NATO and Russia to the brink of armed confrontation. The neocon Undersecretary of State for Europe, Victoria Nuland, said US has spent $5 billion promoting anti-Russian groups in Ukraine. Chances of a Ukrainian civil war are also rising.
Ukraine is flat broke. Kiev needs at least $35 billion in immediate loans. Russia has withdrawn its offer of $15 billion. Who wants to lend money to a bankrupt, chaotic Ukraine filled with restive, angry people?