Thursday, August 14, 2008

Crimea crisis looms

In the case of Ukraine, in particular, there was the thoughtless tossing into that country, upon the collapse of Russian communism, of the totally un-Ukrainian Crimean peninsula, together with one of the three greatest Russian naval bases. For that we, too, must accept a share of the blame. But even in this case, all the recent Russian aspirations have been limited to the alleviation of the effects of these blunders; they have not taken the form of any encroachments upon Ukrainian independence.

- George F. Kennan
The renowned US national security strategist spoke the above words in 1999, before Washington announced plans to admit former Soviet Republics such as Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. As Kennan observed, Russia's modest restraint was fortunate blessing, a circumstance which American leaders have taken for granted.

The first fallout of Western arrogance will be the integrity of Georgia. The second could be the status of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine.

In a bizarre twist of fate, Russia is presently forced to lease Sevastopol, the headquarters for its Black Sea Fleet, from Ukraine. But this lease is due to expire in 2017. Ukraine, which hopes to join NATO within the next decade, has declared it wants the Russian navy out of its country before the lease expires. Why is Russia in the position of having to lease Sevastopol from a former Soviet Republic? Der Spiegel reports:
In 1954, the USSR’s Nikita Khrushchev handed the Crimea -- long a favorite holiday spot for Communist party brass -- to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to mark the 300th anniversary of Russo-Ukrainian unification. It was little more than a symbolic gesture until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, which left Crimea a part of a newly independent Ukraine.

During the course of a number of interviews in Crimea, many people said they often feel like persecuted minorities: The state doesn’t recognize Russian as an official language, and Ukrainian schools have been steadily squeezing out Russian ones across the peninsula. There is little feeling that Kiev is listening, while Russia offers €6 million for social programs in Crimean cities, according to local news reports.

The population of the Crimean is largely Russian-speaking, they feel persecuted, and the territory is a historic part of Russia since 1783. Talk about expanding NATO to include Ukraine and possibly even Georgia has -- not surprisingly -- deeply offended Russian sensibilities both in the Crimea and throughout Russia.

Despite the fact that Western diplomats profess otherwise, Ukrainians, just like Georgians (and Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and citizens of the Baltic States), look upon NATO memerbship primarily as a defense bulwark against Moscow. Understandably. As its membership grows, NATO incrementally becomes more anti-Russian if only because that's how each new member tends to view it. Is it any surprise that Russia objects to the encroachment of NATO to its very borders?

Equally, we should not be astonished, if, in the not-so-distant future, Russia moves to reclaim the Crimean peninsula.

Not only have NATO expansion plans proved insulting to Russia. NATOs expansion strategy brings no additional security benefits the citizens of the original NATO countries. Rather, NATO enlargement is a gift to the Euro-American defense industry. That's because new NATO countries are required to upgrade their forces to NATO standards (abandoning old Russian-made weapons, buying French, British and American ones instead, hiring contractors like Haliburton to upgrade bases, etc.). Like the overtures toward Georgia, the plan to bring Ukraine into NATO reeks of foolish opportunism.

Russia is poised to put its foot down in the Crimea. When the seemingly inevitable happens, we should remember that the Crimea has been a Russian possession since 1783. We should also keep in mind what precipitated the crisis.

NATO expansion map legend: Current member (blue) Acceding members (light blue) Promised invitation (green) Intensified Dialogue (turquoise) Membership not goal (red) Undeclared intent (grey).
Maps:, Wikipedia NATO

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