by Sergei Khrushchev
April 16, 2014 (TSR) – On March 16, the Crimean referendum took place without any fighting or clashes, which Kiev and Washington were hoping to use to discredit the process.
As a result, the referendum was conducted without major problems; 83 percent of the population cast their vote and 96.7 percent of them – Russians, Ukrainians and even some Tatars – voted for secession from Ukraine and annexation to Russia. The vote was observed by 135 representatives of 23 countries and 240 observers represented the Crimean civic society and political parties.
They unanimously confirmed that there were no significant violations and that everyone could vote freely, without any pressure.
All night, people on the squares of the Crimean capital Simferopol and others were celebrating, laughing, hugging, dancing, and firing fireworks. In Kiev, all were sulking.
In Washington DC, the best minds of the Obama administration were feverishly thinking how else to make it more difficult for the recalcitrant citizens of Crimea. They will definitely think of something since they have a lot of experience in doing so. After all, Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians, Libyans and the Lebanese have long stopped celebrating.
Crimean’s main goal was to break up the illusionary connections with Ukraine. Crimea’s divorce from Ukraine was bumpy: In the last 20 years, there were constant tensions and it ended with a scandal, which gradually involved a number of countries. Some took Ukraine’s side, others did not. Who is right, and who is not, it is difficult to say.
However, as a result of this scandal, Crimea and Ukraine have become household conversation and yet few people know what the matter was really about.
That is why, I will begin with history. Crimea is a peninsula on the north coast of the Black Sea, connected to the European continent through a narrow strip of land. Some 2,500 years ago, the ancient Greeks founded a colony there, including in the western part of the peninsula, where they built the port Chersonesus, which is the present location of Sevastopol.
Remember this name, we will get back to it later. Then the Romans took over from the Greeks and after them the peninsula was uninhabited for some time.
In the meantime, in 854 the Vikings set up an outpost on the river banks of Dnepr, which crosses the European continent from North to South. They thought it would be easier to use the river to get to the riches of Byzantium than to go around Europe in the stormy seas.
They gradually subordinated the local tribes and this is how the ancient kingdom of Kievan Rus was born. It gradually expanded its rule and reached Crimea. However, everything collapsed overnight in 1240, when the Mongols captured Kiev and turned it into ruins for many decades.
These lands on the banks of the Dnepr river were orphaned, while the Genovese settled in Crimea. After a century, the newly rebuilt Kiev came under the rule of the rising power of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This continued until the 15th century. During this time, in the North-East, the state of Moscow emerged which incorporated the leftovers of the Mongol Empire.
In Crimea, Tatars invaded in 1428 displacing the Genovese and settled there permanently. But who are the Tatars? This is one of the inheritances of the Mongol expansion. Genghis Khan preferred not to risk his own Mongol soldiers and therefore, on the front lines, he would put men from the conquered peoples.
One of the first people he conquered were the Tatars. Since then, he dragged them into battle around the world. After the break-up of the empire, some Tatars returned to their homeland, while others stayed where they found themselves: On the Volga river – The Astrakhans and Kazan Tatars; and in Crimea – the Crimean Tatars.
The Crimean Tatars were closely cooperating with the Ottoman Empire and fought Russia and Poland, which at that time were controlling the territory of today’s Ukraine.
In the meantime, fugitive Russian and Polish serfs settled on the island of Hortitsa in the river Dnepr, and started calling themselves Cossacks. They provided for themselves through plundering, attacking at times the Tatars, at times the Poles. Gradually their power increased and the Cossacks became a serious organised force, always in conflict with Poland.
In the second quarter of the 17th century, the Cossacks, under the leadership of Bogdan Khmelnytsky, once again attacked Poland. Towards the end of the campaign, they suffered a defeat. Khmelnytsky found a way out of the dead-end: In 1654, he signed a treaty with the Russian tsar putting East Ukraine under the protection of Moscow.
The Western part of Ukraine was left to the Poles which then came under Austria-Hungary and then again to the Poles. As a result, the Ukrainian people were split between two branches: Eastern and Western.
Independently from Russia, but not from the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean khanate existed until 1783, when it was conquered by the army of Russian Empress Catharine II, who set up a port at the old location of Chersonesus to host the Russian Black Sea fleet.
The new port was called Sevastopol. Since that time, Ukraine and Crimea were part of the unified Russian Empire. Crimea, with its warm climate and pebble beaches, was a favourite holiday-destination for all Russians, whether Tsars, aristocrats, and even simple people, if they had the means.
It continued this way until World War I or rather 1917 specifically, when the revolution was destroying the old regime and taking down its laws. And when everything was possible. The periphery took advantage of that, including Ukraine, which declared independence.
On the map of Europe, there were in fact two Ukraines: An Eastern one with capital Kiev and a western one – on the territory reclaimed from Austria-Hungary during the war. But already in March 1918 all changed. The Bolsheviks signed a peace treaty with Germany, through which Ukraine was conceded.
It is impossible to occupy a territory, which doesn’t have borders. The German generals drew in their own understanding the borders of Ukraine, including Crimea. They ushered in their army, killed Ukrainian independence in its cradle and were preparing to settle for a long time.
However, in November 1918 Germany suffered a defeat from the Entente and its army was forced to leave Ukraine. Ukraine then became a Soviet Republic and it took part in the founding of the Soviet Union, but without Crimea, which joined the Russian Federation.
After World War II, Ukraine acquired the Western lands and it acquired its present borders. On the river Dnepr, the construction of hydroelectric plants began, one after the other. In 1950, the works reached the lower part of the river. It was decided that the last cascade of the Kakhovka Hydropower Plant will be used not so much for electricity, but for irrigation of the dry lands of Southern Ukraine and Crimea.
At the end of 1953, when the five-year plan for 1955-1960 was being prepared, two irrigation canals included: South-Ukrainian and North-Crimean.
The first canal was going through Ukrainian territory in its entirety, while the second one began in Ukraine and ended in the Russian Federation, in Crimea. The planners decided that this will necessitate the splitting of construction authority, which will cause confusion in the building process and slow it down. So they came up with a suggestion to the government:
Since the canal passes mostly through Ukrainian territory, then the rest of it should, along with the whole of Crimea, pass from the supervision of Moscow to that of Kiev.
My father Nikita Khrushchev who headed the leadership of the Soviet Union, agreed with this argument, especially that an anniversary was approaching:
In February 1954, it was 300 years since Ukraine joined Russia. It was said – it was done. The Higher Council of the Russian Federation decided to pass Crimea over to Ukraine. In this way, Crimea came under the jurisdiction of Kiev, but just formally. In fact, it remained part of the Soviet Union and was our common holiday destination.
The end of the Soviet Union?
And now how did it end? By the end of 1991 in the Soviet Union there was a revolutionary atmosphere. The Soviet republics, including Ukraine, started talking about independence. They weren’t just talking about it, in fact they decided to act, even if it were against the constitution. Three presidents got together in the Bialowieza Forest: Boris Yeltsin (Russia), Leonid Kravchuk (Ukraine) and Stanislav Shushkevich (Belarus). They agreed on the fact that the then president of the Soviet Union, Michail Gorbachev was wearing them down and they needed to get rid of him and the Soviet Union.
Before the signing of the document, they decided to get lunch. But as Leonid Kravchuk said in an interview, one thought worried him: What to do with Crimea? Formally, it was part of Ukraine, but in reality? He turned with this question to Yeltsin, but at that moment he was not in the mood to deal with this matter. He couldn’t wait to get Gorbachev out of the Kremlin.
He was sitting down and rushing through his drinks and there was Kravchuk still pestering about Crimea. Yeltsin waved him off to go away. Kravchuk calmed down and took off with Crimea, which became an autonomous zone within the borders of independent Ukraine. The peninsula, however, never completely entered Ukraine and it felt as an outcast in the new state.
It could have continued like this forever, but then the “Maidan” revolution happened. At the end of 2013, Western Ukrainians, dissatisfied with President Viktor Yanukovych, gathered at Kiev’s Maidan and overthrew the hated authority of the Eastern Ukrainians.
The president escaped, while they bypassed the constitution and established their power. Crimea took advantage of these circumstances, because since such unconstitutional takeover could happen in Kiev, why not have it happen in Crimea too? Thus they announced a referendum for secession from Ukraine.
According to the constitution, it is illegal, but according to the constitution, the current government in Kiev is also unconstitutional.
In reality, however, everyone accepted it, even the US president. So what makes the Crimeans worse than them? The Crimean referendum, too, in reality won’t have less power/strengthen than the government in Kiev.
Crimea is by far not the first entity – and won’t be the last – to achieve independence in this way. In the past, the US broke off the British Empire, while Kosovo just recently left the borders of Serbia. It is in this manner that many achieved their independence, whether Abkhazia, Algeria, Nagorno-Karabakh, East Timor, South Ossetia, Czechoslovakia (which split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia), and maybe soon Scotland (due to hold its own independence referendum).
In 1991, in spite of the Soviet constitution, Ukraine itself acquired its independence. The list goes on and it is a natural process within the dynamic development of the world, when some announce independence and others lose their colonial territories and subordinate lands. It is a painful process, but we’ve gotten used to it. As the international scandal around Crimea erupted, it sucked into its orbit countries which until 2014 knew almost nothing about the peninsula.
And this was all because the US decided it was so, taking up homegrown illusory theories without considering international realities. For example, at some point in the US, the domino theory was popular, according to which, if they let go of just one country from their orbit of influence, then the whole world would instantly fall apart. This theory turned out to be not even a theory, but a fantasy, and yet, because of it, the US and the world lost countless lives.
Now in the US, there’s another fantasy: If they let any of the former Soviet states get closer to Russia, then the Soviet Union will be reconstituted, marking a return to Cold War. The fact that such a scenario is impossible, after 25 years of independence for these countries, is not taken into account. For Americans, fantasy seems stronger than reality.
And of course, one can see the US attempts to demonstrate that today’s world is the American world: Washington decides on everything – who to judge worthy or unworthy. This is how it was once in Pax Romana. Until, of course, Rome fell.
And thus the US is dictating its will, which tends to be a product of domestic interests and reflects internal struggles between its political forces. It imposes its will on the rest of the world and does not back down from its stance, not an inch, even if this position is completely flawed.
One more component: President Barack Obama is somehow believed to be a weak president, which gives the impression that anything that happens in the world involves the US. I don’t know whether or not Obama is a weak politician. Personally, I find him likeable, but a politician’s strength or weakness is a very serious factor in world politics.
A strong politician and leader need prove, neither to himself nor to his circle, that which is obvious to everyone. He feels free and participates in negotiations with his opponents, trying to explain his position and understand his partners; he is always ready to make a reasonable compromise and in the end makes decisions even in impossible situations. An example of that is how President John F Kennedy and the head of the council of ministers, Nikita Khrushchev, both strong politicians, behaved during the Cuban crisis and found a solution under mutually acceptable conditions.
A weak politician always tries to prove to his circle and to himself that he is not what others think of him; he has to prove his strength which, in reality, turns out to be obstinacy rather than strength. After making a statement, he would not change his position at all, or else he would appear weak, and at the same time avoid negotiations in person because he fears them.
Instead, he sends emissaries with rigid, uncompromising instructions, draws red lines, resorts to threats and sanctions, and demands capitulations from his partner, i.e. useless and counter-productive negotiations. No self-respecting country would agree to capitulation.
As a result, the weak politician tends to quickly draw the situation into a conflict rather than a solution. And all this is to prove his power – to himself and others – and because of that he is ready to sacrifice countless lives.
He is ready to impose sanctions, which will lead to the suffering of millions of people, which will hurt not only the partner-opponent, but also his own country. That is why, the sanctions will not only hit the enemy, but also deprive the US from millions of potential customers. And all this to prove one thing – that he is not weak.
Lesson from history
I repeat, I don’t know whether Obama is weak as a politician, but it is precisely this sort of “uncompromising” situation that is being set up around Crimea. The US president made effort to put together a coalition which does not recognise the will of the people. And all this against the principle which was declared by his own predecessors.
Let’s remember Woodrow Wilson, who declared the right of every nation to self-determination and statehood. Or President Clinton, who was not reluctant to use military force to try and convince Slobodan Milosevic of the right of Kosovo’s Albanians to establish a state.
Now everything is happening in the opposite direction. Crimeans are threatened by sanctions and by the direct enforcement of Kiev’s power onto them. And for expressing support for Crimea, Russia is also threatened with sanctions. Will such policies work? I doubt it. It would rather have the opposite effect: It will stimulate the struggle for independence inside Crimea and it will encourage Russia to assume an even firmer position of support for this movement. Let’s remember how in the 19th century, Russia held firmly its support for the liberation movement of the Bulgarians from Turkish rule.
As for the sanctions, they of course are painful, but the use of such pressure is insulting to the national self-consciousness and will only provoke the Russians to undertake even more intransigent resistance. This has happened more than once in history.
During the 1853-1855 war, Sevastopol survived a long siege by the combined forces of the English, French and Turks, while in 1941-1942 it resisted the German army for almost a year. Should I also mention the 900-day siege of Leningrad? Then, too, those leading the siege were driven by the logic that capitulation is inevitable, but the besieged decided the opposite and in the end, they won. And now these sanctions…
Financial rewards for all?
But in all this unpleasant story, there is also a positive aspect: The stormy clouds of Crimea poured a golden shower over Ukraine. It received from the West more financial help than it ever dreamed of. It’s another question whether the new government will be able to use it reasonably. Or will they put it into their own pockets?
The White House did not waste time and it officially recognised the self-formed revolutionary government of the Maidan and Obama even welcomed its prime minister and showered him with kindness.
Crimea got lucky, too. Due to lack of investment in the past 20 years, its infrastructure has become dilapidated. Now it’s Russia’s honour to rebuild Crimea.
The Tatars got lucky, too. The Russian Parliament promised them maximum political, cultural and other privileges, which they requested from Kiev before, but to no avail. Of course, Tatar autonomy in Crimea is impossible; they are only 12 percent, but an adequate presence in all governmental institutions is guaranteed for them, as well as legalisation of the lands, which they took over illegally and continue to live on without any rights or guarantees.
And as for the accusations and insults thrown at President Vladimir Putin, let’s think about them. Twenty-five years ago, his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev turned his face westward, declared his adherence to Western values and friendship with the US. Boris Yeltsin followed the same policies, and even Putin in his early years did so.
The US did not abide by any of its promises to Russia, neither the written ones, nor the spoken ones. They promised that NATO would not enter Eastern Europe, and what is the reality today? Russia supported the US war on Iraq and even the intervention in Libya aiming at regime change. As a result, Russian companies have been squeezed out of the markets of these countries.
From Russia, they expect unconditional obedience, without any attempt to defend Russian national interests. And on top of that, it’s threatened by sanctions. It seems that they perceived the friendship between Russia and the US to mean that Russia would remain a small nation in the American orbit . Maybe Putin simply got tired of doing that?
Sergei Khrushchev is a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Advisor to the Cold War Museum. He is the son of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.