1. Start with a couple of pieces Greg Satell has over at Forbes: “5 Things You Should Know About Putin’s Incursion Into Crimea,” and “How The Western Press Is Getting It Terribly Wrong In Ukraine.” From the second article:
Another widespread misapprehension is that Ukraine is a divided country. There are Russian parts and Ukrainian parts that do not get along. …
Anybody who’s watched a recent US election should know that such divisions are common in any true democracy. A vote for Ted Cruz is not in any way a vote for Texas secession. And yes, there are some Ukrainians that would like to return to Russia just as there are Texas secessionists and Confederate loyalists in the US. Every place has its nuts.
Another approach is to look at linguistic differences, which fall upon much the same lines as the political vote. Here again, the divide is real, but vastly overblown. Much of the interim leadership, including Turchynov and Yatsenyuk as well as Yulia Tymoshenko and all of the past presidents are native Russian speakers.
So again, while there is an element of truth in the Russian-backed story, there is an overwhelming abundance of falsehood. Nobody, except the most rabid extremist, wants their own country invaded by a belligerent foreign power.
2. On a similar note, when talking heads on cable news talk about Russian-speakers in Crimea who want the peninsula to become part of Russia (again), bear in mind this segment from an NPR interview that aired Monday (emphasis added):
Zair Smedlyaev, a leading member of the Crimean Tatar parliament or Mejlis, watched in stunned disbelief as Sergei Aksyonov was named prime minister of Crimea last week. Smedlyaev knows Aksyonov as a small-time, fringe politician, running a separatist party called Russian Unity, which advocates returning Crimea to Russian control. In short, someone who could never win an actual election for prime minister.
ZAIR SMEDLYAEV: (Through translator) He’s the leader of Russian Unity, although in criminal circles, he’s known by his nickname, Goblin. In the last elections, three separatist parties formed a coalition: the Russian People’s Front, the Russian Block, and Russian Unity. Altogether, they received just over 4 percent of the vote. That is all the support they have from the Russian population here.
The same NPR story talks about the Crimea’s Muslim Tatars: “Many Tatars find it perplexing to hear Russian leaders speak about threats to the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Every Tatar interviewed for this story spoke Russian and said they have no idea when, if ever, their own Tatar language will enjoy the same rights as Russian.” (At Forbes, Satell echoes this assessment: “The Tatars especially do not want, under any circumstances, to become Russian citizens.” Imagine that. See also this Reuters story from Sunday: “Loyal to Ukraine, Tatars lie low as Russia seizes Crimea.”)
3. The word is that Crimea will hold a referendum on the future status of the peninsula on March 30. I’m fine with a referendum and with self-determination as a general principle, but I will be skeptical of the results of any vote while Russian troops are still in the territory. (Scotland and Catalonia will no doubt take careful notes.)
4. Steve Saideman, regarding the potential fallout of the referendum: “Keith Darden points out that if Crimea secedes from Ukraine, electoral outcomes in Ukraine would shift with fewer pro-Russia voters in the political system, and that would be bad for Russia. This is not unique to this case. In any successful secession or irredentist effort (the latter refers to annexing a “lost” territory inhabited by ethnic kin), the boundary moves, changing who votes in the rump state (Ukraine in this case) and who votes in the new state (Crimea if independent, Russia if this is irredentist and Crimea gets annexed). In this case, new voters in Russia would be largely irrelevant, given the populations of Crimea compared to Russia. But in Ukraine, the change is significant, given that the elections in Ukraine seem to have a blue/red, polarized, narrow outcomes kind of thing that might seem familiar to the US.” (For a visual representation of the divide, see, e.g., these maps.)
5. Also from Prof. Saideman: “It is quite clear that Russia is creating a fait accompli that will allow Crimea to have a referendum under gamed circumstances. Why? I am not a Putin-ologist or a Kremlinologist, so I can only guess wildly. Some would speculate that this effort is seen as a necessary effort to keep control over naval bases on the Black Sea, but one could have imagined Russia making nice with the new government (using threats and coercion but not forced secession) to continue to have access. Some might see this as spite–to cause the Ukrainians pain for defying Putin’s will. It could be that Putin is playing the nationalist card–appealing to the Russians of Russia by being the best defender of Russians in Ukraine, but there is no real political competition in Moscow that would force this move now.”
6. Megan Carpentier, “What You Need To Know About The Ukraine Protests”:
Crimea…voted for the Ukrainian referendum for independence from Russia in 1991 and eventually became a semi-autonomous part of Ukraine. The Russian fleet has a foothold in the Black Sea, with Ukraine’s permission, via its base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Between the base and the ethnic Russian population there and in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s perceived interests in Crimea — and in Ukraine, in general — could be damaged if the country tilts West.
On top of that, the deal with the E.U. that Yanukovych rejected was a potential first step toward possible eventual membership in the more economically stable European confederation and, more symbolically, was seen as a touchstone of acceptance of Ukraine and its people as Europeans on an equal footing. The move toward deeper ties with Europe began after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution — in which Yanukovych was deposed and the populist hero Tymoshenko originally came to power. The Orange Revolution and its Western leanings were not particularly welcomed in Russia, and the two nations had a complicated relationship before Yanukovych came back to power and vowed to improve them.
7. William Spaniel, “Crimea and Ukrainian Nuclear Nonsense”: “Let’s not forget Russia has a nuclear stockpile as well. It is hard to see how Ukraine could have credibly threatened nuclear retaliation in response to the invasion of Crimea. Nuclear weapons are great at deterring aggression toward vital assets. I am not sure that Crimea counts… . A nuclear deterrent might stop Putin from pushing further west toward Kiev, but he might very well be stopping where he is anyway due to conventional threats and economic warfare from the West.” (H/T: Phil Arena.)
8. Jay Ulfelder, “Ukraine’s Just Coup”:
So, technically speaking, Yanukovych’s removal checks all of the boxes for what we would conventionally call a coup. We can quibble about how relevant the threat of force was to this outcome, and thus whether or not the label “parliamentary coup” might fit better than plain old coup, but the basic issue doesn’t seem especially ambiguous.
All of this should sound very familiar to Egyptians. Twice in the past three years, they’ve seen sitting presidents toppled by political insiders while protesters massed nearby. In both instances, the applicability of the “coup” label became a point of intense political debate. People cared, in part, because perceptions affect political outcomes, and what we call an event shapes how people perceive it. We shout over each other until one voice finally drowns out the rest, and what that voice says becomes the history we remember. In a world where “the will of the people” is seen by many as the only legitimate source of state authority, a whiff of illegitimacy hangs about “coup” that doesn’t adhere to “revolution.” In a peculiar twist of logic and semantics, many Egyptians insisted that President Morsi’s removal in July 2013 could not have been a coup because millions of people supported it. The end was right, so the means must have been, too. Coup doesn’t sound right, so it couldn’t have been one of those.
It’s easy to deride that thinking from a distance. It’s even easier with the benefit of a hindsight that can take in all the terrible things Egypt’s ruling junta has done since it seized power last July.
Before we sneer too hard at those gullible Egyptian liberals, though, we might pause to consider how we’re now describing events in Ukraine, and why.
10. Mark Galeotti, “Putin’s Pyrrhic Crimea Campaign” (emphasis in original):
I wonder if Putin has over-reached himself and under-thought the implications. If Putin either is committed to taking Crimea or finds himself locked into that course of action, it will be an expensive, Pyrrhic victory. The scale and paint-scorching vitriol of Russian media and government rhetoric, the rentamob “defend the Crimea” marches, all this pushes the Kremlin into a position harder from which to withdraw. It has also radicalised Kyiv’s position–Ukraine has understandably mobilised as both political gesture and also practical precaution–and granted it sanctity in Western eyes. After all, let’s not forget that until very recently, while no one in the West mourned Yanukovych’s departure, there were also concerns about the political stability of the new regime, its links with right-wing extremists, the constitutionality of the deposition of the president, etc. Now, to acknowledge any of those would be tantamount to giving comfort to Moscow.
What, one might ask, is Moscow’s endgame? What does it want, and how likely is it to get it. The more it radicalises Kyiv, the less likely it is to get some wider political settlement.
11. Erik Voeten, “International law and institutions look pretty weak now, but they will matter a lot down the road”: “The web of international legal rules and institutions to enforce international law is simply not strong enough to prevent Russia from intervening militarily in Ukraine. Yet, it would be a mistake to dismiss the role of international institutions in how the crisis will develop. Indeed, international institutions may well play a crucial role in containing the conflict and bringing about an eventual peace agreement.”
12. Like Prof. Saideman, many of us are searching for the right analogy to use when talking about the Russian invasion of Crimea. A number of historical analogies suggest themselves, for a variety of reasons — Iraq and Kuwait, Germany and the Sudetenland, the Crimean War of the 1850s. (LFC suggests Panama 1989.) Taylor Marvin writes that it is useful to compare the present situation to the Falklands War:
Of course, at the time the United Kingdom was a nuclear power with the capability of conducting a nuclear ballistic missile strike on the Argentine mainland. However, this did not stop the junta from ordering the operation, because it judged that even if the United Kingdom was committed to regaining the Falklands the prospect of a British nuclear first strike against a non-nuclear state — even an aggressor — would be so unpopular that the threat was not credible (though Argentina was not party to the NPT at the time). It would be, and was, up to the British to retake the islands militarily. Placing the heavy burden of escalating to nuclear force on the British, even if it was a burden Argentina didn’t have the capability to bear, would be their limited-warfare shield.
Crimea has many parallels to the Falklands. While not an island, the Crimean Peninsula is largely non-contiguous with Ukraine proper, and can be culturally constructed as to not “really” belonging to Ukraine. Much like Argentines have long claimed that las Malvinas by rights should belong to Argentina, Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority and historical association with the Russian imperial project have, in Moscow’s narrative, allowed it to be detached from wider notions of Ukrainian sovereignty. Importantly, the physical and military geography of both Crimea and the Falklands allowed them to be quickly seized by invading forces, allowing the aggressor to create the “facts on the ground” before their opponents could react.
Do read the whole thing. (H/T: Phil Arena.)
Image Credit: Map of the Black Sea by Portuguese cartographer Diogo Homem, circa 1559. Source: Wikimedia Commons.