Crimea is part of Ukraine, right? The USA is right to backstop the territorial integrity of Ukraine, right? Well, let’s take a look…
Truth be told, Crimea hasn’t been a part of Russia for as long as Ukraine. The Russians conquered it from the Turks back in the 1700s. Back then, the Russian Empire tried to leave its stamp everywhere, to the point of suppressing local languages in favor of Russian, a policy that continued under Communist government. When Gogol wrote Taras Bulba, the Czarists took the Ukrainian epic and forced it to become Russified. When the book was made into a film a few years ago, the very Russian producers made it a very Russian movie, even though all the characters were Ukrainian. The Russian attitude towards Ukraine is that it is an integral part of Russia’s sphere of influence, preferably a part of Russia’s state.
Ukraine itself is a gradient of a nation, with stronger Ukrainian culture in the west that begins to blend with Russian culture the further east and south one goes. The part around Lviw wasn’t even a part of Russia until 1939, having previously enjoyed a large degree of autonomy under the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy and then becoming part of interwar Poland. That region has never comfortably identified itself with Russia and has persistently been the core of resistance to Russian domination.
During the Russian Revolution, Ukraine attempted to break away as a state and Russia forcibly integrated it into the USSR. During the 1930s, Stalin stripped the Ukraine bare of food, creating a mass murder by starvation known as The Holomodor. Back when Hitler was only severely restricting Jews with no organized plan of mass murder, Stalin was killing people by the millions – and Stalin kept it under wraps as much as possible, with Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalists shouting down any reporters that tried to get the truth out. We may point fingers at Swiss bankers that touched Nazi gold looted from Jews, but we hardly ever think about how our own New York Times was knowingly complicit in Soviet genocide.
When the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, many Ukrainians hoped for a lessening of the oppression and welcomed the invaders. That mood changed when the Germans proved as brutal as the Russians, leading to the formation of a Ukrainian nationalist resistance movement. The Ukrainians wanted full independence, nothing less.
By 1943, it was clear to the Ukrainian partisans that the Germans were on the way out. There was no further point in resisting their government: the Russians were the real, long-term threat. And so, in order to gain German equipment and training, the Ukrainians began to volunteer for the foreign mercenary parts of the Waffen-SS. The 14th Waffen-SS division “Galizien” formed and it fought ferociously on the Eastern Front. When it was posted to France, it deserted ferociously, so the Germans put it back on the Eastern Front, where it would sustain upward of 80% casualties in nearly every engagement it participated in.
Truth be told, much of that casualty rate was fudged by unit commanders in order to hide the truth that, once trained and armed by the Germans, the Galizien soldiers would desert to get behind the Russian lines to carry on the fight for Ukrainian independence. The Germans would have preferred for them to stand and fight, but there we are. The Ukrainians weren’t collaborating with the Nazis as much as they were using them as a vehicle to help them arrive at their own desired ends.
The Ukrainian resistance actually created a political entity independent of Moscow from 1944-1946, but the best recognition they got from the West was clandestine US support of the movement until 1946. After the war with Germany ended, the Russians set about crushing the Ukrainian resistance, finally clearing the field in 1949.
So, even if the Ukrainians had been part of Russia for centuries, the events of the 20th Century showed that there was a real desire on their part to be independent of Russia. The Russians that lived in Ukraine, however, held no such sentiments. They rather enjoyed being part of Russia, all other things being equal. The Russians in Crimea, the peninsula attached to the south side of Ukraine, were very happy to be part of Russia all the way up to 1954, when that region was administratively attached to Ukraine. Later on, Ukraine granted it some autonomy. As far as Ukrainian territorial integrity goes, it’s not really part of Ukraine. Demographically, it’s got a Russian majority.
Strategically, it’s got Russia’s Black Sea Fleet’s home base. While Putin could hem and haw about the need to keep Ukraine in Russian orbit if he wanted, he can not and will not entertain any flexibility on that base and the land around it. It will be Russian, full stop. It is necessary, so the Russians will do it. If Ukraine clings to the West for a while, its hyperinflation and lack of natural gas will get it to face East again after the next winter. But if Russia loses its naval base, that would be a disaster for its ability to project its power. It cannot let that port slip through its fingers for even a moment.
In this chess game, Russia is committed to defending the Crimea to the hilt. Russia is destroyed without it, so it will risk destruction to avert a guaranteed destruction. Does the West have the same set of outcomes at stake? And as far as territorial integrity goes, why did the West not insist upon Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity in the 1990s? It actively broke apart that nation, because it suited the desires of the West to do so. It’s harder than ever for the West – particularly the USA – to try and claim a moral high ground, given how the USA exercises police state powers on the level of the Stasi, KGB, and Gestapo. Have I gone too far? Consider the extra-judicial killings and torturings carried out with Presidential approval, and we have an apt comparison.
As I typed this, Russia cut off its natural gas discount to Ukraine. I’m not surprised. Next will be to cut off the flow of natural gas to Ukraine, which will also impact Europe. Is Europe committed to Ukrainian territorial integrity if it means its energy costs will become much, much higher?
I said this was a chess game. The USA just took down one Russian pawn, but its knight’s position is threatened. Will the USA bring in supporting pieces to threaten those Russian pieces involved in taking down the USA’s knight, or will it withdraw its knight and give back the Russians their position on the board?
Put even more bluntly, is this Ukraine thing worth a sacrifice of cities, destroyed with nuclear missiles? The Russians will be ready to go to that level when their survival is on the line, as it is here.