I’m a map person. I think maps help us visualize the abstract. I found this one particularly interesting, from Dave Schuler, “The Ukraine Crisis in Three Maps,” Outside the Beltway, 3/1/14:
(For the percentages, see the map in Springtime of Nations.)
European countries like Ukraine (the largest country lying entirely in Europe) achieved ethnic diversity by spontaneous or forced migrations and by accretion of once independent or isolated areas. We see those factors, to some degree, in Texas, Hawaii, and Alaska.
One underlying question on some people’s minds is whether Putin is, as many here believe, a crazed fascist. He is, in fact, using the same argument to occupy Crimea as Hitler did in occupying Czechoslovakia: basically, “The Russians / Germans there are being threatened by a foreign people.”
We used the argument ourselves in 1983, when president Reagan invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada, ostensibly at the request of a deposed Governor General and to protect a few hundred American medical students there, but in reality to overthrow a newly installed Marxist government. The invasion was condemned by the UN General Assembly by a vote of 108-9, but of course the US vetoed a similar resolution in the UN Security Council. History is written by the winners, as they say.
Multi-ethnic states always have a potential point of weakness. Japan could have argued in World War II that the US and Canada were sending people of Japanese origin to concentration camps. They were, but Japan didn’t have the means to send an army to liberate the prisoners. And, fortunately, most of them survived, unlike in the German and Russian versions. Don’t be shocked by the term; concentration caps were used by the British during the Boer War in South Africa and their history is much older than that.
As the map above shows, there is ethnicity and there is language. People don’t always speak the language associated with their ethnicity. A lot of Americans of Hispanic or Japanese origin don’t speak Spanish or Japanese. However, 77% of Crimean residents indicate Russian is their native language, and 90.6% in Sevastopol, according to a map in “2014 Crimean crisis” at Wikipedia.
Another way to figure out what people are thinking is how they vote (in countries that vote in a relatively transparent manner). Here’s another map from “The Ukraine Crisis in Three Maps”:
The blue shows where Timoshenko (the former prime minister who just was released from prison) won the second round of voting in 2010, and the blue shows where Yanukovych (the former prime minister who just fled into Russian protection) won (and he won overall with 48%). On the whole, the more ethnically and linguistically areas went for the Russian protegé while the other areas, closer to the rest of Europe, went for the more Europe-leaning candidate. That isn’t too surprising; you don’t need to look far in US voting patterns to see the underlying demographics.
Here’s something I really should have known (from Wikipedia, “Ukraine“; see links there):
Having served as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukrainian SSR in 1938–49, Khrushchev was intimately familiar with the republic; after taking power union-wide, he began to emphasize the friendship between the Ukrainian and Russian nations. In 1954, the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav was widely celebrated. Crimea was transferred from the Russian SFSR to the Ukrainian SSR.
You can see a lot more on that in Krishnadev Calamur, “Crimea: A Gift To Ukraine Becomes A Political Flash Point,” NPR.org, 2/27/14. So Crimea was part of Russia from 1783 to 1954. It just happened that Nikita Khrushchev was born in a Russian village near the Ukrainian border, was made head of the Communist Party in Ukraine in 1937, and his (third) wife was Ukrainian. Such personal backgrounds have more impact on history than we might expect.
It’s as if France, which for centuries fought Germany over Alsace (more German, ethnically) and Lorraine (more French, ethnically), after World War II, had said to Germany: “Oh, be my guest, you have Alsace after all.”
I have some sympathy for captive nationalities, that is, peoples who are ruled by others, such as the Kurds in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, or the Catalans in Spain and France. Sometimes peoples solve it; Czechoslovakia split up, and no one seems to be complaining. But US policy (or Chinese policy, for that matter, with about 10 million Uyghurs on their western frontier) is not to promote the dismantling of countries. In fact, the US and its allies have been desperately trying to preserve the Middle Eastern boundaries imposed by the Western powers on the collapsed Ottoman Empire less than 100 years ago.
This is a tricky area for us. At the end of World War I, almost a century ago, Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points proclaimed the right of self-determination (from Wikipedia):
“National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action….”
I guess we were for it before we were against it.
There is a current flood of historical information on Ukraine and the Crimea (which, by the way, is currently an autonomous republic within Ukraine, with its own constitution and parliament). We might also recall the Crimean War (1853-56), which Western countries entered basically to keep Russia from taking over Ottoman territory.
My point is that history is very complicated. I’m not saying that Crimea should or should not become part of Russia again (though I am guessing some sort of “protectorate” is more likely).
It would be a pretty tough deal for the US if part of Alaska were to want to go back to Russia or parts of our Southwest to Mexico. It makes Russia sort of nervous that the US has been occupying Afghanistan (which adjoins the former USSR) since 2001. It made the US sort of nervous when the USSR was sending missiles to Cuba (which does not adjoin the US).
That’s all: history is very complicated and our leaders, as well as the rest of us, should try to find out more about it. I’m sure Putin does.
But I can’t resist adding, if you’re not yet convinced about historical complexity (“Crimea,” Wikipedia, with many links):
The Cimmerians, Bulgars, Greeks, Scythians, Goths, Huns, Khazars, the state of Kievan Rus’, Byzantine Greeks, Kipchaks, Ottoman Turks, Golden Horde Tatars and the Mongols each controlled Crimea in its earlier history. In the 13th century, it was partly controlled by the Venetians and by the Genoese; they were followed by the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire in the 15th to 18th centuries, the Russian Empire in the 18th to 20th centuries, Germany during World War II and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and later the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, within the Soviet Union during the rest of the 20th century until Crimea became part of independent Ukraine with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.