Crimea tinderbox of divided loyalties as Putin flexes muscles
Published 01/03/2014 | 02:30
In the past 48 hours, the Crimean peninsula has become a flashpoint in the wider struggle between Russia and the West over the future fate of Ukraine.
That is no coincidence. Its history is scarred by invasion and war – and it has resulted in a population that is deeply divided on the question of nationhood. No Western politician seems to have taken this on board.
Crimea's people are 58pc ethnic Russians, 2pc Ukrainians and 12pc Tatars, descendants of the Turkic people that ruled the peninsula until the Russian Tsars annexed it in 1783. It was at that point that Sevastopol became home to the Imperial Navy's Black Sea fleet. Defeat in the Crimean War forced modernisation on Russia. But the Black Sea fleet is there again today.
The peninsula became an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921, until it was conquered, following intense fighting, by the Nazis in World War II. This was the most violent episode in Crimea's history. The Red Army swept back in 1943-44, which is why so many Russians regard the peninsula as a kind of war memorial: we paid for it in blood, they think, so it's rightfully 'ours'.
But those feelings don't always run both ways: during the war, Stalin took the opportunity to deport 'reactionary' nationalities that had allegedly collaborated with, or not resisted, the Germans. These included 250,000 Crimean Tatars who were sent to camps in Uzbekistan. Some 46pc of them died in the first 18 months, or on long train journeys without food or water. They included many decorated veterans of the Red Army. Tatars have mixed feelings, to say the least, about the motherland.
They are not alone. In his 1956 'secret speech', Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian peasant boy turned general secretary, admitted: "The Ukrainians avoided meeting this fate only because there were too many of them and there was no place to which to deport them. Otherwise Stalin would have deported them also." It's wrong to suggest that all ethnic Russians in Ukraine – and Crimea specifically – want to run into the open arms of Vladimir Putin. Many of them despise his influence.
When Ukraine became an independent state in 1991, a majority in Crimea voted in support of this. But throughout the 1990s, ethno-linguistic tensions punctuated Ukraine's journey to true statehood. Russian-speaking deputies in the Crimean parliament attempted to declare self-government at one point, but were defeated by the implacable opposition of the returned Tatars and decisive intervention by Kiev.
Tempers were soothed by granting a high degree of autonomy, though some ethnic Russians clearly seek intervention from Moscow as an umbrella for their irredentist aspirations.
These are the people you will see on the news carrying red, blue and white flags and shouting "Crimea is Russia!" No less vociferous crowds have the blue and yellow Ukrainian banner or the blue one of ethnic Tatars. Although the incipient regime in Kiev has other problems – such as averting bankruptcy – loose talk about downgrading the Russian language has been met by demands that Moscow give its diaspora dual nationality; and lately by ominous, large-scale Russian military manoeuvres.
If we lift our vision from these rival angry crowds in Simferopol and Sevastopol, what does the Crimea signify in the wider conflict over Ukraine? Many ethnic Russians swallow Moscow's line that a bunch of neo-Nazis have captured Kiev, with a malevolent or naive West once again confusing dramatic events on an urban square with the complexities of an entire country.
Deployment of the fascist bogeyman substitutes one element in the Ukrainian opposition for the rest and ignores the role of the corrupt and brutal Ukrainian regime in sparking unrest. Many Ukrainians, and certainly most Tatars, do not want to be subsumed by Russia. "We don't want to be part of Russia. Putin is a killer. We've gotten rid of one killer, Yanukovych, and we don't want a new one to come in here," one Tatar woman told the media.
While the West wonders how to put together an economic package to stave off Ukraine's bankruptcy, Moscow will be weighing up its dilemmas and options.
The loss of Ukraine to Putin's vaunted Eurasian Customs Union makes the group a much more Asian affair, unless he can use economic pressure to bring Georgia or Moldova in line, as he sought to do with Kiev before the crisis. But Putin will also want to contain what has happened in Ukraine, since pretty much the same repressive conditions prevail in Russia.
Putin is also potentially captive to his own chauvinistic public, who will expect him to live up to his strongman image. That is why his army is now embarking on such ostentatious manoeuvres.
Where this gets dangerous is if the rival crowds in Crimea spawn armed gangs with more consequences, shall we say, than punching each other on the nose. At that point, there are enough rabid chauvinists on all sides in these conflicts for politicians to feel obliged to respond to them. That is one genuine lesson from pre-1914 Europe that nobody seems to want to talk about.
Alternatively, defeat in Ukraine might just prompt a renewed modernisation of Russia – though surely not with Mr Putin at the helm. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
* Michael Burleigh is the author of ‘Small Wars, Far Away Places: The Genesis of the Modern World 1945-65'.