When representatives of nations get together to carve up territory to fabricate other nations, their process usually resembles that of unethical sausage makers. Take the abominations created by the winners of World War I: Yugoslavia was created out of Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia and other geographical territories containing discrete cultures. Slovak-speaking Slovakia and German-speaking Bohemia were stitched together to form Czechoslovakia. Modern Iraq comprises two territories that had frequently been in cultural clash since the Akkadians and the Sumerians of ancient times, plus land on which Kurds lived.
Funny, with all this slicing and dicing of territory, no one in the Western European imperium of that era thought that either the Kurds or the Armenians deserved their own country. That certainly wasn’t the case when the Hashemite family lost the war to control the Arabian peninsula to the Saudis in 1930. Britain helped the Hashemites (a family, not a people or ethnic group) install themselves as royalty over most of the homeland of the Palestinians, AKA Transjordan.
Many of the geopolitical troubles over the last few decades derive from these decisions almost a century ago to impose statehood on badly mashed-up geographies.
The aftermath of World War II wasn’t much better, with the British botching the independence of the Indian subcontinent and the weird division of much of Africa into nation states that disregarded ethnic boundaries.
In the case of the Crimea, however, the Russians brought it on themselves, or perhaps it’s more correct to say that Khrushchev brought it on Russia by giving Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (part of the Soviet Union) in 1954 for administrative reasons.
If you go back far enough in history, many have laid claim to the Crimean peninsula, including the Cimmerians, Bulgars, Greeks, Scythian, Goths, Huns, Khazars, Kievan proto-Russians, Mongols, Tatars, Ottoman Turks, Venetians and Genovese. But since the 18th century, the Russians and then the Soviet Union, dominated by Russia, controlled Crimea until the breakup of the Soviet Union. Almost 60% of the population identifies itself as Russian (36% are Tatars, who are primarily Muslims and just 12% are Ukrainians). Although Ukrainian is the official language, most people speak Russian, most government business is conducted in Russian and most TV and radio stations broadcast in Russian.
Never fear, dear readers. I’m not getting ready to support the recent Russian saber-rattling in Crimea, whether it is conceived as army maneuvers or an invasion. Russia is dead wrong to try to use military power to control events in a neighboring nation, just as the United States was wrong to invade Argentina (1890), Chile (1891) Panama (1898), Dominican Republic (1903), Honduras (1907 and 1911), Haiti (1913 and 2004), Mexico (1914 and 1923), Guatemala (1920, 1954 and 1966), Grenada (1983) and Colombia (2003). Except for Mexico, none of these countries borders the United States. In none of these countries is English a dominant or even prevalent language. There is no deep American cultural history in any of these countries.
American presidents have always given the same reason for all these invasions: to protect American lives. Sound familiar? Of course it does, because it’s the essence of Putin’s rationale for using military force in Crimea. Putin is as transparently devious as the United States has been in all of its invasions of neighbors. We were wrong in every single instance and Russia is wrong now.
But wrong doesn’t seem to matter much when large and militarily powerful nations flex their muscles in their sphere of interest.
Every option seems onerous for the West and especially for the United States, still broke from prosecuting two goalless and mismanaged wars. Civil war in Ukraine, a broader conflagration with Russia, or an economic boycott of the world’s leading producer of fossil fuels makes both the West and Russia suffer. Economies are so intertwined in the new world order that any major showdown will hurt both parties. Putin knows that misery to his people and loss of income to his friends will come, which is why he is moving carefully while asserting what he thinks is Russia’s right to hegemony. Similar concerns explain why the United States and our allies are also responding gingerly.
It’s time to start thinking creatively. Let’s start by making a distinction between the Crimea and the rest of eastern Ukrainian in which Russian speakers predominate. Where Russia ends and the Ukraine begins is subject to dispute in the eastern part of the Ukraine. It’s one flat prairie for a long stretch. Crimea, by contrast, although hanging on as if by one finger to Ukraine, is a discrete territory which in every way is more Russian than Ukraine. If I were dictating foreign policy for the United States and our allies, I would let Russia have Crimea in return for three concessions:
- Russia agrees not to interfere in any way in Ukrainian elections.
- Russia removes any troops it has from the non-Crimean part of Ukraine.
- Russia continues to provide support to the Ukrainian economy by selling natural gas to it at discounted rates and giving loan guarantees for at least 25 years.
The trade of Crimea for money and stability is not appeasement, as Russia will pay a price for the return of Crimea. It really is a win-win for everyone except for the small number of ultra-nationalist Crimean Ukrainians. It avoids both a military and an economic conflagration. The Ukrainians get a lot more out of the deal than the Mexicans, Guatemalans or Haitians did from U.S. invasions and Russia doesn’t really get that much—just return of a small piece of land over which it has had cultural control for many centuries. It corrects a mistake that Khrushchev made some 60 years ago. Would that all the mistakes of the so-called nation-builders were that easy to correct.