Ukrainian Spring? Or More Winter of Discontent?

This blog in early December reported that it received the large percentage of page views, and presumably readers, from Ukraine. I doubt there is any connection with the revolutionary events in that country, but the events of this past month have been stunning. The Ukrainians in Kiev ousted Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency, and sent him packing to Russia. The take over of his opulent residence revealed that he basically ran a kleptocracy in his country. Yanukovych’s principal rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, who he had imprisoned after accusing her of essentially the same conduct, has been released. Yulia’s reception in Kiev’s Independence Square did not exhibit the same quality of enthusiasm that greeted, say, Nelson Mandela upon his release, but she remains popular among a large segment of the country. It has been suggested that, though she will not aspire to office as president or prime minister, Tymoshenko might be a behind-the-scenes force in Ukrainian politics. The most serious fallout from the nascent revolution, however, is Russia’s reaction. As of today, Vladimir Putin has sent troops into the Crimea region of Ukraine. The Russians defend this move as merely to protect Russian interests, but it appears to be an attempt at de facto takeover of that predominantly Russian-speaking province. This action has prompted condemnation by the European Union and the United States, for whatever that is worth.

There is extensive news coverage, both in print and in the electronic media, about the events and possible fate of Ukraine for those who are interested. I do not intend to write further in that regard. What is interesting to me is Russia’s focus on the Crimea. That rather large peninsula jutting into the Black Sea had been part of Russia since the reign of Catherine the Great in the 18th Century. It’s primary importance was that it provided a warn-water access for shipping, necessary if Russia were to become a commercial power, and expand its worldwide influence. It gave its name to a mid-19th Century war that ultimately involved Great Britain and France on the side of the Ottoman Empire against Russia. The stated casus belli was the mistreatment of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East the Ottomans. The real reason, of course, was money, as it is in all wars. The Crimean War was the scene of the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade, made famous by the Tennyson poem. A main boulevard in Paris is named Sevastopol to commemorate the French victory against the Russians at Crimea’s main port and Russian navy base. Nurse Florence Nightingale pioneered medical treatments based upon her ministering to wounded British combatants in the Crimea. After the 1917 Russian Revolution and ensuing civil war, Ukraine was made a constituent “republic” of the USSR, and Crimea remained part of the Russian Soviet Republic. It was a favorite vacation spot for Soviet apparatchiks, who maintained luxurious dachas on the Crimean coast while their subjects languished in their workers’ paradise. The seaside resort of Yalta was the site of a conference between Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill in early 1945 where they decided the postwar fate of Eastern Europe. In the 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev, supposedly in a magnanimous state as a result of being over-served, transferred Crimea to Ukraine. At the time, such a gesture was meaningless; Ukraine and the other constituents of the Soviet Union were autonomous in name only. The dissolution of the USSR in 1991, however, meant that Ukraine left with the Crimea as one of its regions. Because Sevastopol was the Black Sea Soviet naval base, and Russia was the successor of most of the navy, a lease between the two newly sovereign nations was negotiated. The fear that the present revolution in Ukraine might cause Russia to lose that base appears to be one of the factors that makes Putin take precipitous military action there. Crimea also has a high percentage of Russian speakers, who would rather be part of Russia. Most importantly, pipelines across Ukraine deliver Russian natural gas to customers in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

What all will result is anybody’s guess. There seems to be a significant power vacuum in Ukraine. The EU and USA are cautioning Putin not to overreach, but it unclear what they can really do about it if he ignores them. Even in our brave new world, geography matters, and Ukraine has a long, contiguous border with Russia. The United States is half a world away.

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