Update, March 3: Here are a few more questions prompted by the latest news from Ukraine:
Is Russia going to stop at Crimea?
That’s the big question right now. As shocking as Russia’s move into Crimea was, occupying a small region where Russia already had a significant military and cultural presence is a far cry from pushing into the Ukrainian mainland, but Vladimir Putin does appear to have left that option open to himself.
The Russian parliament last week authorized the use of military force in Ukraine—not just Crimea.
Russia’s justification for the Crimea operation was protecting the rights of ethnic Russians in the area, and this logic could theoretically be applied to eastern Ukraine, home to a significant population of Russian speakers.
After a conversation between Putin and Obama on Saturday, a statement from the Russian president’s office said that “In the case of any further spread of violence to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea … Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas.”
Pro-Russian protests were held in several cities in eastern Ukraine over the weekend, and violent clashes broke out as rival groups occupied a government building in Kharkiv, but Russian media reports of thousands of refugees headed for the Russian border appear to be inaccurate.
Ukraine is mobilizing troops, but would likely find its 130,000-troop military badly outmatched if it comes to a firefight with the world’s third-largest military by expenditure.
Why Is Crimea “strategically important”?
Access to the Black Sea has always been an important strategic priority for Russia and it has had ships docked at Sevastopol since the late 18th century. The Black Sea Fleet has a storied military history. During the Crimean War, the city was besieged for 11 months by British, French, and Turkish forces. During World War II, it held out for 250 days against the Nazis.
After years of dispute, the two countries agreed in 1997 that Russia would be allowed to keep its fleet in Sevastopol until 2017. After the 2005 Orange Revolution, the staunchly anti-Russian President Viktor Yuschenko repeatedly threatened to expel the fleet, but his successor, Viktor Yanukovych, agreed in 2010 to extend Russia’s lease on its naval base until 2042 in exchange for cheaper natural gas.
The fleet itself has decayed quite a bit over the years—it was briefly mobilized during the 2008 war with Georgia but didn’t actually play a role.
Sevastopol isn’t the only conceivable place where the fleet could be based. There have been discussions of converting the port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea coast for the purpose, but that would take years and given the history involved, a move out of Sevastopol would be seen as a major strategic retreat for Russia.
What can other countries do to punish Russia?
President Obama has promised “consequences” for Russia’s actions, but options appear limited for America and its allies. The U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Canada, Italy, and Japan have all pledged to break off planning meetings for an upcoming G8 summit in Sochi planned for June, and Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested Russia may be kicked out of the grouping entirely, though the German government has expressed doubts about the idea.
The New York Times reports that the U.S. has also “canceled a trade mission to Moscow and a Russian trip to Washington to discuss energy while vowing to also scrap a naval-cooperation meeting with Russia.”
Tougher measures that have been suggested include targeting the offshore assets of Russian elites and imposing travel or visa bans. Steps like these might be a tougher pill to swallow for European countries, which are still heavily dependent on Russia for oil and natural gas.
Others in Washington have suggested deploying NATO troops to countries bordering Russia and restarting shelved plans for a missile defense shield based in Poland.
On the other hand, the markets may be punishing Moscow more than other governments could, with Russia’s stocks, bonds, and currency all taking a tumble today.
Who are the Tatars?
About 15 percent of Crimea’s population is made up of Tatars, a Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic group who were the peninsula’s original inhabitants. Deported en masse to Central Asia by Joseph Stalin, they only returned in large numbers to the region during the 1980s.
During the current unrest, they have generally been staunch supporters of the anti-Yanukovych protesters and have opposed Crimea’s Russian nationalists, sometimes resulting in violent confrontations.
Original post, Feb. 28:
Over the past few days, I’ve done a number of posts following the ongoing, fast-moving situation in Ukraine. For readers just tuning in to the story now, I’ve collected these in an FAQ-style post that I will continue to update as the situation progresses. Click the links for posts with fuller answers.
Is Russia taking over Crimea?
Moscow denies it, but it certainly looks that way. Unidentified gunmen who are either pro-Russian militia or actual military personnel from the Russian naval base in Sevastopol have taken over a number of strategic sites in the region, including two airports. Separatist militia groups have set up roadblocks. Russian military helicopters have reportedly been arriving in the region.
So far, the Crimean government isn’t actually calling for Russian annexation—though some of the more hard-core street protesters are—just greater autonomy. The most likely scenario at the moment, which could change in a heartbeat, seems to be that Crimea will remain outside Kiev’s control but still be recognized as part of Ukraine by most of the international community.
Why is Crimea part of Ukraine in the first place?
The peninsula, connected to the Ukrainian mainland by a narrow isthmus, does have close cultural ties to Russia and it’s the only part of the country where the majority of the population is ethnic Russian. In 1954 the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, then part of the Soviet Union, was given Crimea as a “goodwill gesture” by Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Along with the rest of Ukraine, Crimea had suffered horrifically under Josef Stalin, particularly the Tatars—a Muslim ethnic group that was deported in its entirety to Uzbekistan. A number of Tatars have returned to the region and are generally pro-Ukrainian politically. Khrushchev’s gesture didn’t really mean all that much politically until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It should also be noted that former Russian President Boris Yeltsin did not protest Crimea remaining part of Ukraine and that Moscow has signed a number of treaties recognizing Ukraine’s sovereignty within its current borders.
Wouldn’t it be easier just to split Ukraine in two?
Ukrainian politics do tend to divide rather cleanly along the Dnieper River, with most of the support for EU integration in the primarily Ukrainian-speaking west, and most of the pro-Moscow, pro-Yanukovych sentiment in the Russian-speaking east. There’s a decent argument to be made that Ukraine might be better off—or at least have an easier time joining Europe—without its less economically developed and politically distinct eastern half.
Unfortunately, it’s not really that simple. Ukraine’s population is more intermingled than political maps make it appear. Even Donetsk, Yanukovych’s home region and political base, is 24 percent Ukrainian-speaking and more than 50 percent Ukrainian. And even among Russian speakers, it’s not clear that there’s widespread support for actually splitting the country. Sadly, a Ukraine split would more likely be a messy fracture featuring ethnic violence than a neat Czechoslovakia-style divorce.
The protesters who overthrew Yanukovych have been called fascists and anti-Semites. Is there any truth to that?
Some, but not as much as Russia would have you believe. (See Anne Applebaum for more on that.) By all accounts, most of the protesters were supporters of closer integration with Europe angered by Yanukovych pulling out of a political association agreement with the EU, but there were also significant far-right elements in the movement. One of the three main leaders of the protests was Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the far-right ultranationalist Svoboda party that has its roots in a Nazi-allied partisan army during World War II. Tyahnybok has, in the past, blamed Ukraine’s problems on a “Jewish-Russian mafia” running the country. He is now the deputy prime minister in the country’s new government.
That said, quite a few Jews also took part in the protests and Ukraine is hardly the only country in Europe with a flourishing far-right movement. But the Russian government and media have continually played up their role, portraying the entire movement as a neofascist “brown revolution.”
So who’s going to be in charge now?
The prime minister, as of yesterday, is Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former foreign minister from Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party. Tymoshenko, the leader of the 2006 Orange Revolution and former prime minister who was freed after more than two years in jail last week, is not currently in the government, but could compete in presidential elections now scheduled for May 25. Heavyweight boxing champion-turned-opposition leader Vitali Klitschko has also announced his candidacy.
Whoever takes over has a tough road ahead of them, even without the ongoing Crimea crisis. The country is billions of dollars in debt, ranks 137th worldwide in per-capita output, is 144th out of 175 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and has a rapidly declining population. Keep in mind that the last time the country had a pro-European revolution carried out by a divided coalition, it wound up with what may have been the least popular democratic government in history.
Is Putin eating the West’s lunch again?
Hardly. The $15 billion loan that Putin negotiated with Yanukovych in December was supposed to ensure that Ukraine—all of Ukraine—remained safely within Russia’s orbit, rather than developing closer ties with the EU. The government with which he negotiated that deal has now been overthrown by staunchly anti-Russian leaders, and de facto control over Crimea isn’t much of a consolation prize. Putin can still inflict pain on the country’s new leaders, but this isn’t the arrangement he had in mind.
What’s the deal with the short-lived Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine?
OK, you probably weren’t actually wondering about that. But it’s a very interesting story and you should read about it.
Anne Applebaum, Fred Kaplan, and the Slatest have much more on Ukrainian developments. I’ll keep adding to this post as the situation develops.