Ukraine and Russia: two divorced parents
As I watch the situation unfolding in Crimea I think of two former marriage partners who were lying on the floor unconscious for 22 years and finally woke up to deal with the aftermath of their divorce. They are now trying to divide property that has been signed off in court long ago. Granted the divorce was messy and may not have been fair. But it happened. Crimea is the kid caught between the parents.
Crimea: the gift to an Empress
It became the territory of Russia after what Russians call “Turkish War” in 1774, at the time of Catherine the Great. So, Russians built their forts and military ports that later turned into fairly large cities such as Sebastopol (built in 1783), Simferopol (1784). When a normal American looks at these dates he thinks they are ancient history, almost before modern time. Not to Russians, or Europeans. To us — it was yesterday.
Once Catherine the Great visited this area it became a very popular resort. Actually, the expression that relates to this historic period exists in American English today. May be you heard it: “Potemkin Villages”. It means “a dog and pony show” but a totally fake one. The prince Potemkin, a favorite (and alleged lover) of Catherine created fake villages consisting only of fronts of houses and gave them as presents to the Empress, wanting to impress her (who needs diamonds when you can give a town, or two?). I don’t know whether Russians today are that different. Only those who went to Sochi games can tell us how many “Potemkin villages” were created there during the Olympics.
Crimea: the SoCal of Ukraine
Sochi, where the games took place, is geographically very close. Crimea is the area simply to die for. Its climate is very similar to Southern California but without the water shortage or other So Cal problems. It has a combination of a wonderful Mediterranean climate, beautiful beaches and mountains nearby with pristine snow. Russian Emperors built several palaces there and spent their vacations in Crimea. During Soviet times going to Crimea was a very popular and prestigious thing to do. At the same time Crimea was the home of the Russian Black Sea Military fleet. The closest U.S. example, in my view, is San Diego. It is a popular tourist destination and it is also a very important military fleet center.
So Crimea has been a Russian territory until Khrushchev signed it off to Ukraine in 1954. The reason was territorial proximity and some business necessity. So when the Soviet Union fell apart the agreement was signed between Ukraine and Russia that Russians will continue to use Crimea for their national security purposes (naval bases and military sea ports). The population there is the same as the rest of Eastern Ukraine, indistinguishable from mainstream Russians. The area had the status of an autonomous republic in Ukraine.
The Crimean parliament recently voted to have a referendum on March 16, 2014 as to whether to stay in the Ukraine or move to Russian. They cite an example of Kosovo as a political precedent.
Why did Putin send those troops??
As far as why Russian troops are there, the story differs depending on the source. I read Russian, U.S. and Ukrainian media and all of them are saying different things. The Russian Minister of Defense said that those troops were not even Russian. Some Ukrainian sources say that it was Crimean militia supported by old military equipment from Russia. A small part of Crimean population are, by the way, so called Crimean Tartars (around 12%). These are the remnants of Ottoman Turks who ruled Crimea before Catherine the Great. They were deported by Stalin to Siberia during WWII and were allowed to return only during Gorbachev’s time. They seem to be against Russia. It is not surprising given what they had to go through. So that adds to the already confusing political situation and loyalties.
So what is the fuss all about?
What in my view, polarizes things in Ukraine is the fact that the U.S. paid a lot of attention to this situation. It makes Russia feel that the U.S. has ulterior motives. And are there any ulterior motives? Why is the U.S. so proactive in denouncing Russian position? What Russians say can be summarized like this, “You guys are sure friendly with an openly communist totalitarian country like China. They invaded Tibet, they do not allow freedom of speech, there is no democracy there and you keep your mouth shut about them. But as far as Russia is concerned there is lot of posturing. Why? Is it fair? You Americans pride yourself as being independent but are suspiciously following a version of the Golden Rule. In other words, ‘he who has the gold, rules.'”
So what do you think my fellow Americans? I would love to pass on some feedback to Ukrainians.