We’ve seen quite a lot of grist thrown into the rumor mill that Crimea, Ukraine, is next on the Kremlin’s annexation list following the relatively easy seizure of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However this piece by Joshua Kucera over at Slate.com is definitely worth the time.
The friendship between Russia and Ukraine is on the rocks these days. The 2004 Orange Revolution brought in pro-Western leaders who have prioritized joining NATO and the European Union to the detriment of Kiev’s ties to Moscow. The summer 2008 war between Georgia and Russia ratcheted up the tension even more: Ukraine sold arms to Georgia (some secretly, Russia and a few Ukrainians allege), and its president, Viktor Yushchenko, flew to Georgia to show Ukraine’s support. Meanwhile, Russian navy ships based in Ukraine ferried troops to Georgia and sank one Georgian coast guard vessel.
Immediately after the dust settled in Georgia, speculation had it that Ukraine was next in Russia’s sights. (Google “Is Ukraine next?“to see just how much speculation.) Like Georgia, Ukraine has NATOaspirations and a president dedicated to moving away from Moscow andtoward the United States and Europe. And it has Crimea, a peninsula onthe Black Sea where most of the population is not Ukrainian but ethnicRussian. It also hosts a large Russian naval base. Although Crimea isstill firmly under Ukrainian control, Russia can turn up the heat therewhen it wants to. Shortly after the war in Georgia, I ran into a Russian diplomat I knowin Washington; I asked him what came next. He grinned and said, “WatchCrimea.” While the world’s attention has lately been focused on the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute, the issue of Crimea holds more long-term potential for conflict.
Butwhile the situations in Ukraine and Georgia have several ominousparallels, they are also different in important ways. Ukraine is muchlarger–a population of 46 million, 10 times as large as Georgia’s–witha much stronger military. Georgians, traditionally mountain dwellers,have a legendarily fiery temperament, while Ukrainians’ reputation ismore as mild-mannered farmers. The Ukrainian population itself isdivided: While independence has allowed Ukrainian nationalism toflourish, especially in the western part of the country, 17 percent ofUkrainian citizens are ethnic Russians and many others still look toMoscow for cultural and political orientation. Public support for NATOmembership hovers in the 30 percent range, while in Georgia it’s morethan 80 percent.
Perhaps most important,though, Ukrainians share a long history and a cultural affinity withRussians. While Russia’s relations with Georgia date only to the 18thcentury, the histories of Ukraine and Russia have been inseparable formore than 1,000 years. Kiev was the site of the first great Slaviccivilization, Kievan Rus, established in the 10th century.When the Mongols sacked Kiev in 1240, the city fell into decline, andthe center of Slavic civilization shifted to Moscow (which had been foundedby a prince from Kiev in 1147). Russians and Ukrainians still disputewhose country is the true successor of Kievan Rus. A Russian proverbsays that Moscow is the heart of Russia and St. Petersburg is itshead–but Kiev is its mother. Russia values these inter-Slavic tieshighly; its low birth rates and high death rates create the potentialthat Russians will, over time, become demographically overwhelmed bythe non-Slavic minorities that surround Russia.
Irecently traveled through Ukraine to try to see whether my diplomatfriend–and everyone else–was right. Was Ukraine next in Russia’ssights? No one knows, of course, probably not even at the Kremlin. Butif there is an eventual conflict in Crimea between Russia and Ukraine,we’ll be able to point fingers in many directions: Moscow, forfomenting anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Crimea; Kiev, for pursuing clumsynationalist policies that alienate Russians in Ukraine; CrimeanRussians, for stubbornly holding onto the Soviet past rather thanfocusing on a future in an independent Ukraine; and Westerngovernments, in particular the United States, for supporting theUkrainian government so enthusiastically that Kiev feels emboldened toact more rashly than it otherwise might.