Crimea is not an expression of Russia trying to expand, as some voices in the media will have it, or the political leaders of the vulnerable Baltic states. Quite on the contrary. Crimea may well be read as the desperate and angst-ridden attacks of a dying empire, a shrinking superpower refusing to adjust to new realities, the last gasping growls of the Russian bear.
Not that Crimea is not important. It is important to both Russia and to the people who live there. It is important to Russia because it gives Russia naval presence in the Black Sea and beyond. But Russia wanted something else, something much more. This we may see from two different yet interconnected contexts.
One is that Russia over the last year has played for the whole of Ukraine. The Ukrainian president, Yanukovich, was on the verge of signing a significant agreement with the European Union, an agreement that would have benefitted the country’s economy and drawn it closer to Europe politically.
Russia managed to convince him otherwise, and in a surprise move he ditched the agreement with the EU and announced a new cordial relationship to Russia. He was always known to be a bit Russia-friendly anyway. But this surprise move angered many Ukrainians, in particular the young who hoped an approachment to the EU would improve their country’s economic future and their own opportunities in life. And this was the start of the uprising that led to Yanukovich’s removal.
By the time of the vote against him in parliament he had already fled, to Russia probably, and people were wandering around his private estate looking through the windows and wondering at the luxury of his personal life style. He had lost. And so had Russia. New forces took over in Kiev, nationalist forces, anti-Russian forces.
What is it that Russia has lost? To understand that, we must understand why Russia convinced Yanukovich to break relations with the EU and risk the disapproval of the population. The EU agreement was tempting and popular. Russia would have to pay for it to be annulled and was ready to pay much. The primary reason for this generosity was that Russia wanted a friendly state on its southwestern border.
This is a fairly natural trait in states, big states in particular. Russia depends for instance on its export of gas to the EU, and most of it is sent through enormous pipelines running through Ukraine. Another reason to want a friendly neighbour is that much of Russia’s western border consists of countries aligned to the EU and NATO.
If Ukraine had gone the same way, and that was the expressed desire of a good proportion of the Ukrainian population and of some of its leaders, then Russia would have faced a very strong rival too close for comfort. Not that relations with the EU are bad, but Russia and its president, Putin, see the EU and the US-led military pact NATO as rivals on the world scene.
Russia and Putin have expressed over and over again that they disapprove of neighbouring countries joining NATO. Russia and Putin expressed on several occasions that Russia would take a very dim view of any measures of approachment between Ukranie and NATO. The Russians were very upset when Poland, a former ally, joined NATO.
A few years earlier Georgia tried to do something similar, aligning itself closer to the EU and sought an agreement with NATO. It ended up in a short war in which Russian troops reached the outskirts of the Georgian capital in a matter of hours. Later the Russians withdrew, but Russian troops still occupy a section of Georgia just north of the capital. In addition Russia has taken the small regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.
So Putin was playing for the whole of Ukraine and was willing to pay for it. He wanted Ukraine to be closer to Russia than to the EU. He and probably most of his generals feared the proximity of that twin headed power, the EU and NATO, the Europeans and the Americans.
But the Russians have not played well. They come across as clumsy diplomats, heavy-handed at best, incompetent at worst. The deal with Yanukovich is dead; Yanukovich has fled and a new anti-Russian president installed.
The vote on Crimea may be sufficient justification for Putin to send in troops and occupy the peninsula. But in the process they have earned the enmity of Ukraine, and of the EU. Instead of having a Russia friendly Ukraine on its southwestern border, it will have the relatively small peninsula of Crimea but a large, hurt, angst ridden and hostile Ukraine. And a sulking EU, protesting, boycotting.
The Russian expansion
But what I wrote in the beginning is not right. Russia is expansionist. My point was to underline that it has failed this time around and to explain why I think it is so. But that Russia is an expansionist state should not be forgotten. And Ukraine should be particularly apprehensive. This is the second context that is important for an understanding of what is happening in Crimea.
Perhaps the most successful colonial enterprise of all is not the British, although the British created the largest empire ever. It is not the Spanish empire, in spite of the fact that the mother tongue of a portion of a relatively small European country is now one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.
The most successful colonial enterprise is perhaps the Russian. From being a relatively small kingdom around Moscow, the Russians expanded over the centuries to establish a large and sprawling state on the vast planes west of the Ural mountains.
In the 1700s they annexed, for instance, the lands that had belonged to a Lithuanian-Polish kingdom and the Tatar state along the Black Sea’s north coast: lands that today are known as Ukraine. From the late 1800s Russia expanded east and south, annexing the vast but largely empty plains of Siberia on the one hand, all the way to China, and virtually the entirety of what had once been the flourishing and cultured states of Central-Asia.
The countries which today are Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kirgistan were once home of the century old Muslim emirates, established way back in the days of the Silk Road, grown rich in culture: Bokhara, Samarqand, ancestral home of the Mughal dynasty. By the 19th century these states were weakened by ineffectual rulers and corrupt aristocracies, and one by one they were gobbled up by an expansionist Russian empire.
The Russians also took other regions in the 19th century: the Caucasus, home of the wild tribes of the Chechens and others, and then the ancient Christian kingdoms of Georgia and Armenia. There were other regions as well. The Russians gained Finland from the Swedish crown after the Napoleonic wars, and new parts of Poland.
Some of these territories were lost in World War One, when Lenin decided to give up land rather than jeopardising the revolution he had successfully become head of. Many of the territories were regained after a few years, anyway, including Ukraine where successive governments had tried to set up an independent state. After a few years and several coups and countercoups, a Soviet style government was established and the state merged with the Soviet Union.
That was the beauty of the Soviet Union. It was the heir of a colonial empire, but changed into a Socialist (or Communist) empire that gave it the semblance of treating all parts of the empire with equality.
Then of course this equality consisted to some extent of equal brutality rather than measures of autonomy. But to some very important extent the Soviet Union was fairly even-handed when it came to many of its minorities. The Muslims in the Caucasus and in Central-Asia were probably the least equal, but the Ukrainians and others were no worse off than the Russians themselves.
This may lead us to the question of what an empire is. Is it a multiethnic state where one ethnic group rules, or can it be a multiethnic state where several or all ethnic groups are treated with equality, or measures of equality?
The Soviet empire, with its mighty set of allies and satellite states, was open to a multitude of ethnic identities. But it was also, at its core, Russian. Just as English is the lingua franca of the American world, so was Russian the language of the Soviet empire.
At its height during the Cold War the Soviet empire was one of the two great superpowers; states of such might had never been seen before. Its armament was desired in faroff places, the Russians welcomed in allied countries on all continents, its self esteem sky high.
But eventually the empire fell apart, having overstretched itself on Afghanistan. And then it went from bad to worse. Gorbachev had it dissolved, and Yeltsin squandered away its wealth. The economy contracted, the population decreased, and friends and allied countries found new playmates. It was a terrible, rude shock.
Rebuilding the empire
Unpleasant as it was, one option would have been to say that this is what we have, this is Russia, a nation-state within its own set borders. This would have allowed the state to spend time and energy on rebuilding the economy and ensuring a healthy and happy population.
But much of the Russian state’s energy is directed at rebuilding, if not an empire, at least a cordon of friendly states. The Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Union are both expressions of this wish to establish a Russian presence beyond the national borders. In the eyes of staunch Russian nationalists, Russia is not a country, it is a civilisation.
At its core of this civilisation is its conception of the individual as less important than the nation. The nation is above all. This is a conception of the world that is opposed to western civilisation, where the individual is above the nation – at least as they understand it.
Russia, in this conception, is equal to, on the one hand, the western civilisation, represented by Europe and the US, and China and other eastern civilisations on the other. It is not likely that the Russian President Putin shares the entirety of this sort of thinking. He is too much of a clear-headed and strategic politician for that. But it is clear that he does use these thoughts to bolster his regime, to give himself added legitimacy among sections of the population.
A consequence of all these centuries of expansion is that there are Russian speaking groups in many areas outside of the Russian nation state. One such place is eastern Ukraine, including Crimea.
In the days of the empire, whether the Tsarist or the Soviet, this mattered little. They were all covered by that all-embracing Russian umbrella. In fact it mattered so little that the Soviet premier, Khrushchev, decided that Crimea, which at that point belonged to the Russian republic, should be transferred to the Ukrainian republic.
Today, because of the particular nationalist interpretation in Russia, it has become paramount to protect the Russian speaking people wherever they live. Or, at least this is a rhetorical device Putin can make use of when building his strongman image. Russians outside of the borders are considered part of the Russian nation, moved beyond the motherland in a time of expansion. Is it not the motherland’s obligation to protect them?
A particular problem with Ukraine is that there is no natural border to Russia. It is all a vast plain, populated with villages and towns where the language changes indiscernably from Russian to Ukrainian. Arguably, up to and including Kiev, Ukraine is Russian.
Equally, there is no historical border for, except for a brief three-year period after World War One, there has never been any Ukrainian state. Moreover, Kiev, the capital of today’s Ukrainian state, is historically a Russian city. In fact, it is where the Russian nation was born, from the mixed aristocracy that emerged in Kiev a thousand years ago and that was called Rus, pronounced Roos.
There is a Ukrainian nation, though, with a language, a literature, and a cultural identity. They are the inhabitants of what is now western Ukraine. Many among them have a strong dislike for Russians.
During the two World Wars Ukrainian nationalists sided with the Germans against the Russians, in the vain hope that the Germans would liberate them from Russian rule. The seeds of mistrust that were planted then have reemerged now, generations later, in strong Russiaphobic elements being made part of the newly established Ukrainian government.
It is this situation that Putin tried to avoid, the establishment of an anti-Russian government in a neighbouring country. The more he threatens, the more noises he makes with his arms, the more brutal he is in securing Russian interests in Crimea, the more enemies he makes in Kiev. Such a scenario is a contraction of Russian influence, not an expansion.
His want to create a larger sphere of Russian influence, and although his Crimean adventure has probably made him more popular at home, in the medium run has made enemies of the EU and the US in addition to Ukraine. In this reading, the Putin regime’s effort to expand Russian influence has failed.