In his 1979 novel, The Island of Crimea, Vasily Aksyonov imagined the region’s flourishing independence from the Soviet Union. Aksyonov, a dissident writer who emigrated to the US shortly after the book’s samizdat (underground) publication, is now lauded as a prophet. However, his prophecy has been turned on its head: Today’s Crimea does not want independence from Ukraine; it wants continued dependence on Russia.
Traditionally the gem in the imperial crown, a lavish playground of tzars and Soviet commissars — and, more important, the home of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet — Crimea became part of Ukraine under former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin apparently forgot to claim it back, so Ukraine kept a territory in which nearly 60 percent of the 2 million inhabitants identify as Russians.
In defense of Khrushchev (my great-grandfather), whether Crimea was part of Russia or Ukraine hardly mattered. After all, they were all part of the Soviet empire. However, in the past 20 years, Russia has sought to retake the peninsula. The Kremlin has been rumored to expedite passport applications for Crimean residents, and its allies — for example, Sevastopol Mayor Aleksei Chalyi — populate its political offices.
And now fugitive former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych is reported to have taken refuge there as well.
Busy with the Sochi Olympics and wary of an international debacle, Russian President Vladimir Putin maintained almost complete public silence as Ukraine’s crisis reached its bloody crescendo. In fact, Putin’s manipulation of Yanukovych — forcing him to renege in November last year on Ukraine’s plan to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, and to enact a harsh anti-protest law the following month — ended in disgrace for the Kremlin: Kiev is now firmly in the hands of pro-Western forces.
However, the seemingly spontaneous resolve of some Crimean Russians to rejoin Mother Russia is allowing Putin to wipe some of the egg off his face. After all, pleas from Crimea for fraternal Russian support appear to justify Putin’s backing for the dithering, venal and now widely despised Yanukovych.
So the big question now is whether Putin will seize on the restiveness of Russians in Crimea (and eastern Ukrainian cities like Kharkiv) to recover parts of former Soviet territory, as he did with Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions after the 2008 war.
If so, the long-term strategic costs could be enormous. The Northern Caucasus and its vicinity already is a tinderbox; acquiring more territory with disaffected Muslims would undoubtedly yield further security challenges.
After all, the formerly Ottoman Crimea has long been home to the Tatars, who bear a massive historical grudge against the Kremlin, owing to their forced removal by Stalin to the Central Asian steppes. Today, they compose 12 percent to 20 percent of the Crimean population (depending on who is counting); but, threatened by Putin’s repressive policies toward other Muslims, they might well renew their call for all Tatars to return.
If more Tatars do settle in Crimea, Russia’s neo-imperial project, already facing an Islamist insurgency in Chechnya and Dagestan, would become all but untenable.
That much should be clear to virtually everyone, if not to Putin, whose obsession with short-term tactical victories — which usually take the form of poking the US in the eye — can also be seen in Syria.