A new Crimean War? Vladimir Putin, Peter the Great & the quest for a warm-water port

We’ve written about the complex situation in the Ukraine, how it’s not just a simple Europe vs. Russia global political conflict.

Ukraine is in trouble financially. So another axis for analysis, for example, is that “Europe” is offering a deeply neoliberal (privatized, austerity) deal to “help” them out of trouble, while Russia is offering a different kind of corruption, and more money.

There are also ethnic tensions between a Russian-speaking, Russia-aligned southeast and a Ukrainian-speaking, non-Russian (or anti-Russian) northwest. Much of that anti-Russian northwest, for example, fought with the Nazis against the Red Army.

During the “Orange Revolution” of 2004, for example, the electoral map looked like this:

2004 Election results in Ukraine (source)

2004 Election results in Ukraine (source)

Yanukovych, as near as I can tell, is in Russia at the moment. For great context on this many-sided conflict, do read these good pieces by Mark Ames. He lays it out as well as anyone I’ve seen:

Everything you know about Ukraine is wrong
Pierre Omidyar co-funded Ukraine revolution groups with US government, documents show

The first is a good lay-of-the-land overview, and the second details the way the U.S. is involved with the unrest in western Ukraine.

News from the Crimean Peninsula

Now comes the Crimea, Putin’s declaration that the Ukrainian internal conflict threatens “Russian interests” there, and his decision to send in (more) troops. First, what’s the latest? And second, what’s special about the Crimean peninsula?

The following is from Juan Cole at Informed Comment. Dr. Cole is a go-to guy for not just news, but informed analysis as well. Here’s his take on Putin and troops in Crimea (my paragraphing and slight editing):

A New Crimean War? (Update: Stuff’s Getting Real)

Tensions have continued to build in Ukraine’s Crimea since I wrote about it a few days ago. On Saturday, The Russian parliament authorized President Valdimir Putin to send troops into Ukraine to defend Russian Interests. A pro-Russian premier has been installed in the Crimean autonomous region, who may call a referendum on seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.

On Friday, shadowy armed men, apparently pro-Russian, began patrolling Crimea’s airports. The interim Ukraine government, meanwhile, is charging that Russian troops are trying to take control of the peninsula (where ethnic Russians now predominate, though it had earlier been a Turkic, Muslim area).

I had written:

The Russian-speaking population of the Crimean Peninsula in the Ukraine is upset by the popular movement in the west of the country that has overthrown president Viktor Yanukovych and is said to be forming militias. On some government buildings, Ukrainian flags have been replaced by Russian ones. Sevastopol is an important Black Sea port of call for Russian naval vessels, and Moscow has a base there.

Of all the ways in which Russian President Vladimir Putin will see the revolution in the Ukraine as dangerous to Russian interests, the potential loss of Crimea as a Russian ‘near abroad’ is among the more serious. Crimea was given to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev (himself Ukrainian) in the 1950s, but more Russians think they have a claim on Crimea than think they have a claim on Chechnya.

US national security adviser Susan Rice has already warned Russia against sending troops into the Ukraine. But what about the sailors at the base in Crimea? They’re already there. …

The apparent move by Putin to secure control of the Crimean Peninsula for Russia has a Ukrainian context. Crimea is an “autonomous parliamentary republic” within Ukraine, not a province or region tied in the normal way to the Ukrainian government. According to Dr. Cole, it was given to Ukraine in the Soviet days by Khrushchev, but it retained, and retains, a considerable degree of independence. Here’s how Wikipedia describes Ukraine:

Ukraine is a unitary state composed of 24 oblasts (provinces), one autonomous republic (Crimea) and two cities with special status: Kiev, its capital and largest city and Sevastopol, which houses the Russian Black Sea Fleet under a leasing agreement.

That’s the Ukrainian context. This could split Ukraine, either along roughly the lines shown in the map above, or by splitting Crimea from the rest. Or both. Or neither. It’s all up in the air right now.

But the Crimean Peninsula has a Russian context as well (note the status of Sevastopol above), which goes back to before Peter the Great.

The Crimean Peninsula, Peter the Great, and a Russian warm-water port

There’s a simple fact about Russia. It’s been doomed by geography to never be a great European naval power, because of one thing. For almost the entirety of its history, it had no warm-water port and no access to the Mediterranean. The Russians have been trying to correct that problem since before the time of Peter the Great, and Peter, builder of the Russian Empire, put the attempt into overdrive (again, my paragraphing):

Portrait of Russian Tsar Peter I the Great by Godfrey Kneller (1698).

Portrait of Russian Tsar Peter I the Great
by Godfrey Kneller (1698).

To improve his nation’s position on the seas, Peter sought to gain more maritime outlets. His only outlet at the time was the White Sea [click to see how far north this is] at Arkhangelsk.

The Baltic Sea was at the time controlled by Sweden in the north, while the Black Sea was controlled by the Ottoman Empire in the south. Peter attempted to acquire control of the Black Sea; to do so he would have to expel the Tatars from the surrounding areas.

As part of an agreement with Poland which ceded Kiev to Russia, Peter was forced to wage war against the Crimean Khan and against the Khan’s overlord, the Ottoman Sultan. Peter’s primary objective became the capture of the Ottoman fortress of Azov, near the Don River [and near Crimea on the Black Sea]. In the summer of 1695 Peter organized the Azov campaigns to take the fortress, but his attempts ended in failure.

Peter returned to Moscow in November of that year and began building a large navy. He launched about thirty ships against the Ottomans in 1696, capturing Azov in July of that year. On 12 September 1698, Peter officially founded the first Russian Navy base, Taganrog.

Thus began more than a century of conflict with the Ottoman Empire over control of the Black Sea. According to Dr. Cole, the famous (because of Tennyson) Crimean War in the 1850s almost resulted in Russian control of Istanbul (former Constantinople at the mouth of the Dardanelles, the entrance to the Mediterranean), but ultimately the Turks and their allies won and forced a treaty that halted the Russian advance.

This is the other context for Putin’s crackdown in the Crimean Peninsula. Dr. Cole remembers his history (my emphasis and paragraphing). Do click through; there’s much I’m not quoting, with maps:

As in the 1850s, Russia is claiming as its sphere of influence a territory in eastern Europe (Ukraine today, Romania and other Balkan lands in the 1850s). As in the 1850s, the West has an interest in seeing Russian power blocked from that part of Europe … As in the 1850s, one flash point in this geopolitical struggle is Crimea and its Russian naval facilities. … As in the 1850s, the West worries about Russian hegemony in the Middle East …

The parallels are hardly exact. But the place of a major Black Sea port in contests between Atlantic powers and Russia has remained a stable feature of geopolitics for over a century and a half.

Again, this is just the bones of Dr. Cole’s insight. The piece is a great read.

I strongly suspect that the Crimean warm-water port is a prize no Russian tsar, or emperor, or president will ever let go without a fight. Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine because Ukraine was also Russian (and because Khrushchev was Ukrainian). But Crimea is and was both different and special. It looks like Putin, like a century of Russians before him, is taking it back. What will the Ukrainians, whoever that is these days, do?

But more to the point for us, what will Obama and the U.S. do? Putin has called their bluster and their bluff. I’m almost certain we won’t invade (I hope). But there are many roads to entanglement, and many who want us to take them. Stay tuned.


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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