A Crimean-shaped thorn in Russia’s side

I can’t claim to know anything about what’s going on in the Black Sea with those Ukrainian and Russian boats:

Sunday’s naval clash was off the coast of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. Russian coastguard ships opened fire before special forces stormed the Ukrainian vessels. Between three and six Ukrainians were injured.

Ukraine said it was a Russian “act of aggression”. Moscow said the ships had illegally entered its waters.

What I do know is that Russia is probably not playing a very smart game here. When I was in Perth I spoke to a Russian who was adamant that Russia had no choice to annex Crimea in order to prevent NATO warships from being within striking distance of their Black Sea coast. Now you could hold an entire seminar on the delusions Russians subject themselves to when justifying their seizure of Crimea, but I wasn’t going to start arguing geopolitics during a social visit. As I’m fond of saying these days, politics shouldn’t interfere with friendship.

Instead, I said that regardless of the rights or wrongs of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, this will be a thorn in their side for generations to come. There are certain historical events which occur between two peoples at a particular time which one party is able to use as a stick to bash the other in perpetuity. Both the relative size of the parties and the timing are crucial, which allows a certain narrative to form which, regardless of actual facts, never goes away. Russia’s mistake was stealing land from a weaker neighbour at a time when Russia was itself weak and also generally disliked. When Stalin’s USSR annexed land from their neighbours, they were strong enough to brush off criticism and people’s attention was focused elsewhere in any case. Similarly, China’s land and sea grabs don’t seem to have become a stick which their enemies use to beat them, at least not effectively.

But the narrative has formed that Russia illegally annexed Crimea and is illegally occupying it. Even if their administration of the territory is eventually recognised by the international community, this will be an issue Ukrainians and those opposed to Russia’s ambitions will use to thwart them indefinitely. Ukraine is a complete dysfunctional basket case and will in all likelihood stay that way, whereas in 10, 20, 30 years time Russia might have reformed enough to want to play a more positive political, diplomatic, and commercial role around the world. Frankly, nobody knows what Russia’s future holds but it’s at least possible that whoever succeeds Putin might want to involve Russia more in global business, for example. They’re likely to find that, despite any character reforms they’ve undergone, a well-funded and influential lobby group will pop up at every point and turn and say “Ah, but Crimea”.

A good comparison is with Turkey and the Armenian genocide. No matter what Turkey tries to do, there is a small but effective body of Armenian lobbyists who say “Ah, but the genocide”. Like Russia with Crimea, Turkey decided to massacre the Armenians when they were too weak to set the narrative, losing the war months later and being occupied by foreign armies. It probably never occurred to the Turks that, a hundred years later when anyone with even memories of the event is now dead, the issue would be thrown in front of them like a tank trap every time they want to do anything in the US or Europe. I suspect most Turks wish they’d just left the Armenians alone.

The other similarity between the two cases is that neither issue can be resolved. No apology from Turkey can bring back dead Armenians, and I suspect even now the Russian presence in Crimea is so entrenched it can never be returned to Ukraine without enormous upheaval and more human rights abuses. But this is the beauty of it from a fanatic’s point of view: an insoluble moral objection is perfect, because it’s a club that can be used to beat your opponent again and again. Sure, this isn’t exactly productive from the point of view of the person wielding the club, but fanatics aren’t normally motivated by progress. I’m reminded of a comment I read recently from someone who’d spent a few minutes listening to an Irishman rant about the British:

“So what are you going to do, keep protesting until the last 600 years didn’t happen?”

Like the Armenians and Irish, Ukrainians have little to lose by throwing a spanner in the works of their larger neighbour’s ambitions in protest at their perceived historical beastliness (look at the behaviour of the Irish over Brexit, for example). Ukraine won’t suffer for it, and they’ll find plenty of support from whoever Russia has managed to make an enemy of that week. I reckon that, like the Turks with the Armenians, Russians will one day believe Crimea is a lot more trouble than it’s worth and they should have left it well alone. Where this will leave Putin’s reputation among Russians as a geopolitical strategic genius I don’t know.


54 thoughts on “A Crimean-shaped thorn in Russia’s side

  1. They voted with their feet in a time of lawlessness, bloodshed and crisis by holding a free and fair referendum with the people in the middle of a coup that wasn’t of their making and not in their best interest. 97% of them said that they didn’t want a bar of it and wished to align with Russia and to immediately get away from the dodgy regime that was being installed in Kiev. Russia observed the Crimean peoples wishes and merely reunified them with open arms.

    Good for them, I like it when the people beat an unjust and unrepresentative collective, especially when they are the underdog. Now the people of Crimea are much happier and better of for it and that is the only thing that counts.

    Who cares what the Russian government did or didn’t do.

  2. They voted with their feet in a time of lawlessness, bloodshed and crisis by holding a free and fair referendum

    Yes, you’ve already given us the view from Brisbane. Do you intend to copy and paste this over and over?

    Who cares what the Russian government did or didn’t do.

    Clearly nobody, which is why the subject of their actions rarely comes up.

  3. 1. “U.S. Navy Seabees Building Maritime Operations Center on Black Sea Coast,” USNI News, 15 Aug 2017. If disputing Russia’s right to its naval base at Sevastopol—home to their Black Sea Fleet since 1783—should not America’s building naval facilities 170 miles away be even more disputed? Could we not just stop pishing in their backyard?

    (INB4 ‘They were invited in by the legal government of Ukraine’—like the legal government of Syria invited in the Russians, but not the Americans?)

    2. Trump had a scheduled meeting with Putin that was cancelled as a result of the Ukrainian action, which hints at Deep State/MIC activity. Tucker Carlson had Prof. Stephen F. Cohen (author of War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate) on, and he had some interesting commentary:

    For the first time since President Eisenhower, a president of the United States, Donald Trump, is not free to keep us from war with Russia. … Trump was supposed to meet with Putin in Argentina … We’re embroiled in crises that are fraught with hot war—not just cold war—from Syria to Ukraine, then this episode in the Russian–Ukrainian waters occur. It seems clear it was a provocation to disrupt the meeting between Trump and Putin and it was successful. …
    Think back to John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962—I mean, that was the model of what we should never do again, but the lesson also was is that President Kennedy was free to negotiate with the Kremlin leader to avoid nuclear war. That is not the case today and that’s why I think the danger of war with Russia, at least since the Cuban Missile Crisis, is greater in my lifetime in history than it’s ever been …

    Cohen’s latest column in The Nation is also recommended (given how reactionary my politics are, never thought I’d recommend a Nation article).

    3. A nation’s actions is one thing; how they are perceived, another. E.g. one of the many sparks leading to the conflagration of WW1 was the Kaiser’s building a fleet to rival Britain’s—but he had no intention of taking on our Royal Navy, Chancellor Bülow observing:

    What William II most desired was to see himself at the head of a glorious German fleet, starting out on a peaceful visit to England. The English sovereign with his fleet would meet the German Kaiser in Portsmouth. The two fleets would file past each other, the two monarchs each wearing the naval uniform of the other’s country would then stand on the bridge of their flagships. Then after they had embraced in the prescribed manner, a gala dinner with lovely speeches would be held in Cowes.

    (Wilkinson, R. (2002) Germany, Britain & the Coming of War in 1914. History Review, 42. Retrieved from http://www.historytoday.com/richard-wilkinson/germany-britain-coming-war-1914)
    But the Kaiser deserves blame for not realising that such a fleet could not help but be perceived as a threat to us, our foreign policy hinging on our island being secured by the dominance of our fleet; and his notorious congratulatory telegram to Kruger in 1896 and other sympathetic moves to our adversaries helped not at all. His intentions were one thing; how we perceived his actions, another.

    4. As Palmerston said in 1848:

    Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow. When we find other countries marching in the same course, and pursuing the same objects as ourselves, we consider them as our friends, and we think for the moment that we are on the most cordial footing; when we find other countries that take a different view, and thwart us in the object we pursue, it is our duty to make allowance for the different manner in which they may follow out the same objects. It is our duty not to pass too harsh a judgment upon others, because they do not exactly see things in the same light as we see; and it is our duty not lightly to engage this country in the frightful responsibilities of war, because from time to time we may find this or that Power disinclined to concur with us in matters where their opinion and ours may fairly differ. … And if I might be allowed to express in one sentence the principle which I think ought to guide an English Minister, I would adopt the expression of Canning, and say that with every British Minister the interests of England ought to be the shibboleth of his policy.

    The Baltics don’t matter to us. The Far East doesn’t matter to us. The Middle East matters only so far as it affects Gib and Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus—ME is Islam’s base of course, but if we stopped bombing them and shut the door to everyone from there, refos included, that’s half the Muslim problem solved (managed to live with the Ottoman Empire well enough). Central Europe does not matter to us. The only thing that should matter to us, and our leaders, is Britain.

    (INB4 ‘We started WW2 for Poland.’ No, we did not. The guarantee to Poland was just a line in the sand. What? Poland is our bro, our BFF, but not Czechoslovakia? We weren’t BFFs with either—Chamberlain tried to avoid our getting into another war by chucking a bone (Sudetenland) to Adolf but it only encouraged him; so the guarantee was just our saying, We’ve had enough of your s**t—thus far, and no further.)

    We once had a foreign policy dating back to at least Henry VIII, and admirably described by Winston in a speech to the Conservative Members’ Committee on Foreign Affairs in March 1936, which he reproduced in his The Gathering Storm, the first volume of his magisterial six-volume The Second World War (1949), pp.186–190:

    For four hundred years the foreign policy of England has been to oppose the strongest, most aggressive, most dominating power on the Continent, and particularly to prevent the Low Countries falling into the hands of such a Power. … Observe that the policy of England takes no account of which nation it is that seeks the overlordship of Europe. The question is not whether it is Spain, or the French Monarchy, or the French Empire, or the German Empire, or the Hitler régime. It has nothing to do with rulers or nations; it is concerned solely with whoever is the strongest or the potentially dominating tyrant. Therefore, we should not be afraid of being accused of being pro-French or anti-German. If the circumstances were reversed, we could equally be pro-German and anti-French.

    With our allowing the EEC/EU’s creation and becoming a virtual vassal of the US, we have obviously departed from that centuries-old foreign policy—and it has benefitted us little. Our fellow EU members dislike us as much as ever and screw us over at every opportunity, our historic defence manufacturers died as contracts went to the Yanks instead (e.g. EM-2*, TSR-2, Fairy Rotodyne, P.1154; see Project Cancelled: Disaster of Britain’s Abandoned Aircraft Projects (1986) by Derek Wood for a bitter read) and our troops are killed for no good purpose in Washington’s eternal wars.

    (* Belgium benefitted from this but only because Winston (may the angels serenade him in his eternal rest) cancelled Labour’s adoption of the .280 calibre EM-2 (No.9) because of US pressing for Nato standardisation of 7.62—only for the US to then go with 5.56.)

    We need to resume that foreign policy, as described by Derby in 1866:

    [I]t is the duty of the Government of this country, placed as this country is with respect to geographical position, to keep itself upon terms of goodwill with all surrounding nations, but not to entangle itself with any single or monopolizing alliance with any one of them; above all to endeavour not to interfere needlessly and vexatiously with the internal affairs of any foreign country, nor to volunteer to them unasked advice with regard to the conduct of their affairs, looking at them from our own point of view, and not considering how different are the views and feelings of those whom we address.

  4. Bardon has put across the timeline of events which roughly chimes with my interpretation of this elective conflagration. We have been provoking Russia continually since Putin frustrated Obama’s aggression in Syria and, before that, expanded NATO to its borders despite the assurances given to Gorbachev at the time of Soviet dissolution. It is understandable, especially given that Putin has been made into our new Emmanuel Goldstein, like all the other national leaders we buttered up for illegal regime change operations, that the Russians wouldn’t want to be invaded yet again by western imperialists. This in no way dismisses or ignores Russia’s historical imperialist ambitions and the abuses that inevitably come with that, but we seem to be holding them to standards we long ago abandoned.

    when was the last time any of those added to their territory at the expense of someone else’s?

    I think that the EU can be considered an aggressively expanding aspirant nation state/regional bloc in a ‘new world order’. Did the former Warsaw Pact nations hold referenda on their membership? Or did their government lickspittles just see a new and better mafia don to grovel to?

    What form did this request take?
    A referendum was taken to withdraw from Ukraine, and another referendum to rejoin Russia. You may argue that, with the troops long-stationed in Sevastapol, such a referendum could never be anything but under duress, but I think that once again applies double standards given our coup in Kiev.

    Either way, it’s nice to have a halfway civilized discussion with somebody who has worked in Russia and speaks the language. Your blog is always interesting.

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