Maybe, just maybe, the Russians are right in Crimea

If we take names and nationalities out of the current crisis in Ukraine, perhaps the West’s immediate condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine would seem hasty.

Video: Crimea Just before the crisis – my trip video extract

Consider this hypothetical: 60 years ago a dictatorial regime grants territory, let’s call it A, from one of its regions, let’s call it B, to another we can call C – without any consultation with the people of either A, B or C.

We now have a group A living amongst group C at the stroke of a dictator’s pen even though Group A and Group B have closer if not identical ethnic ties, where as Group C sees themselves as different. This is not something the West would support.

Fifty years later the dictator’s regime has collapsed. Groups B and C now become different countries. However there remains the historical anachronism of what to do with Group A that had been handed over by the now gone dictator? In haste an agreement is made not to rock the boat.  So A stays with C and does not return to B.

Ten years further on the people of A now decide that they wish to return to B.  Group A has a referendum to determine their future but C objects to the vote.

Taking personalities and nations out of it one would think that the West would back the self determination of Group A, recognise the past act of a dictator as invalid and put pressure on Group C to allow the return of Group A to the territory of Group B. After all, that would be democratic.

Now lets put names in the circumstances to see how the dynamic changes.

In the 1950’s Soviet Dictator Khrushchev takes the largely ethnic Russian region of Crimea from the Russian Republic and hands it to the Ukrainian Republic. No consultation, just a stroke of a pen.

In the 1990’s the Soviet Union dissolves. In the mess that follows an agreement is signed that Crimea will remain an autonomous territory under the sovereignty of Ukraine.  Most people though still speak Russian and identify with Russian culture more than Ukrainian culture.

The last presidential election in Ukraine elected a pro-Moscow president who tried to reverse the further integration of Ukraine with Europe and instead look back to Russia. The pro European western part of the country and the pro Russian eastern part of the country are now in dispute.

A ‘popular apprising’ overthrows the pro Russian president and replaces him with a pro European interim government. This is the trigger for the autonomous region of Crimea to put its cards on the table and demand to be part of Russia.

Now, the Crimean parliament officially requests Moscow to accept Crimea back into Russia and announces a mid-March referendum that is almost certain to pass.

The above narrative is a gross simplification, but the essential issues are accurate. Any free and fair vote in Crimea would most likely result in the Crimea wishing to undo Khrushchev’s dictatorial will and return to Russia.

What differs the Russian ‘choosing of sides’  in Crimea from US actions in other parts of the world is the genuine historical narrative to reunite Russia and Crimea. Equally it seems most probable that this would represent a genuine expression of the will of the people in Crimea. So why doesn’t the west support this?

It is true that many in the West don’t like Putin or his dogma, but should that not be put aside in favour of respecting the genuine will of the people of Crimea? Sure, it is true that Russia has been fermenting separatist views much like the US does in other parts of the world. But isn’t this just ‘real politics’?

The world of foreign affairs is neither consistent nor predictable. The British agree that Scotland can have a self-determination referendum, but not Crimea. The US support a popular military backed uprising in Kiev, but not in Cairo.

The Russians did not support the free will of those in Kosovo but the US did. The situation is reversed in Crimea.

The problem with the dogmatic pro and anti Russian posturing by various players makes compromise more and more difficult. So does the extremely rapid vote slated in Crimea.

Wouldn’t it have been better just a week ago if Western Governments had called for a genuine expression of free will by the people of Crimea, monitored by the OSCE to determine the future of Crimea? The vote should be held in a few month’s time not a few days in order to get the mechanics and transparency right.

Would this have been better than just jumping on an anti-Putin band-wagon?

The historical narrative of undoing Khrushchev’s pen stroke would ‘insulate’ Crimea from becoming a historical precedent to apply worldwide. The Ukrainians would have a face saving way of losing territory and the West could have avoided a confrontation with Russia that ultimately Russia will win.

But yet again personalities seem to undermine genuine chances of peaceful transfers.

Video: last year’s journey tot he Eastern Block including Ukraine

Andrew MacLeod is a former high-level official of the United Nations who has recently returned from the Ukraine. His latest book ‘A Life Half Lived’ covers life in international affairs. He can be followed on twitter @AndrewMMacleod

Do you agree or disagree? Please put your comments below.

7 Replies to “Maybe, just maybe, the Russians are right in Crimea”

  1. I am not an expert in the underlying historical and cultural issues of the area, though would add the element of Russia becoming actively militarily involved within the territorial boundary of what is still Ukraine, as important element. It seems that may have been the ignition of Western action, you cannot discount the power relations in the analysis, linearity does not work well here. There is no mingling third party in Scotland. If Russia had stayed put, I wonder if anyone would have cared as much since Ukraine is not in the EU yet.


  2. Your point on Russia was proved to be more outside of the norm than I expected, I attended a round table discussion recording yesterday at LSE for BBC Radio 4 and the world service. It was incredibly Russiaphobic, painted a complete caricature of Putin and I left feeling quite downhearted in the whole diplomatic process. It was titled Russia, Ukraine & Us – yet without a Russian, Ukranian or Crimean on the panel. It was West centric and was more of an “Us” discussion as everyone agreed. I don’t agree with Putin or his actions, but I think to diplomatically resolve the crisis you need to acknowledge his position and I worry that this discussion is more telling of the broader picture. It is interesting to listen to however and I believe it’s on world service later today.


  3. Anybody who has ever taken a history course will recall the ‘teachers’ primary message: Unless we learn from past mistakes we are trapped to ‘repeat’ them. Looking back one hundred years, at least I can appreciate similarities to what brought on WWI

    Just like we, as individuals, have to accept consequences for our own past mistakes, it is time our ‘leaders’ – at least the democratically elected ones – accept responsibility for their own shortcomings and actively foster cultural understanding rather than division. That is – after all – why they were elected democratically!

    If a bully and his cronies decide to attempt manipulation on a mass scale feeding on cultural mis- and dis-information it is OUR responsibility as ‘educated’ and socially responsible democratic inidividuals to make sure that ‘all’ available information can be used as basis for individual understanding and decisions.

    The comment by Elliot Blackwood about the BBC Radio therefore saddens me tremendously.I find it hard to swallow that the ignorance described could be pervasive in an organization I had held in hight regards.


  4. The response of India has been interesting. It is against sanctions and somewhat pro-Russia because they have long supported each other, Russia supports Indian claims at the UN, it is India’s most powerful neighbour, major source of arms and a partner in the space and science areas, so vital for India’s national identity. But the major reason for support is both countries are culturally sensitive to each other. The USA, on the other hand, created a diplomatic rift with India over payments to a maid – somewhat small issue but will take a long time before it is forgiven in Delhi. All of which suggests the importance of culture and accepting complexity, instead of our western obsession with declaring who is right or wrong.


  5. You present a historically balanced perspective. The devil is always in the details that we as public citizens do not have disclosed to us by the ones who have access to classified and state secrets. Hopefully those entities who are recipients of our votes will follow the course of logical judgement which is guided by the ultimate goal of achieving the most stable , humane, and enduring quality of life for the betterment of all humanity. It is idealistic thinking to wish for a world where all of us could live harmoniously without wars and battles which result in human loss of life. Leaders need to quit playing chess with human beings.Whatever can bring that to a halt is the best course of action. The next answer to determine is: ” What is that Whatever?”


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