The View From Olympus 25: Another Crimean War?

It may be that the winter Olympics in Sochi will have yet another, even more spectacular closing ceremony. What might that be? Russia retaking the Crimea.

Among the manifold disasters that engulfed Russia in the late 20th century, few were more painful than losing the Crimea to a newly independent Ukraine. The Crimea includes Sevastopol, the base of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. The fleet is still based there under an agreement with Ukraine, but Ukraine can change its mind. Russia has no Black Sea port on its own territory that can replace Sevastopol, even if it had the rubles to rebuild Sevastopol’s extensive facilities, which it does not.

My bet is that the Crimea is topic number one in the Kremlin. I further suspect troop movements are already underway to position forces for a coup de main in the Crimea, perhaps as part of a broader mission to support the Russian population in eastern Ukraine.

The harsh fact is, Ukraine as presently constituted is not a viable country. As he did with the Poles, Prussians, and Silesians, Stalin pushed the Ukrainian population west (or starved them), and filled the resulting vacuum with Russians. East and west Ukraine were different to start with, in part because far western Ukraine had not even been part of the Russian Empire. To its great good fortune, it belonged to Austria-Hungary. The city now called Lviv was then Austrian Lemberg, and Austrian Ukrainians were known as Ruthenians. Once again in today’s events we see how much central Europe needs an Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The tension between Russian-majority eastern Ukraine and western Ukraine has been evident since Ukraine became independent. Political power in Kiev has alternated between the two, with the current legal (he was elected) Ukrainian president, Mr. Viktor Yanukovych, representing eastern Ukraine and the Russians. The revolt against him began when, reflecting the interests of eastern Ukraine, he opted for closer relations with Russia instead of the EU. Western Ukraine wants the opposite, so it rebelled.

Trying to keep eastern and western Ukraine united in one unhappy country is a losing proposition. The new government in Kiev has promptly demonstrated this fact. Instead of seeking to conciliate the Russians in eastern Ukraine, it has made them its target. Among its first acts was de-recognizing Russian as an official language and disallowing Russian in the state schools. These actions were declarations of war on Ukraine’s Russian population, a point not missed in Moscow.

It is easy to see how events might play out. Russian leaders in eastern Ukraine are already meeting to coordinate their response to the new government in Kiev. Mr. Yanukovych is probably safe in Russian hands. Authorities in eastern Ukraine petition Russia for help to protect them against Kiev’s anti-Russian actions. Mr. Yanukovych, as legal President of Ukraine, asks Russia for the assistance of Russian forces. Moscow announces that in response to these requests, Russian forces will enter eastern Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians whose rights are being violated. A coup de main, which Russians traditionally do well, seizes first Sevastopol and then all of Crimea. Ukraine’s armed forces are not strong enough to resist Russia, especially in majority-Russian areas where Russian troops are welcomed. Resistance by guerrilla warfare is not possible there because the anti-Russian guerrillas would not have a base among the population.

Instead, spontaneous violence in both eastern and western Ukraine results in a population exchange. Ethnic Russians leave western for eastern Ukraine, while ethnic Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine head west. Eastern Ukraine sets up a “Ukrainian” government under President Yanukovych, which Moscow promptly recognizes. Sooner or later eastern Ukraine, including the Crimea, asks to join the Russian Federation and is accepted. Russia has the Crimea back, with the Black Sea Fleet’s now-secure base.

What should the United States and the EU do in response to such a scenario? Accept reality. Again, Ukraine as presently constituted is not viable. It is two mutually hostile peoples in the embrace of a shotgun marriage. Each will go on trying to slip a dagger into the other’s back so long as they are forced together.

Peace will only come when each side is allowed to do as it wishes. For eastern Ukraine, that means coming home to Russia. Where the EU can help is with western Ukraine. Brussels should put western Ukraine on a fast track for EU membership. Washington can join in an effort to provide the massive financial assistance western Ukraine needs, while avoiding the depression that the IMF forces on any country it rescues. Western Ukraine will soon enough say “good riddance” to eastern Ukraine if its reward is joining, or for the Austrian parts, rejoining, Europe. And to their great good fortune, all parties will have avoided what none needs, a second Crimean War.