U.S. to help Ukraine Invade Crimea, How Did We Get Here?
(Alternative title: Oh my fucking god: this could be World War III)
"...Ukraine cannot live without owning Crimea, it will be a body without legs.” - Pavlo Skoropadskyi, Hetman of Ukraine, 1917
The oft-disputed peninsula of Crimea has made headlines this week as the New York Times released a report that the U.S. is warming up to helping Ukraine invade the Russian occupied territory. U.S. officials, who spoke with anonymity, said that it would be advantageous for Crimea to be threatened when the countries meet at the negotiating table.
Russia, on the other hand, considers the land as much of a part of Russia as Kaliningrad or Vladivostok. The Kremlin has made clear their pretense for using nuclear weapons if their existence was threatened, and as many analysts seem to think, that includes threats to their territorial integrity. In their eyes that includes Crimea, which has been controlled and annexed by Russia since 2014.
Besides longer-range weapons and logistical support, we don’t know exactly what the “help” of Washington will look like. Given the extent of their current involvement in this war, it’s not safe to say there’s a line the west isn’t willing to cross. If the U.S. and NATO do help make a successful Ukrainian assault on Crimea and start gaining territory, it will mark a major escalation of their proxy war, and no reaction by Russia could be seen as too big to be plausible. But if we take the officials at their word, it is not support for the Ukrainians to take it back, but rather they want to let the Russians know Crimea is under threat.
So, how did we get here? How is it that Ukraine and Russia are all making claim to this territory like parents fighting over custody of their children in a divorce?
Why is Crimea Disputed? The history:
Crimea has long been subject to foreign powers colonizing, occupying and annexing its territory. The Greeks, the Byzantines, the Mongols, the Ottomans, and finally, the Russians. During the Bolshevik Revolution, it was in Crimea that the anti-Communist army made its last stand. Crimea would become majority Russian after Stalin ordered the brutal expulsion of the Turkish Tatars in 1944. A strong Russian identity would only strengthen.
Then in 1954, Crimea was transferred to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. The constitutionality and motive of this action has long been called into question — on one hand, Nikita Khrushchev had stated he gave the oblast to Ukraine to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav. The only problem is, Crimea and the treaty have nothing to do with one another. More likely, as revealed from emerging documents after the fall of the USSR, Crimea was given to the UkrSRR to ease tensions after years of violent clashes as the Soviets struggled to retain control over western Ukraine. Thus, the 75% majority Russian population of Crimea was handed over to the UkrSRR in a move the Russian Federation would later call a mistake.
When the USSR was collapsing in 1991, Ukraine gained independence from Russia and once again became its own state. The Soviet Black Sea Fleet would remain in Sevastopol, causing tensions between the two countries. In 1997, Ukraine and Russia negotiated the Partition Treaty on the Status and Conditions of the Black Sea Fleet and the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. These treaties helped secure Ukraine’s territorial integrity and Russia’s access to its only warm-water port.
Then came the Maidan Uprising of 2014 — the origins of the ongoing conflict that has led to the Russia’s ongoing special military operation in February ‘22. The previous year, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to join the EU association agreement in favor of closer ties with Russia. Protests erupted across Western Ukraine and the United States seized the opportunity to help overthrow the régime in favor of a Ukraine with closer ties to NATO and the EU. In the now infamous leaked phone call, the U.S. assistant to the secretary of state Victoria Newland was on the phone with Ukrainian officials deciding which leaders would replace the old regime. Yanukovych fled to Crimea and then to Russia, and in February the parliament voted to remove him from office.
Violence, protests, and infighting between anti-Maidan and pro-Maidan groups broke out across Ukraine, but especially in the heavily Russian speaking populations. In Crimea, intense demonstrations were held protesting Yanukovych’s removal. The new Ukrainian government, headed by President Petro Poroshenko threatened to expel Russia from the naval base at Sevastopol. The Russians responded by taking the troops they had at the base and securing key sights along the peninsula. In March, with a Russian occupied force, Crimea declared its independence from Ukraine, proclaiming itself as an autonomous republic. Soon after, the republic had held a referendum to become a part of the Russian federation. According to the Kremlin, Crimea had voted 97% in favor of joining the Russian federation with an over 80% turnout. Although those exact figures are disputed, international observations confirmed the legitimacy of the elections, which were also substantiated by Crimea’s tendency to favor the pro-Russian candidates in previous elections.
The international community, led by the U.S. was quick to condemn Russia for the annexation, claiming the elections were illegitimate, classifying the act as an "invasion”. All 28 members of the EU rejected the referendum, refusing to recognize Crimea as a part of Russia. A plethora of nations put sanctions on Russia and in response to the backlash Russia had left the G8 group.
Strong economic ties still held Russia close to the rest of Europe. In the meantime, Russia spent the next 8 years fortifying and building in Crimea, while the Ukrainians have distanced themselves from the population of their former Oblast. After Crimea seceded, the government in Kiev cut the water supply coming in from mainland Ukraine. The Russians completed the Kerch land bridge, connecting mainland Russia with Crimea in 2018. All in all, the will of the people with Crimea was to be governed by Russia, and in the face of almost unanimous condemnation, the Russians have prized Crimea as a part of their national identity.
The Russo-Ukraine War and Crimea
The first thing the Russians did when they launched their special military operation of February 24th, 2022, was to destroy the dam that blocked water to Crimea. It is telling that this act was done the first day of the operation.
Since last February, Crimea has been used by Kiev as a essential part of negotiations for peace. Crimea can only be discussed in the context as lost Ukrainian territory, and if it cannot be returned, the officials cannot meet at the table. It has been one of the few non-starters for negotiations, with each side declaring the peninsula as a part of their national identity.
In October, the Kerch bridge was destroyed by an explosion. The railway bridge that carried the military equipment was still operation, but the road bridge used by civilians was destroyed. The culprits of the attack are unknown, but many have speculated Kiev or the United Kingdom to be behind it. By correlation or causation, Russia launched their biggest missile strikes to date in multiple cities deep into Ukraine the next day, while condemning the bombing as an act of terrorism. These were the longest-range missile strikes that have been used in the war to date, marking another escalation.
A New York Times article quotes Dara Massicot, policy researcher from the RAND corporation, saying that “Crimea has already been hit many times without a massive escalation from the Kremlin”— which is perplexing. I suppose she didn’t know anyone in one of the dozens of Ukrainian towns that lost power from the Russian missile barrages following that attack.
If the U.S. started to supply longer range weapons to the Ukraine to attack Crimea on a regular basis, it will provoke the wrath of the Crimean people and the Russians on the front line, having the same effect Abu-Ghraib had on jihadists or Pearl Harbor had on the Americans. But most of all, it could be sparking the powder keg that pushes Putin towards using nuclear weapons.
It’s not a fucking game. But we seem to be treating it like one.
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