A nightmare called Crimea

Russia and the West have a common interest: forestalling a civil war in the heart of Europe.

Published on:March 4, 2014 3:44 am

Russia and the West have a common interest: forestalling a civil war in the heart of Europe.

The Russian military intervention in Ukraine’s autonomous republic of Crimea has brought relations between the United States and Russia to their lowest level in a quarter century. It has transgressed the sovereignty of one of the most populous countries in Europe, violated the terms of a diplomatic agreement to respect Ukraine’s borders, and placed Russia on a war footing with one of the few states in the post-Soviet world that has managed to hold multiple free elections.

Crimea is routinely described as “pro-Russian,” given that an estimated 58 per cent of the population of two million is ethnic Russian, with another 24 per cent Ukrainian and 12 per cent Crimean Tatar. But the picture is even more complicated. A vital naval base run by another country, a community of patriotic military retirees, a multi-ethnic patchwork, a weak state and competing national mythologies — that mixture is why a Crimean conflict has long been the nightmare scenario in the former Soviet Union and now represents the gravest crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

But that is also the reason all sides must tread carefully. NATO cannot possibly extend security guarantees to a government that does not control its own territory. Yet even in the midst of a stand-off, Russia and the West have a clear common interest: forestalling a civil war in the heart of Europe.

If you were able to make your way through the closed airspace, past the demonstrators and Russian-run checkpoints, you could visit a spot that symbolises why Crimea matters. The Cathedral of St Vladimir rests on a small hill on Crimea’s southwestern coast. The church is a modern creation, gilded and graceless, but it stands on an auspicious site: the place where, it is thought, Vladimir adopted Christianity in 988 as the state religion of his principality, Rus. To Russians, Vladimir is the first national saint and the truest progenitor of the modern Russian state. To Ukrainians, he is Volodymyr the Great, founder of the Slavic civilisation that would eventually flourish farther north, in medieval Kiev.

Just around the headland is Sevastopol, the protected port and naval base where Tolstoy once served on the ramparts. During World War II, it was besieged and levelled by German bombers despite a heroic stand by the Soviet army and partisans. It remained the seat of the Soviet Black Sea fleet after the war, and when the Soviet Union disappeared, the Russian and Ukrainian navies divided up the ships and berths. An hour’s car ride away is Yalta, where czars vacationed and Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard. An hour farther is Stary Krym with its centuries-old mosque and the splendid palace at Bakhchisarai — two of the principal historical sites of the Crimean Tatars, the Muslim community that ruled Crimea for centuries before the Russians arrived. In 1783, when Catherine the Great wrested control from the Tatar khan and the Ottoman Turks, hundreds of …continued »

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