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 thousands of Tatars fled the advancing Russian armies. A century and a half later, in 1944, those who remained behind were scooped up by Stalin and deported to Central Asia. Their children and grandchildren eventually returned to their ancient lands and now fly the blue Tatar flag, with its distinctive cattle-brand seal, alongside Ukrainian and Russian ones in the crowds of clashing protesters who have come into the streets of Sevastopol, Simferopol and other cities.
In his 90-minute telephone call with President Obama on Saturday, Putin used a novel justification for his country’s attack on a neighbouring state: protecting the interests of both Russian citizens and “compatriots” — code not just for ethnic Russians but for anyone with a political or cultural disposition towards Russia. In the parallel universe of the Russian media, the pre-emptive and humanitarian nature of the operation gets pride of place. The ouster of Ukraine’s former president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, was a takeover by militant “ultranationalists,” Putin declared, and Ukraine was slipping towards widespread disorder. That line resonates at home.
All of this points to the chief opportunity as well as the chief danger for Putin. The Crimean affair is a grand experiment in Putin’s strategy of equivalence: countering every criticism of his government’s behaviour with a page from the West’s own pl-aybook. If his government has a guiding ideology, it is not the concept of restoring the old Soviet Union. But Crimea is different, and the results are potentially disastrous. With rival militias now forming on the peninsula and the Russian flag flying over government buildings in parts of southeastern Ukraine, the immediate task of diplomacy is to rescue Ukraine from the consequences of its accidental revolution.