A Pain in Ukraine 1

What's going on in the Ukraine?

It's possible - no, not likely, but possible - that some of our Gentle Readers may have seen the occasional thirty-second news blip on something untoward happening in Ukraine, amidst mild concern about what muscle-bound President Putin of Russia may or may not be planning.  Which raises two questions: who or what is Ukraine, and why do we care?

Actually, you probably should care a whole lot.  So we'll do what the mainstream media won't bother to do, and provide a brief rundown on what's going on and what might happen.

A Nation Without A Country

Generally, most Americans think of nations and countries as being the same thing.  If you're an American, you live in America.  If you're a Canadian, you live in Canada; French, in France, and so on.  OK, you may get some people that are living outside of their own country - we've all met Brits who live in America or had the misfortune to see them on TV, but Piers Morgan has his own country to scuttle back to.  We may even be so lucky as to send Justin Bieber back to his.

But where does a Kurd call home?  There is no such place as Kurdistan, despite decades of trying.  A Kurd may hold a passport from Turkey, Iraq, maybe Iran or Syria, possibly even a European country or the United States, but he still thinks of himself as being Kurdish.  The Kurds refuse to assimulate, so they remain a separate nation, but they don't have a country and really never have.

We here in the New World are lucky to not have this problem aside from American Indians and the Quebecois, but the history of the Old World is riddled with mismatches between nations and countries which usually lead to bloodshed.  There once were loads of Armenians living in Turkey, called the Ottoman Empire at the time, until they were slaughtered around World War I.  They weren't able to prevent this because they had no country of Armenia; the old Kingdom of Armenia had been divided between the czar's Russian Empire and the Ottoman Turks centuries before.  The part of the old Armenian kingdom which ended up in Turkey didn't have the military power to resist the Turks.

After the genocide and in the aftermath of the Ottoman collapse in 1918, the Armenians created their own Republic, but it got squashed by the Russians in 1920.  Only since 1991 has there been an independent Armenia to be a home for those who believe themselves to be Armenians.

We could go on for pages and pages listing nations large and small that have had to do without their own countries for long periods of time - the Polish, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Jews of course, Czechs and Slovaks, Montenegrins, Basques, Serbs, Croats, and yes even the Scots who are about to vote on whether they want to split from the United Kingdom.  The Ukrainians belong on this list: there has always been a Ukrainian people, but for the past thousand years their country has been part of something else, except for the last two decades.

So: the Ukrainian people are happy to finally have an actual country called Ukraine that they themselves govern.  The Russians, on the other hand, ruled the place for the last millennium and figure that should be long enough to establish ownership.  Most notoriously, Vladimir Putin views the collapse of the Soviet empire into a dozen little countries as one of the great tragedies of history; he views it as his job to undo it wherever possible.

Don't Drink and Govern

Unfortunately, in the Ukraine he has both a powerful motivation and a practical pretext.  Most of the Ukraine is vaguely like Iowa - a great place to grow grain.  The Ukraine was known as the breadbasket of Europe until Stalin killed off all the successful farmers through genocide and government-forced starvation.

The southeast corner is quite different.  It's called the Crimea, and it's almost like a large island attached to the rest of the continent by a small isthmus.  This provides an excellent warm-water seaport in the Black Sea with all the fishing and trade that you'd expect.

Now, because it is geographically and economically so different, the Crimea never was part of the Ukraine historically.  It was its own place with its own traditions.  It doesn't have its own nation to go with it, though - people who could be called "Crimeans" view themselves as Russian.

Russia has always viewed the Crimea as very important, because it's the only warm-water port available to them.  As enormous as Russia is, it's mostly all northerly and cold, and all its seaports tend to freeze up.  St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Archangel, Vladivostok - all are on the sea, but none are much fun for seafarers for half of the year.

The Crimea is almost subtropical, and makes a whole lot better nautical home.  That's why the Russian Black Sea Fleet has been based there since 1783, in the port of Sevastopol.  Remember, the Black Sea connects to the Mediterranean Sea via the Dardanelles near Istanbul, and from the Med you can get into the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar or the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal.  All these chokepoints are open to ships of all countries through international treaty, and barring an actual declared war the Russians can get their navy anywhere it needs to go.

But - in 1954, the territory of Crimea was transferred to the Ukraine.  At the time it didn't make much difference - both Ukraine and Crimea were parts of the USSR, ruled by the same Politburo and Premier.  It was one of those diktats handed down from On High that don't make any particular sense.

It's said that Premier Nikita Krushchev was drunk at the time and that everyone was just too afraid of him to ask what the heck he thought he was doing.  It's certain that the transfer wasn't done "legally", but in a Communist dictatorship is there any such thing?  For sure, the transfer was never undone during the remaining 35 years of the USSR.

Thus it was that, in 1989 when the Soviet Union fell apart, the Crimea fell into the Ukraine.  When the Ukraine declared independence, the Crimea was part of it.  After all, that's what all the official USSR maps said, so why would anyone question them?

So far we have just another of those territorial disputes so common throughout European history.  We still haven't answered the question of why we care, but we'll get into that in the next article in this series.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

England has no identity either.

March 7, 2014 10:04 PM

@Christopher - you are correct that the English had no identity, but they formed a country by force of arms. Power grows from the barrel of a gun, or from a longbow as the case may be.

March 8, 2014 9:16 PM

What Petrarch writes about is a problem that has been going on for thousands of years. Mankind in his greed has coveted his neighbor's land, be it gold or linen, it really hasn't mattered. Kings, who were nothing more than thieves, would not mind at all sending you into battle to sacrifice your life so that he might conquer another people and have them under his rule. What is happening in Ukraine today is but and encore performance of mankind's obsession with what someone else owns. Will it ever end? I doubt it.

March 8, 2014 11:36 PM

@BassBoat - as you have pointed out, just about all of politics is getting your paws on something someone else owns. The government wants to rip us off in all ways so they can pay their supporters. People vote fro Democrats so the government will give them more money.

Government is pretty much all about theft, as you have pointed out at various times in the past.

March 9, 2014 5:49 PM
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