Selective History and Putin’s Crimean Occupation

As the conflict in Crimea heads into yet another month of escalation, we have seen what began as a domestic conflict in Ukraine take a decidedly international turn. While Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to begin a genuine “boots on the ground” intervention into Crimea may fly in the face of some Western expectations, it is hardly unprecedented given the region’s turbulent history. The contemporary political delineation of the Crimean Peninsula and its valuable “warm water” ports has behind it a rich history marked by episodes of Russian imperialism and East vs. West confrontation. There is no shortage of convenient anecdotes that can be made to support even the most superficial of claims about the current state of the region’s politics. Here, we will take a look at two popular media contentions in specific: How the Crimean takeover represents Russia’s desire for access to “warm water ports” and the invasion has marked the beginning of the Second Cold War.

Commentary from all sides of the developing conflict has shown little hesitancy in drawing from the historical record to defend claims about the nature of the situation and its future. Agenda-driven questions regarding the relevance of historical explanations for contemporary Russian belligerence  have dominated explanations in popular media, and often represent a dangerous  lack of interest in the regional history of Crimea. While a specific and detailed review of Crimean history certainly lies beyond the scope of this particular text, it is important not to let grandiose perceptions of the classic zero-sum “East vs. West” culture war monopolize our understanding of the current situation.

Per usual, the ambiguous nature of history (and its utility in policy formulation) is not being properly accounted for in the majority of popular media. Instead, it is readily ignored in favor of internet-friendly headlines and general sensationalism. As has been demonstrated ad nauseum in recent years, cherry-picking from the historical record to help mold public opinion is irresponsible and dangerous, though the advent of the internet has made this easier than ever. After taking a brief look at the Crimean past, we will see how a few of the the dominant tropes of historical explanation in popular media fall short of providing a comprehensive explanation for the current situation in Crimea by examining three key moments in the region’s history.

Quite possibly the only other context in which the majority of the Western population has heard of Crimea, the Russian defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) served to set the tone in for the future both of Crimean regional politics and Russian expansionism in the modern era. The Crimean War provided the grounds for the oft-repeated “warm water port” explanation for both the 19th century war and Russia’s current interest in Crimea, which we will see is not an entirely accurate conclusion and fails to account for the region’s tempestuous political history, Russia’s unique imperial aspirations, and the present day value and geopolitical significance of Crimean ports.  Instead, a more sober historical perspective lends itself to a more complete understanding of the relevant motivations behind the Crimean War and how it actually relates to Russia’s regional outlook in the 21st century.

Throughout the latter half of the 18th century, the Russian Empire busied itself formally conquering the region of Novorossiya (New Russia) along the Black Sea coastline to the north of the Crimean Peninsula. By the turn of the century, Russia had attained regional hegemony and began to refocus its expansionary efforts further south. Access to Mediterranean waters, made possibly by control of the “warm water ports” (i.e. one that remains unfrozen in the winter) of Crimea, ranked among the chief strategic ambitions of Russia’s imperial agenda.

An important factor in the Russianization of the Crimean region was the widespread ethnic-cleansing and forced migration of the Tartar ethnic group, one of modern Ukraine’s largest Muslim communities, that occurred throughout the 20th century.  While the vast majority of Tartars were successfully relocated to Central Asian Soviet Republics by the end of the Second World War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union prompted a sizable wave of repatriation. Now a sizable and rapidly-expanding ethnic minority (~10% of the Crimean population), the Tartar community has voiced concerns  over the current Russian occupation’s potential to reignite tensions drawn along old ethnic lines. 

A popular claim about the Crimean War that has resurfaced in recent weeks involves the notion that the Crimean War was brought about by the invasion of the peninsula (in a fashion similar to current events) by the Russian Empire. However, by the war’s inception in the mid-19th century, Russian control over its Black Sea coastline was already a fait accompli with the consolidation of Novorossiya.  Instead, the conflict can be viewed as a Western response to the rapidly  and continually expanding Russian Empire (Crimean Peninsula included) that began to, from their perspective, overstep its bounds. By continuing its southern trajectory and wrestling control of the Bosporus Straights from the slowly but surely declining Ottoman Empire, the Russians would have a free hand in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is here that its interests began to fall in direct opposition to those of the West, namely Great Britain and France, who joined in an alliance with the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia and fought to deter further expansion. While the immediate motivations behind Russia’s pursuit of maritime access to the Bosporus and Mediterranean would change, this “Great Game” explanation serves to highlight the enduring motivations behind the 19th century conflict. 

Fenton War Council
Lord Raglan (Britain), Omar Pasha (Ottoman Empire) and General Pelisier (France) , 1855 (Roger Fenton/Getty Images)

Continued stable control of Sevastopol, the primary Crimean port, would allow the Russian Empire full access to the relatively welcoming waters of the Black Sea. This would allow for its Navy to further programs of expansion and development, challenging  Western naval dominance.  A powerful 19th century Russian Navy would certainly have had a profound effect on military diplomacy and allowed for power projections into the Mediterranean Sea as well as access to many valuable trade routes. While the anti-Russian alliance led by Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire (see above) was also amalgamated on religious pretense, the Western powers were most resistant to the idea of Russian expansion and the prospect of adding another powerful navy to the Mediterranean.

The 1856 Treaty of Paris marked the cessation of fighting and a costly victory for the quadripartite alliance. While the Russian Navy had been decimated and Sevastopol besieged and captured by the allied forces, the Russian Empire successfully cemented its control over the Crimean region. The treaty contained a provision under which the Western occupation of Sevastopol would end in exchange for for Russian assurances that their navy would not operate in the southern regions of the Black Sea or, by extension, the Mediterranean.

Skipping ahead nearly a century to the early years of the Cold War, Soviet leader (and Ukrainian native) Nikita Khrushchev formally attached Crimea (which had existed since 1921 as an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. While politically Soviet Russian, Khrushchev spent a great deal of time in Ukraine and governed there as a representative of the war-time government of Joseph Stalin. The decision to effectively hand over Crimea to the Ukrainian state appears, at first glance, quite puzzling from a 21st century perspective, especially given the current state of affairs. Again, proper appreciation must be paid to the historical context in which Khrushchev’s decision was made. At the time, the gesture represented a sure way to augment support from the Ukranian state with little tangible cost or risk of political backfire.

In 1954, the year of the transfer, the Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) of Ukraine enjoyed precious little legitimate autonomy from Soviet Russia. Despite its official sovereign status, the Ukrainian SSR was still a significant and essential member of both the Soviet Union and maintained a single-party political system that looked directly to the Kremlin. At the time, the demographic makeup of inhabitants of the Crimean Peninsula was heavily skewed towards ethnic Russians. Ukranians represented only approximately a third of the population, further allaying any fear of any eventual opposition to Russian rule.  Finally, the act of removing Crimea from direct Russian control helped to buttress the incoming leader’s reforms intended to diminish the totalitarian control synonymous with Stalin’s reign. The reallocation of Crimea’s administration to Ukrainian auspices helped accomplish this goal of increasing the amount of (visible) decentralization within the Soviet Union while yielding the side benefit of delegating the financial responsibility of Crimean development to a client state.

From this, we can see that the Russian decision to transfer Crimea to Ukranian hands was made with a completely different set of geopolitical assumptions. This highlights a common error in the casual use of historical anecdotes to support a modern political judgement. At the time, there was no indication that the Soviet Union would collapse in spectacular fashion or that Ukraine would grow into a sovereign state that would have the power to defy the wishes of Moscow. Thus, it is inappropriate to conclude from Kruschchev’s actions that Russia no longer valued control of the Crimean Peninsula or that it had any intentions of abandoning its position there.

Despite the official Soviet-era amalgamation, the peninsula has always remained tenuously autonomous from the rest of Ukraine, a reflection of its turbulent political history and the aforementioned demographic discrepancy. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimea has operated as a semi-sovereign political entity within the new Ukrainian state. Accompanied by the partition of the Soviet Navy, the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation was inked in 1997 and helped to ease tensions between countries and provided Russia with the ability to purchase a renewable 20 year lease of naval facilities in Sevastopol. The history of the agreement, however, has been less than perfectly stable even with a staunchly pro-Russian administration in Kiev. Thus, with the recent Euromaidan deposition of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, the future of the Russian lease in Crimea was cast into doubt.

The agreement’s instability provided a platform from which the Putin is able to challenge Ukranian sovereignty, and has facilitated the current incursion. While the advent of modern technology, including the development of the world’s largest fully-fledged nuclear icebreaker, explaining the Kremlin’s current expansionist push with 19th century “warm water” reasoning becomes untenable. The geopolitical motivation, however, is not entirely without a contemporary equivalent. While the Russian Federation of the 21st century lacks a compelling motivation to secure Mediterranean trade routes, it has certainly found one in the desire to secure a more dependable base from which to project naval power into the Caucasus and Eastern Mediterranean regions.

Taking into account both the turbulent history of the Crimean lease agreement and the necessity of preserving Russian naval potential, the desire for further (re)consolidation becomes clear. One needs to look back no further than 2008 to find an episode of regional Russian military engagement in the Georgian conflict. Equally, the near-escalation of the ongoing Syrian conflict into an international military war serves to substantiate the centuries-old Russian desire to project power into the Mediterranean (albeit for a slightly different purpose). It is here that a comparison with the mid-19th century Crimean War becomes interesting. While the development of modern geopolitics and military technology long ago rendered the 19th century Naval Great Power rivalry obsolete, the region is still as relevant as ever and Crimea still serves as a focal point from which Russia can project military power into the Black sea and Mediterranean.

Kiev Protesters
Anti-Russian Protesters in Kiev (Louisa Gouliamaki /AFP/Getty Images)

While the current situation in Crimea certainly  plays up Russia’s post-Soviet aspirations of regional hegemony, we must remain vigilant in how the historical record in employed to justify contemporary actions. In the West, especially the United States, knee-jerk reactions of Cold War hysteria have little practical utility in explaining the situation. While these sensationalized claims may seem academic and historically-supported at first glance, they do little aside from helping to inflate the paranoia of casual news consumers and buttress the fear-based belligerent political agenda of those on the far-right. Unfortunately, this rhetoric has a wide generational appeal and is being employed by a more diverse group than usual. Recently France’s UN envoy, Mr. Gérard Araud, produced this gem at a Security Council session:

I was 15 years old in August 1968, when the Soviet forces entered Czechoslovakia. We heard the same justifications, the same documents being flaunted and the same allegations.the same justifications, the same documents being flaunted and the same allegations. We hoped that, with the building of Europe and the collapse of communism, we would awaken from such nightmares. We had hoped that we would have replaced the dangerous logic of the balance of power with cooperation in respect for the identity and the independence of each.

In short, Russia is taking Europe back 40 years. It is all there: the practice and the Soviet rhetoric, the brutality and the propaganda.

Over the preceding weeks, plenty more Cold War comparisons have emerged from the woodwork. Ranging from casual observations to slightly less sensational contentions, these claims are often predicated on out-of-context or lightly analysed historical anecdotes and illustrate the dangers of the incidental use of the past. In the case of the Foreign Policy piece linked above, the integrity of the article is reinforced by a hefty set of caveats that negate much of its substance. Despite the punchy title, Welcome to World War II, contains the following disclaimer:

This new conflict is unlikely to be as intense as the first Cold War; it may not last nearly as long; and — crucially — it will not be the defining conflict of our times.

If this is the case, then the burgeoning conflict really looks nothing like the Cold War outside of the fact that it involves Russia, Europe, and the United States and will likely not result in nuclear armageddon. We can all agree that this sets the bar unreasonably low, and fails to account for any of the unique qualities that made the Cold War such a unique conflict.

Fortunately, many voices of restraint have surfaced that employ historically-minded arguments in an appropriate and judicious manner. LSE Professor of Comparative Politics Jim Hughes provides a sensible look at how the current conflict has roots in the Yeltsin era and how adverse conditions in Europe and the United States have magnified the effects of the change in Russian leadership. A more hawkish and astute Putin, he argues, has the political latitude to institute a more assertive agenda.

A different tack is taken by Adam Gopnik, who tackles the relevance of the First World War and the Yugoslavian war of the 1990s in addition to the aforementioned conflicts. He produces an eloquent debunking of various sensationalist claims about “new Cold War”. In Crimea and the History of History, he explains:

Russia, as ugly, provocative, and deserving of condemnation as its acts may be, seems to be behaving as Russia has always behaved, even long before the Bolsheviks arrived…

The point of the Cold War, at least as it was explained by the Cold Warriors, was that it wasn’t a confrontation of great global powers but, rather, something more significant and essential: a struggle of values, waged on a global scale, between totalitarians and liberals.

There are indeed several valid threads of continuation that tie geopolitical trends of previous conflicts, notably the Crimean and Cold Wars, with the current conflict. However, when looking backwards, it is possible to link these factors to contemporary developments without overextending ourselves historically. It is absolutely possible for some the geopolitical overtones of the Crimean War of the 1850s to remain relevant without it being an absolute parallel. It is equally possible for Russia to act in a belligerent and imperial manner without starting the Second Cold War.

History is an immensely powerful tool that must be wielded responsibly. Its true utility can only be successfully harnessed through discretion and adherence to responsible practices. Policy-makers often exhibit woefully underdeveloped understandings of history, and it must be repeatedly brought to light that a reliance on cherry-picked anecdotes and narrow agenda-driven perspectives is incredibly dangerous. A fine line must be tread, and we must retain a historically rigorous point of view without allowing knee-jerk reactions or judgments driven by poor methodology to dominate our understanding of current events.

Giving Context to the Anti-Government Protests in Venezuela

While the majority of the world’s attention has been focused on the revolutionary tremors currently underway in Ukraine (or, if you watch cable news, breaking developments in the culinary world), violent protests in Venezuela have been raging. Demonstrations are taking place across the country, with protesters coming out in force on both sides of the leadership divide. Events kicked off on the 12th of February, Venezuela’s Día de la Juventud (National Youth Day), when an anti-administration group comprised primarily of students took to the streets in Caracas to protest against the current government of President Nicolas Maduro. Led in part by the now-jailed Leopoldo López, the group rallied around a wide-ranging platform of political reform that includes an end to government efforts to suppress public protests, the release of political prisoners, and the radical restructuring of the national economic system. Inspired by the government’s authoritarian response in prior weeks to protests in the Venezuelan states of Táchira and Merida, the demonstrators marched through Caracas while pro-government supporters rallied around the incumbent President (who later dismissed the dissenting protesters as part of a nation-wide “nazifascista outbreak” bent on government subversion). After the dust cleared, three deaths, numerous injuries, and dozens of arrests marked the conclusion of the first day of discord.

In order to properly contextualize the current conflict in Venezuela, it is necessary to look at a few different factors. The immediate motivations behind the protests can be best understood by examining  the adverse conditions affecting the Venezuelan citizenry as well as the tone and context set by the country’s modern political past. This method of analysis generates insight into the actions of protesters and government officials alike, and offers an alternative historically-driven perspective, as opposed to one of raw politics. This is not to say that politics are irrelevant, as they are most definitely not. However, historical considerations are essential in properly scrutinizing revolutionary action, regardless of culture or end result.

President Nicolas Maduro
President Nicolas Maduro speaks at a press conference with a portrait of President Hugo Chavez in the background (Source: Juan Barreto/AFP)

While many are doubtlessly familiar with the divisive and provocative anti-Western rhetoric of the late revolutionary leader Hugo Chávez, it’s important to consider the country’s broader political legacies and the ways in which they have affected, and continue to affect, Venezuelan citizens and their political system. Chavez, and his successor Maduro, represent the most significant manifestation of Bolivarianism, a political philosophy named for the iconic South American anti-imperial military and political leader Simón Bolívar. Branded “chavismo” or “chavezism” by its opposition, the particular brand of Bolivarianism ushered in with Hugo Chavez’s succession to the Venezuelan presidency in 1999. An admirer of Bolívar and his struggle against Spanish domination, Chavez designed his Bolivarian Revolution around policies of nationalism, socialism, and the termination of Venezuelan reliance on the international neo-liberal economic system. For context, it is worthwhile to note that Cuban leader Fidel Castro ranked among the largest influences on Chavez’s leadership. After being released from captivity in the mid-1990s, Chavez visited Castro and the two quickly became close friends. Revolutionary Cuban trappings are evident throughout the Chavista platform, with the Venezuelan leader formulating the original slogan of his Bolivarian Revolution (“Motherland, socialism, or death”) from an amalgam of Castro’s motto of  “Motherland or death” Che Guevara’s “Socialism or Death”.

When the success of domestic anti-poverty, resource redistribution, and education programs is juxtaposed against large-scale economic mismanagement, dictatorial absolutism, and a reputation for counterproductive international contrarianism, the lukewarm character of Chavista policies fostered by Chavez and perpetuated by Maduro are shown to have, at best, a lukewarm record. The late President’s curious brand of populism appeals most heavily to urban and rural poor in lieu of the traditional revolutionary mobilization of the working class. Though it may be unconventional, Chavez and his authoritarian brand of revolutionary socialism is nothing if not effective at remaining at the helm of Venezuelan politics. The regime has managed to survive a US-backed coup in April of 2002, a general labor strike later that year, and a recall election in August of 2004.

The Bolivarian commitment to opposition against what is perceived as the Western global hegemony has shown to have won him many regional supporters. Unlike the majority of the world’s developed countries that consider Chavez to have been a chiefly antagonist force, the Union of South American Nations (Union of South American Nations – UNASUL or UNASUR) acted quickly to endorse the results of the April 2013 election that followed the President’s death.  The former vice president, Nicolas Maduro, campaigned heavily on a platform of continuity that played up his image as Chavez’s hand-picked successor. The support of neighboring governments was essential in buttressing the legitimacy of Maduro’s victory after the election results were called into question by several members of the international community.

Bolivar Decline Graph
(Source: CATO Institute)

Since the death of President Chavez, the Venezuelan Bolivare has experienced wild inflation and multiple devaluations as a reflection of the faltering economy. The country currently suffers from rampant “currency distortions” due to conditions that economists have characterized as “macroeconomic imbalances”. This includes a popular black market for currency exchanges that reflects a discouraging reality in comparison to the optimistic exchange rates set by the government. While the official exchange rate is somewhere around 6.3 Bolivars per American dollar (USD), the latest government auction of foreign currency revealed that the USD was selling for 11.36 Bolivars. Underground markets, which are fairly ubiquitous in Venezuala, are significantly tougher on the Bolivar, with dedicated exchange rate monitoring sites showing rates as discouraging as 87 Bolivars per dollar. The tangible ramifications of this situation have penetrated well beyond the nation’s financial institutions and into the lives of its citizens. While the government has been successful in significantly reducing the percentage of Venezuelans suffering from hunger and malnutrition in the post-Chavez years, the continued scarcity of common commodities and manufactured goods (most famously, toilet paper) continues to disrupt the lives of citizens.

Further compounding the country’s alimentary difficulties is the country’s continuing struggle with violence. While the government declines to release its internally gathered numbers, the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, an NGO, has compiled a report on the increasing rates of violence. The Observatory estimates that 24,000 murders took place in 2013, which represents a  “14% rise” on 2012 [totals]”.  Additionally, the report contends that approximately 90% of all homicides go unsolved. The issue of endemic violence plays a very significant role in the popularization of the most recent iteration of anti-government demonstrations. Most recently, anti-government protesters have rallied around the death of a  22 year-old university student which took place on February 18th. Genesis Carmona, a Miss Tourism winner in her native Carabobo, was shot in the head and killed during a clash between rival participating in one of the demonstrations. To date, at least 13 Venezuelans have lost their lives in the continuing upheaval that has done nothing to diminish the authoritarian character of Maduro’s rule. 

The blame for Venezuela’s current social and political woes would, at first glance, seem to fall squarely on the political mismanagement of President Chavez (and, by extension President Maduro). However, the trends and attitudes that dominate the country’s turbulent political history reveal a more nuanced reality. While the questionable decision-making of Chavista politicans certainly has played a role in the perpetuation of a volatile status quo, the traditional “politics of exclusion” that exist in Venezuela provide valid historical grounds from which to explain the current conflict. In explaining this trend’s effect on the turbulent early years of the Chavez presidency, Professor Julia Buxton explains in the Bulletin of Latin American Research that, in many ways, the Bolivarian regime actually resembles the previous government of the Punto Fijo Pact (a coalitional consolidation of Venezuela’s three major mid-century political parties) that was displaced by Chavez and his revolutionary cadre in the late 1990s. She explains:

Rather than undermining an established democracy, Chavismo was characterised by continuity with the illiberal Punto Fijo state rather than change… Both relied on the politicisation of the state to maintain authority and both were hegemonic projects, which denied the voice of opponents on the basis that this was contrary to the national interest. Crucial to the development of this tendency in both regimes was the initial fear of revanchist actions by supporters of the preceding regime.

Buxton astutely points out that until zero-sum attitudes no longer characterize the political understandings and agendas of both the incumbent and opposition parties, “the institutional crisis cannot be approached and consensual institutions cannot be crafted”. By employing a perspective that emphasizes a bit of a “longer” durée, the current protests and upheaval can be traced back to perpetuated political oppositionalism and protracted party vs. party antagonism.

There are indeed other historical factors to keep in mind when considering the current situation. Among the most notable and immediately relevant is the relationship between Venezuela and the West, most importantly the United States. The uncharacteristically understated call-to-action of  US Secretary of State John Kerry, released on the 15th of February, betrays the frosty nature of the relationship shared by the two nations. When viewed with the US-backed 2002 coup attempt in mind, the statement seems, if anything, dubiously constructive. While American citizens remain largely unconcerned with the developments in Venezuela, the White House has shown a desire to fan the flames by supporting forces of government opposition. It is from this historical context that we must view the Bolivarian regime’s pugnacious stance towards CNN and the American media.  The predictably heavy-handed response by the incumbent government has included a national prohibition on “spontaneous protests”the ejection of American diplomats on conspiracy suspicions, and widespread censorship of dissenting (foreign) media. After admonishing American news outlets for the dissemination of ‘war propaganda’ and threatening to revoke CNN’s press credentials, President Maduro reneged on his threat and allowed the network to stay in-country on the condition that they report on Venezuela in “a balanced way… A balance based on respect for Venezuelan laws”. Most recently, Venezuelan paratroopers were deployed to the border state of Tachira in order to restore order and prevent the “fascist” attack perpetrated by the Mayor of San Cristobal “con paramilitares y bandas criminales de Colombia“. While the rhetoric of the Maduro government, consistent with his predecessor, is certainly hyperbolic, it is not based solely on paranoia.

In relation to the protests, the relative inaction of Washington is anything but a problem. It does not demonstrate weakness, nor does it imply tacit approval for the Chavista project. The government’s dubious record on domestic reform, proclivity for bombastic rhetoric, and willingness to embark on campaigns of reckless domestic repression does more harm to the current government’s credibility than any American effort could ever hope to. There are plenty of genuine reasons for the American government to speak out against the Venezuelan administration and plenty of opportunities for it to do so through appropriate channels. Should the United States insist, however,  on an inappropriately enthusiastic campaign of overt or covert support for the Bolivarian government’s opposition, the following outcomes are likely: the current conflict will be exacerbated and the death toll will continue to rise, the Chavista regime’s anti-Western rhetoric will be strengthened and substantiated, and the American government will face embarrassment on the international scene. As history has demonstrated so many times in the past, ham-fisted over-extension by the White House will result in abject folly when a preferable outcome could have been brought about by the smallest amount of restraint.

As we’ve seen,  it is important to properly consider the current situation in Venezuela in a historical context in addition to a purely political one. When analyzing the broader significance of recent events, it is essential to consider the plethora of of historical and political influences, of which only a few are discussed here, that have combined to generate such a volatile atmosphere. The present turmoil in Venezuela has significant grounding in a longer process of political exclusion that began with the Punto Fijo coalition and co-opted by the Chavista government. Furthermore, the government’s eccentric response to domestic dissent and foreign media coverage is explained by the prevailing political wisdom of Chavez and his administration. It is likely that the current crisis can only be successfully and permanently diffused by efforts of reconciliation and compromise that de-emphasize the zero-sum conceptions that dominate approaches to the Venezuelan political status quo. Finally, it is the responsibility of the international community to foster an atmosphere that is conducive to peaceful and prudent rapprochement while resisting the urge to embark on outdated and belligerent interventionism.