The Crimean Crisis Isn’t Just About the Crimea

The Crimean situation, or the “Situation Formerly Known as the Ukrainian Situation,” has no good solutions. But there are some worse than others. On one level, it doesn’t matter much to America, nor to Europe, whether Russia or Ukraine (or, if you want to get really old school, the Turks) controls the Crimea. From a popular-sovereignty point of view, the peninsula is largely Russian and so it makes sense that it would wish to be part of Russia. From a force-majeure point of view, Russia has a fleet and forces on the scene, first mover advantage, and plenty of motivation. So there is a powerful case for acceding to the fait accompli, because after all, who wants to be the last man to die for Simferopol?

Neville Chamberlain holding the paper containing the resolution to commit to peaceful methods signed by both Hitler and himself on his return from Munich on 30 September 1938. Later that day, at 10 Downing Street, he remarked, “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.” (Wikimedia Commons)

But here’s the problem: things that don’t matter in themselves do matter outside themselves. The British elites were quite correct that the Sudetenland didn’t matter to them. Neither did it matter, to be blunt, whether a clique of Baathists or a clique of royals controlled Kuwait in 1990. But the reason we went to war against the latter is because we learned from the former. These things accumulate. A province here, a territory there, a protectorate there, and pretty soon you’re talking real empires. We Americans have been on a holiday from history for the past seventy-odd years, punctuated by a bad week in 2001, but meanwhile it’s still a terrible world populated by fallen men who, in combinations, are not restrained by ideals so much as they are by force.

“The Thin Red Line” by Robert Gibb, an account of Colin Campbell’s 93rd Highlanders repel of Ivan Ryzhov’s detachment of the 12th Ingermanland Hussars. Campbell, with only Balaklava and the Black Sea to his back, instructed his soldiers with the following: “Men, remember there is no retreat from here. You must die where you stand.” (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, if you think the Russian state is fundamentally an ethnic home for Russians, and basically seeks to gather its people unto itself, then perhaps the invasion of the Crimea is a one-off. But if you think the Russian state is, well, a Russian state with interests and perceived needs — both real and emotive — that have stayed fairly constant throughout history, then you must consider that this is just the beginning. What have Russian statesmen, after all, sought and desired throughout three centuries as a modern-ish European state? Control of the seaward approaches to St Petersburg. Control of the landward approaches from Poland. Control of the seaward approaches from the Mediterranean — Constantinople, the Straits, and yes, Crimea.

“The Relief of the Light Brigade” by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. (Wikimedia Commons)

In that light, there is an entire menu of unfulfilled options from the Estonian coast to the Belarusian expanses to Moldova that a Moscow government (helmed by a dictator who regards the fall of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical disaster) will wish to address. And if that revisionism — if that reassessment of the great settlements of 1989-1991 — gets underway, then there are other revisionist powers watching and waiting to see just how much Vladimir Putin gets away with. They’ve been waiting, and they’ve seen, and they’ve learned. They’ve seen that the hegemon of the post-1991 order is exhausted and reluctant. They saw Benghazi. They saw Syria’s illusory “red line.” They saw the Iranian capitulation-deal. They saw the Chinese ADIZ. They saw all this, and so this Crimea invasion happens — as much an experiment as anything, mind you — with a bill that may eventually come due in the Senkakus.

“The Return from Inkermann” by Lady Butler, Elizabeth Southerden Thompson (Wikimedia Commons)

That’s why Crimea matters. Since September 1939 we have operated on the rule of thumb that you resist aggression early in small packets so you don’t have to face a big showdown later. Avoidance of war is the supreme triumph of war policy. It’s mostly worked. Sometime in 2013, though, it stopped working because we stopped working. And now this.

“Calling the Roll After an Engagement” by Lady Butler, Elizabeth Southerden Thompson
(Wikimedia Commons)

We will get engaged over this Crimea thing. It is not a question of if, but when, and at what stage. No sane person wants a war, and there are likely many options short of it: Russia, after all, needs to sell its natural resources abroad, but its consumers do not need to buy them quite so dearly. One hopes we have creative minds at the helm working the problem now. But one also understands just how we got here.

This is a guest post by Jack Hays. Colonel John Coffee “Jack” Hays, a captain in the famous Texas Rangers and military officer of the Republic of Texas, is the nom de plume of a public-policy professional and amateur Russophile.

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Header Image: “Charge of the Light Brigade” by Richard Canton Woodville, Jr., an account of the Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War, 25 October 1854. (Wikimedia Commons)