If you’re a student of modern civilization like me, you might have heard the phrase that, ‘the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) ushered in a century of peace’ (until World War I). Well … not exactly. There were two major regional conflicts in 19th Century Europe: the Crimean War (a decade before the American Civil War) and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1.
Since the Crimean Peninsula that juts into the Black Sea from the north is very much in current news, I thought it might be interesting to delve into the history. In 1853, a religious dispute erupted between the Russians and Ottoman Turks. Crimea became the battleground and other European powers like Britain and France threw their weight into the fight. After a couple of years of bloodshed and the “Charge of the Light Brigade” popularized by Tennyson, the dispute was settled by treaty. Russia retained the Crimea and territorial integrity was secured for the Ottomans, but the clock was ticking toward the demise of these two empires in just six decades.
During times of peace, the Crimea has always been popular with the Russians, particularly the wealthy ones. In the land of frozen tundra, the Crimea hosts most of the very few warm weather resorts. In early 1945, Stalin hosted the great powers conference at Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula.
But the Crimea is also strategically significant to the Russians. What is left of the Russian Navy has three fleets, only one (Black Sea) of which is based at a warm weather port in the Crimea. When two-thirds of your navy is bottled up in ice six months out of the year, it tends to limit your options. No way the Russian Navy gives up their Crimean ports.
The Ukraine is a large country slightly smaller than Turkey and houses a population of nearly 50 million. Russia is certainly larger with a population about three times their southern neighbor. Russia has a stronger economy but the Ukraine is no economic slouch. Their warmer weather and rich soils contribute greatly to agricultural prowess, particularly with grains. All of Russia’s energy from the Caucuses passes through the Ukraine by pipeline to European markets.
Russian head of state, Vladimir Putin, moved his unmarked troops into the Crimea when unrest broke out in the Ukraine’s capital of Kiev. He said it was to protect ethnic Russians that make up the majority of the peninsula’s population. We’ve seen this scenario play out before. Hitler did the same thing with Austria in the spring of 1938 under the same pretext. No shots were fired and the Anschluss was complete. Six months later came the Sudetenland of western Czechoslovakia; same theme – to protect the ethic population. Another six months passed and he had gobbled up the whole nation. Is that the fate of the Ukraine? Is history replaying itself?
Since the people of the Crimea have voted (questionable tactics) to join Russia and Putin has signed the annexation, how does the mother country support their newest state? They are land-locked from access and logistical support by the eastern Ukraine. Does that mean that Putin must take the eastern portion of Ukraine in order to support Crimea? If so, what kind of trouble does he invite from the Ukrainians or NATO? Would this make a war within the Ukraine inevitable? These are all valid questions with unknown answers.
There is an old cliché you’ve probably heard a hundred times that goes like this: ‘be careful not to bite off more than you can chew.’ Putin must be careful to not violate this axiom. Russia’s economy is quite fragile. He may have designs of restoring the old Soviet Union, but it is very easy to become over extended and isolated. I cannot expect that he is willing to risk a war with the Crimean people.
President Obama has drawn a lot of criticism in his handling of the Ukrainian crisis, but I think the real blame lies in a feckless foreign policy. We have sent a fighter squadron of F-16s to Poland as a show of strength. I would hope to see the strength in Poland increased by both the U.S. and NATO. This would send an important signal and confidence to the other nations which Putin might prey on like the Baltic states.