Putin surely doesnt mean to do the the rest of the West a favor – but his invasion of the Crimea is a blessing, which the US and EU should receive with cautious gratitude.
From a realpolitik standpoint, the US has much to gain from Russia’s annexation of Crimea. For a nominal cost, this will put a permanent wrench in Ukrainian-Russian relations, which the US and EU (and NATO) can exploit to pull Ukraine firmly into their sphere of influence – especially given that the next round of Ukranian elections will now heavily favor anti-Russian, pro-EU candidates.
Russia subjugated and annexed the Crimean peninsula in 1783 – it had been under Tatar and Ottoman rule for centuries. The Tatars used it as base for their slave trade – Russian peasants had themselves been the Tatars primary commodity. By 1900, Russian colonization had made Crimea an ethnic mix – about 1/3 Russian and 1/3 Tatar. But by the outbreak of WW2, ethnic Russians had become a majority, and have been ever since. In 1944, Stalin forcibly removed all of the ethnic Tatars from the Crimea (killing about half of them in the process), and also deported many other Eastern European minorities, leaving behind a Crimean population that was probably 60-70% Russian and 15-20% Ukrainian.
Ten years later, in 1954, Khrushchev gifted the Crimea from the Russian SSR to the Ukrainian SSR. Crimea wasnt then, nor has it ever been, particularly Ukrainian. Crimea’s population today is only about 25% Ukrainian – and that’s the most it’s ever been. The Crimean peninsula has had an ethnically Russian plurality for 100 years, and a majority for 70 years. It is by far the most Russian and least Ukrainian of all of Ukraine’s provinces.
Even as part of Ukraine, the Crimea has had considerable autonomy, briefly declaring its own independence in 1991 before accepting to remain part of Ukraine, with even more autonomy. When Ukraine’s pro-Russian government was overthrown last week, Crimea’s parliament responded by legally dissolving its own government, and reconstituting with more pro-Russian leadership. One of the new Crimean PM’s first acts was to ask Putin for help in guaranteeing Crimean security and stability – inviting the Russian invasion that followed.
Put simply, the Crimean peninsula is largely autonomous and ethnically Russian, and has been for a very long time – that it falls under Ukrainian sovereignty is a historical accident. Furthermore, if ever put to a vote, it’s population would almost certainly prefer to be a part of Russia.
The US needs to tread very carefully here – what’s happening in Crimea today is dangerous as a PRECEDENT – in and of itself, it is of little consequence. The Russian navy already has a huge presence in Crimea. There are no particular moral implications – no human rights have been threatened – and there’s no real reason why the US should prefer that a Russian or Ukrainian flag flies over Sevastopol. Rather, the US should exploit the crisis to its own advantage – tightening up and perhaps expanding its NATO alliances.
map showing percentage of Ukrainian speakers by province: