President Barack Obama can castigate Russian President Vladimir Putin all he likes for violating international law in Crimea.
Obama would have one think that the Russian bear is coming out of hibernation for no reason other than to cause trouble. Media analysts in this country are portraying Putin as trying to reconstitute the old Soviet Union by his moves in Crimea.
But the situation in Crimea is far from black and white.
First, Ukraine’s swing toward Russia under President Viktor Yanukovych, when he asked for and got a $15 billion loan, was not the result of Russia trying to re-establish the U.S.S.R.
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The European Union was unwilling to give Ukraine the aid it needs on terms that Yanukovych could accept, leaving Russia as Yanukovych’s only realistic option. Russia did not stand to gain much from a $15 billion loan to Ukraine, which it gave on terms better than the EU was offering.
Second, Russia’s recent troop movements in Crimea came only after a strong provocation by Ukraine’s parliament. When it voted Yanukovych out of office, the parliament also nullified a 2012 Ukraine law that had given minority languages official status in regions of Ukraine where they are spoken.
That move frightened the Russian speakers in Crimea. It was also a challenge to Putin, to whom they look for protection.
The language issue in this case had international implications. Russia and Ukraine have a 1997 friendship treaty, in which each side promises to “guarantee the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity of national minorities on their territories.”
That clause was inserted at Russia’s insistence, precisely to protect Ukraine’s Russian speakers.
The 2012 law was later restored when Ukraine’s new president vetoed the parliament’s action, but the veto came too late to allay the fears of Russian speakers as to the direction of Ukraine’s new government.
Third, Russia and Ukraine have a second treaty, also from 1997, that governs Russia’s lease of the naval base that has operated since Soviet times in Crimea’s port city of Sevastopol.
Russia pays an annual fee, and it is given the right to keep forces in Crimea. Beyond the confines of the port itself, Russia under the treaty has facilities elsewhere in Crimea. So operations by Russian troops in other parts of Crimea may, depending on what they do, be lawful under the lease treaty.
Fourth, apart from the two treaties, Crimea is a special case when it comes to its territorial affiliation.
Crimea was incorporated into Russia in the 18th century. Under the Soviet Union, Crimea was part of the Russian republic, not the Ukraine republic. Only in 1954 was Crimea transferred into Ukraine — a move that had little significance as long as Ukraine and Russia were both part of the U.S.S.R.
The population of Crimea, as before 1954, remains predominantly Russian.
Fifth, as a result of that history, Crimea has a plausible case for a right to choose its own territorial status.
In 1994, I visited Crimea at the request of the Clinton administration, as a mediator working through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Crimean legislators pressed me on self-determination. They wanted to know why Crimea had to stay within Ukraine, if the population wanted out.
What Crimea got after this OSCE mediation was a certain level of autonomy over its own affairs, but still within Ukraine.
That autonomy appears threatened by the change in government in Kiev. A referendum now planned in Crimea for late May likely will, if held, reflect sentiment for disaffiliation with Ukraine.
A solution needs to be fashioned to maintain peace and good order in Crimea and in the rest of Ukraine. By taking a simplistic approach that ignores the realities, the Obama administration is doing nothing to contribute to a solution.