The Crimean referendum took place Sunday, as scheduled, and the result should not have taken anyone by surprise. The overwhelming majority of voters -or those who showed up at the polls- decided in favor of returning to the folds of Mother Russia. Done deal, fait accompli, turn the page, it is time to return to basics and review what the old term spheres of influence meant. The Britannica Concise Encyclopedia defines Sphere of Influence as “a state’s claim to exclusive or predominat control over a foreign area or territory”. Ukraine is well within Russia’s sphere of influence and it shares strong ties with her; the very name of Russia comes from the Rus, Norsemen who settled around Ladoga and Novgorod, reached Kiev about 880 and founded the Kievan Rus. It was Vladimir the Great of Kiev (980-1015) who turned the Rus to Byzantine Christianity. The relationship has been rocky; someone commented -I wish it had been me, it is so good- that Russia and Ukraine are like twins joined at the hip who hate each other but have no choice but to put up with each other. Ukraine has been brutalized by Russia; witness the starvation caused by Lenin in the 1920’s and the deliberate famine caused by Stalin’s imposition of collective farming; some six to ten million Ukranians literally starved to death and the memory still lingers like a ghost that knows no rest.
There is a distinct Russophobia still present in US policy, a knee-jerk reaction from the days of the Cold War. It is time to realize that Russia today is not the Soviet Union of yesteryear; they are not out to destroy our society and impose a brutal and totalitarian form of government; rather they are engaging in the pursuit of their own national interests, much as the Russian Empire did in the time of the Tsars. Putin is an autocrat wearing the trappings of democracy, but an autocrat at heart, ruling a land that has been ruled by autocrats since time immemorial. So what else is new? Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the demise of the Warsaw Pact forced alliance, NATO has enlarged to include former members of the Warsaw Pact: The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Albania, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia, the last two part of the former Yugoslavia. Since the demise of the Warsaw Pact, these states filled the role of buffer nations and could have remained as such if it had not been for the weakened condition of the Russia that emerged from the ashes of communism, which encouraged NATO expansion, bringing it closer to the borders of a nation famous for its historical distrust, bordering on paranoia, of external influences, particularly from the West. NATO pushed the envelope when it courted Georgia and Ukraine; from the point of view of Moscow, this looked like an encirclement. Ukraine has a poison pill included in its territory: Crimea, which has been Russian longer that the American Southwest has been part of the US and which never would have been Ukranian if not for Khruschev’s drunken “gift” to his “adopted” land. Considering that since 1991, Russia paid millions to Ukraine to “rent” their naval bases and submarine pens in Crimea, that it is their only year-round ice free port and sole access to the Mediterranean Sea and the possibility existed that NATO could establish bases close to Sevastopol, is it really surprising that Putin’s reaction is so drastic? We stepped on Russian toes and they are pushing back. Question: Had Crimea, with its population of 2 million not been part of Ukraine, would the pro Russian Viktor Yanukovych had been elected?
There is another problem with Russophobia and it has historical precedents. The Byzantine and Persian empires were so preoccupied with their struggle for supremacy that they ignored a common enemy from the south: the Arabs, who eventually conquered and destroyed both. In the 18th century, France and Austria were deadly enemies and in France everything Austrian was hated. When Louis XV and the Austrian emperor realized that the emergent Prussia was a threat to both, they cemented an alliance by the marriage of the future Louis XVI and the Austrian Marie Antoinette; upon her arrival in France, she was hated and marginalized and by extension, the monarchy. No need to elaborate on how well that went. We have a different geopolitical situation from that of the Cold War. Russia is no longer the deadly enemy, but a trade an economic rival. We have a common enemy: Islamic terrorism, which knows no borders or nationalities. We are both under the same threat. We can maintain the rivalry, but as competitors, not as mortal enemies that hate each other so much that we will either ignore or worse, ally with those who have no other aim besides destroying both of us. There is also a third power on the rise: China, which has territorial designs of her own and who is chomping at the bit, ready to let loose.
Quote of the week: Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI) House Intelligence Committee chairman on Fox News Sunday with Mike Wallace, March 2, 2014
“Putin is playing chess, we are playing marbles” And not very well, I might add.