Crimea River

Tuesday, 29 April, 2014

Illustration by Jennifer Choat

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

Uttered in 1939 by Sir Winston Churchill, these words ring chillingly true in light of the recent Crimea kerfuffle and the West’s persistent Russia-bashing.

It’s the “Russian national interest” bit that stands out for me.

Russian interests are what drove Putin to invade Georgia in 2008, and deliver them a can of whoop-ass by supporting secessionist republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These interests raised a bony middle finger at the Yanks, all before one could toast a toothy-grinned na zdorov’ye.

The West struggled to understand Russia back in the days of Churchill, and even now is baffled at the actions of President Putin. President Obama’s recent rhetoric over the whole Crimea issue is exemplary of just how out of sync his administration is—and indeed the entire West is—when it comes to, in Mitt Romney’s words, the USA’s “top geo-political foe”. I almost feel sorry for Obama. With the Cold War well over, he probably didn’t anticipate having to deal with the Russians so much.

Obama’s belittling of Russia by labelling it as a “regional power” and slapping silly economic sanctions on a bunch of super rich oligarchs close to Putin is laughable, and isn’t going to deter anyone.

That’s why I’m on Putin’s side on this one. Let Russia “annex” Crimea, I say.

Don’t get me wrong, Vladimir Putin is definitely a power-crazed, modern-day tsar. He flies with migratory birds, hunts in the Siberian wilderness, and judo-kicks Chechens whilst gulping down black caviar with his morning tea. Basically, you don’t want to be in his bad books. Everybody knows that this former KGB agent is a man with one hand in every pie of Russia’s economy, and another in stranglehold position at the throats of many a former Soviet republic.

But getting one’s knickers-in-a-knot over Crimea is just ridiculous. The peninsula is more Russian than Ukrainian and always has been (at least after the Tartars were forcibly deported by Stalin). While the recent referendum may have transpired in a pretty dodgy way, the loyalties of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea are pretty clear. Crimea was gifted to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1950s as an anniversary gift from the Russians. And when all is said and done, no amount of international law is going to deter Putin from grabbing back what is essentially Russian.

Even before this crisis, Ukraine hardly owned the joint. The Crimean peninsula is dotted with strategic Russian Black Sea naval bases leased out to Russia, and what many don’t realise is that Ukraine hardly ever exercised any control over the autonomous republic anyway. Crimea is a hotbed of corruption and cronyism and Kiev was always cautious of meddling in their affairs, lest trouble brew.

And who even follows international law anyway? I am of the opinion that sovereign states will pursue whichever agenda fulfils their preferences best; Vienna Conventions and the like are mere hurdles for states to leap over when pursuing their interests. Just look at Australia’s treatment of underage ‘boat people’, languishing in offshore detention. It’s disgusting and against international legal convention. Governments will pursue any end if they deem the situation a ‘state of exception’.

Western liberals didn’t even know where Crimea was before this conflict started. And now they’re all up in arms about Putin taking back an old anniversary gift. In any case, how is the forceful coup d’état instigated by a bunch of Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev any more democratic than a hastily put-together referendum? Coups hardly ever lead to democracy anyway. As Isaac Asimov famously said, “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”.

Obama criticised Putin’s “brute force” as representing an “older, more traditional view of power”. That just feels a bit rich coming from a nation with the world’s largest military budget, and a historical penchant for hawkish foreign policy. Expecting Russia to adopt a principled approach to foreign policy is a bit of a stretch. One does not simply act in democratic fashion when you’re the prevailing legal personality of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Of course, if true democracy and closer ties with the European Union is what Ukrainians desire, then that is what they should have. But I’m sceptical as to whether the EU even wants a closer Ukraine; Europe needs to wean itself off Russian gas first. Besides, Ukraine is a seriously corrupt country, as corrupt as Russia. Leaders of these types of nations are kleptocrats, stealing from the people they purport to serve.

For the alarmists out there: this is not a new Cold War, nor are the NATO-aligned Baltic States next on Putin’s hit list. But as Churchill said, Russia is perhaps a riddle, but their interests—and indeed the interests of any state—are the key. Crimea always was and is now effectively Russian. Let’s not gallop away on our moral high horse.