Crimea and Ukraine: What Putin Could Learn from Yugoslavia


While American government officials respond to the Russian Anschluss in Crimea by mobilizing their Twitter feeds and making the rounds of the Sunday morning meetings of the press, the Moscow government of Vladimir Putin reinforced its occupation forces around Simferopol and Sebastopol, perhaps at some point passing out small Russian flags to local sympathizers, who can wave them gratefully when the symbolic gates between Russia and Crimea are thrown open.

To paraphrase a quote that circulated in the 1930s: “The West likes to spend its weekends in the country, while the Russians prefer to take their countries in a weekend.”

The reason the Russians have chosen this moment to move against Ukraine and its Western patrons is not difficult to reconstruct. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the United States, NATO, and most recently the European Union have treated Russia as little more than a Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The moment it could, when the Soviet Union was in liquidation and Russia was weak, NATO pushed its military frontiers into Poland, the Baltic States, Slovakia, and even Georgia. At international conferences such as the G7, it sat Russian presidents at the children’s tables. In the Middle East, the United States and its allies blew away Russia’s man in Baghdad — Saddam — and is now doing the same with Assad in Syria.

In Libya, despite giving Russia assurances that the no-fly zone was there to protect citizens trudging to markets with their donkeys, it was expanded to justify killing Qaddafi and reserving the sweetheart oil contracts for western corporations. No wonder Russia had its doubts when the US and the EU started hinting that Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yushchenko, had stolen more than was necessary.

More immediately, Putin felt humiliated when the Western press comically treated his Olympics as though he was Comrade Kane, staging a $51 billion snow opera for his girlfriend.

Putin did not become president-for-life of Russia by giving fundraisers in Napa Valley or interviews to Esquire. By nature intensely competitive, he still smarts from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, especially the loss of Ukraine.

Short of reviving the 1854 Crimean War coalition (Britain, France, and Turkey, with Austro-Hungary and Prussia neutral) and besieging Sebastopol, there isn’t much that the West can do, or will want to do, to evict Russian troops from Crimea. Will Russia now take up the fallen mantle of the Soviet empire? Will it work?

By invading or partitioning the Ukraine, Russia sets itself up as the Yugoslavia of the 21st century—Russoslavia? Like Slobodan Milosevic before him, Putin is a former Communist war horse who champions the nationalist cause of disenfranchised Russians cut adrift after the dissolution of the Soviet Union — Yugoslavia on a grander scale, with the same hodgepodge ethnicity. Ukraine becomes the Bosnia of the 21st century.

Yugoslavia was a 19th century political ideal, to pull together a number of smaller, vulnerable Balkan states from the encroachments of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the north and the Ottomans to the south. It came into being at the end of World War I, although by that time neither the Austro-Hungarians nor the Turks were powers in southwest Europe.

Almost immediately, without the common threats, the countries of the Yugoslav federation fell out, although the country lasted, officially anyway, until the 1990s. To be a Serb living in Bosnia or Croatia was fine until those republics went for the exits of Yugoslavia, when to be Serb became to be a symbol of a failed central government or, worse, a second-class citizen living in a new country.

Russia’s role in the Soviet Union was not unlike the position of Serbia in Yugoslavia. It had the largest population, was the seat of the central government, and, later, had the most to lose when constituent states of the federation decided to secede and take with them large blocs of Russian citizens.

With the Soviet devolution, Russians became a lost tribe of the Cold War, stranded with few rights and much contempt in places like Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, and Latvia.

When I have traveled in Russia or the ex-Soviet Union, I have met many who say, for example, “My father was from Moldova and my mother was Russian, but during the war we were moved to Uzbekistan, although later I went to school in Riga.”

Putin is their archangel, much as the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was their philosopher-king, writing in 1995, "Russia has truly fallen into a torn state: 25 million have found themselves 'abroad' without moving anywhere, by staying on the lands of their fathers and grandfathers. Twenty-five million — the largest diaspora in the world by far; how dare we turn our back to it?? Especially since local nationalisms (which we have grown accustomed to view as quite understandable, forgivable, and 'progressive') are everywhere suppressing and maltreating our severed compatriots."

While there is a rationale for Putin speaking up for the lost rights of the Russian diaspora, the last thing he needs, in exchange for the liberation of Donetsk, is a Muslim Risorgimento in Tatarstan, Chechen agitation, a separatist movement in Siberia, or rebellion from the two million Ukrainians living inside Russia.

Like Yugoslavia, Russia has a lot it can lose in playing the nationalist card, because it risks a series of border wars if it tries to impose Greater Russia not just on gleeful former citizens, but on less enthusiastic minorities, who want nothing to do with a Russian restoration.

In its attempts to hang on to its cordon sanitaire in the past, Russia became the patron of bizarre breakaway republics, such as Transnistria (a Russian enclave between Ukraine and Moldova), Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia. An Autonomous Republic of Crimea, run by shady commissars flitting around in SUVs, would fit well with these no-man’s lands, dressed up for the Kremlin masquerade.

Most likely the Ukraine crisis will end with the same vagueness that has characterized so much of international diplomacy since the end of the Cold War. In most cases, Moscow has ended up as the guardian of a series of rump states, the latest of which might be Crimea.

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His new book, Whistle-Stopping America, was recently published. He first traveled to the former Soviet Union in 1975, and over the years has been to many of its then-constituent parts, usually by train.

This post is a different version of a longer analysis at NYTimes eXaminer.

Flickr photo by Alexxx Malev: Sevastopol 187