Q: What does Russia potentially gain from annexing Crimea—and what does Ukraine lose? Is Crimea really an essential part of Ukraine’s identity? Or is it more like Iraqi Kurdistan, being in many ways essentially autonomous, at least culturally?
A: Crimea, despite claims by Russian politicians to the contrary, is not an essential part of Russia or a historic Russian territory. A diverse place with a heterogeneous population, much like the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean region, it was annexed to the Russian Empire in 1783. It became an important lynchpin in the building of Russian imperial identity, primarily as a naval outpost and a vacation destination. The trouble is that modern Russian national identity has had little success extricating itself from the Russian imperial one. In contrast with Britain and France, which did what psychoanalysts call “the work of mourning” after the end of their colonial empires in the 1950s—1960s and were able to move on with their national projects, we see in Russia’s case an aggressive reassertion of the imperial project. The actions of both the Russian imperial authorities in the 19th century and the Soviet authorities in the 20th led Crimea to lose most of its indigenous population: in the Soviet case, especially due to the organized deportation at the end of World War II not only of the indigenous ethnic group, the Crimean Tatars, but also of the non-Russian diasporas on the peninsula—the Greeks, the Armenians, the Bulgarians. The peninsula was almost completely depopulated as a result, and the overwhelming majority of its current residents are people who came here due to an organized Soviet project. In my opinion, the more apt analogy for the pro-Russian Crimean population is not the Iraqi Kurds but the pieds-noirs, the European colonial settlers in Algeria and elsewhere in North Africa, who were quite numerous in the 1950s and strongly resistant to the idea of the former colonies gaining independence. Many of them were not ethnically French, but their identity was strongly tied to the French colonial enterprise. Similarly, Crimea in the post-Soviet days has been arguably the most Soviet-nostalgic region anywhere in the former USSR, with the exception of its indigenous community, the Crimean Tatars, who has no love lost for Stalinist policies.
The Ukrainian connection to Crimea is different. As Ukraine was a stateless nation for much of its history, it has no imperial designs on Crimea, but there is a profound history of economic and cultural links between the peninsula and mainland Ukraine. The Ukrainians and the Crimean Tatars co-existed for centuries as sometime allies, sometime rivals in the steppes of the northern Black Sea region; this history is beautifully portrayed in Mamay, a 2003 film that was Ukraine’s first entry into the Oscars. In the modern context, Crimea remained tightly integrated into Ukraine on many levels—economic, cultural, social—even if it had a unique autonomous status. However, the post-Soviet era project of building a modern Ukrainian civic nation that is multiethnic, multilingual, and multicultural proceeded with many fits and starts. Plurality was often downplayed by a large segment of the ruling elites, who instead were content to exploit regional differences in order to gain short-term electoral advantage. As a result, a significant portion of the population in Crimea and some other parts of Ukraine has been holding on to a strong ex-Soviet identity in addition to a strong regional/local identity. Local residents thus sometimes channeled their frustration with the often inefficient and corrupt bureaucrats into a dislike—and sometimes hatred—of Ukraine as a state and of Ukrainians from other regions of the country, which has been exploited by the leadership of Russia, making sure that its neighbors within the post-Soviet area—for which it coined a special term, “the near abroad”—remain weak and dependent on Russian patronage. Any potential gains for Russia from seizing Crimea have to deal more with the misguided reassertion of its wounded imperial pride and “punishing” Ukraine for toppling its corrupt pro-Russian leadership, and the costs most likely far outweigh any hypothetical benefits. The latest developments indicate, however, that Russia is keen to play its pieds-noirs card throughout its former imperial possessions.
–Vitaly Chernetsky, an associate professor at The University of Kansas, is the author of Mapping Postcommunist Cultures: Russia and Ukraine in the Context of Globalization, co-winner of the Prize for Best Book given by the American Association for Ukranian Studies. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Pennsylvania. He last wrote for 2paragraphs here.