Why care About Crimea and Ukraine?

”The Crimean Nexus: Putin’s War and the Clash of Civilizations” by Constantine Pleshakov. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. 216 pages, $28 (hardcover).

On Feb. 20, 2014, Russian soldiers without insignias took control of strategic positions and infrastructure on the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. After a disputed referendum in which the majority Russian population of Crimea overwhelmingly voted to join the Russian Federation, Russian leader Vladimir Putin quickly proclaimed the annexation legal. Despite widespread condemnation by the international community, Crimea remains a part of Russia, and it is unlikely that the peninsula’s status will change.

Soon thereafter, American and European journalists drew parallels between Putin’s annexation of Crimea and Adolf Hitler’s 1938 annexation of Sudetenland and Austria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Russia’s “incredible act of aggression” in Ukraine and rebuked the Kremlin, saying that “you just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” To make matters worse, Putin began supporting secessionist movements in eastern Ukraine soon after seizing Crimea, seeking to destabilize Ukraine by further undermining its territorial integrity.

So it would seem obvious why the U.S. and its European Union partners have sanctioned Russia and have kicked it out of the G8, the club of leading industrial nations. The economic sanctions and relative diplomatic isolation endure, and U.S. foreign policy can be best summarized by Sen. John McCain’s statement: “The free world is with you, America is with you, I am with you. Ukraine will make Europe better and Europe will make Ukraine better.” Russia was left out in the cold, characterized as aggressively anti-Western and dangerous.

Constantine Pleshakov’s new book, “The Crimean Nexus: Putin’s War and the Clash of Civilizations,” offers an alternative narrative to the one above by explaining the Russian point of view. Pleshakov brings a unique background to the table; not only is he a native of Crimea, he was a foreign policy analyst at Moscow’s institute of U.S. and Canada Studies and now teaches at the Five-College Consortium in Massachusetts.

Pleshakov’s Russian roots help him make obvious the historical uniqueness of Crimea in particular and Ukraine in general. He demonstrates that, like many troubled hotspots around the world, Ukraine is a crossroads for many national, ethnic and religious groups: Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Hungarians, Turks and Tatars. Nonetheless, he notes that Crimea and Ukraine occupy a special place in Russian national consciousness because the region has enormous geopolitical and geostrategic relevance.

If the past two centuries make it plain why Crimea and Ukraine are key to Russia’s identity and national interests, then the last two decades are crucial in helping us understand that the 2014 annexation of Crimea began with the collapse of the USSR in 1991. After Mikhail Gorbachev waved the white flag and the U.S. claimed victory in the Cold War, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton gave assurances (although never ratified in a treaty) that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would not expand eastwards.

Despite these assurances, NATO did incrementally expand, particularly under Clinton. Pleshakov argues that it was this enlargement that made Putin, who came to power in 2000, increasingly recalcitrant in his dealing with the West. Because NATO’s unofficial mission, from its inception in 1949, was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down,” it is no surprise that Russia would view NATO enlargement with suspicion, especially after the Russians willingly and peacefully abandoned their military bases all across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. The expansion of NATO into the former Soviet sphere of influence is thus comparable to Nikita Khrushchev placing nuclear missiles in Cuba.

To further understand Russia’s perspective, Pleshakov introduces the concept of the “near abroad,” which he approximates to the Monroe Doctrine. Included in the “near abroad” are all the former republics of the USSR as well as the former East European satellites.

Agreeing that the concept itself smacks of imperialism by another name, Pleshakov nonetheless observes that Russia is doing nothing novel. The British Empire created the commonwealth to protect its colonial interests while contemporary great powers, such as the U.S. and China, jealously guard their peripheries (the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, respectively). In that sense, Pleshakov does not see a meaningful difference between the Russian “near abroad” and the Monroe Doctrine, seeing as both were devised to protect the great powers’ regional influence.

While Pleshakov certainly does not think that Russia’s pretensions should go unchallenged, he stresses that Washington cannot realistically hope to resolve the Ukrainian crisis – or any crisis Russia is involved in – without acknowledging that the Russo-Ukrainian border is as integral to Russia’s national interests as is the U.S.-Mexico border to America’s.

Perhaps the most tragic thing is that the Ukrainian crisis was certainly easy to predict. George F. Kennan, who was the architect of America’s cold war policy of containment, denounced NATO expansion as “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”

Kennan’s critique has become a kind of prophecy since he expected NATO enlargement would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.” In Kennan’s view, the U.S. has turned its backs on the very people who demolished the Soviet regime while at the same time promising protection to a whole series of countries without either the resources or the intention to do so in any serious way.

Although Crimea and Ukraine do not play a central role for U.S. national interests, they certainly matter greatly in how they define Russo-American relations. While the ideological cold war might be behind us, the proxy wars are not. Ukraine is such a proxy war since the conflict between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions continues to this day, having claimed 10,000 lives in the past two years.

Syria, like Ukraine, should be seen as another contest between the U.S. and Russia for spheres of influence. As Pleshakov’s book suggests, perhaps it is time to reconsider U.S. policy toward Russia because the stakes of confrontation might prove to be too high.

– Reviewed by Marko Dumančić, Western Kentucky University History Department.

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