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A Coup in Crimea—or in Russia?

The West rejects a peninsula's secession but makes no secret of its regime-change ambitions for Moscow.
Crimea Russian troops walking background

As has been foreshadowed for weeks, Vladimir Putin has “reunited” Crimea with Russia. Putin spoke resonantly of the deep historical ties between Moscow and Crimea. One need not go back, as Putin did, 1,000 years to see it: Crimea’s “Russian-ness” is quite visible in, for instance, the memoirs of Winston Churchill, who opens his chapter on the Yalta Conference (held in February 1945—perhaps the last time Russian, British, and American leaders were on good terms) with the following:

The Soviet headquarters at Yalta were in the Yusopov Palace, and from this centre Stalin and Molotov carried on the government of Russia and control of their immense front, now in violent action. President Roosevelt was given the even more splendid Livadia Palace, close at hand, and it was here, in order to spare him physical inconvenience that all the plenary meetings were held. This exhausted the undamaged accommodation at Yalta. I and the principal members of the British delegation were assigned a very large villa about five miles away which had been built in the early nineteenth century by an English architect for a Russian Prince Vorontzov, one time Imperial ambassador to the Court of St. James.

Before getting to the negotiations, Churchill goes on to describe Crimean architecture, climate, and the English portraits in the home of Prince Vorontzov, who had married into a British noble family, as well as the extraordinary efforts the Russians made at hospitality. No goldfish in a large glass tank in the hallway? A few days later, goldfish would arrive. No lemon peels for gin and tonics? “The next day a lemon tree loaded with fruit was growing in the hall.” This in February 1945.

One would search Sir Winston’s account in vain for a hint that one day this territory would be incorporated into an American-led anti-Moscow alliance. Churchill rightly worried about Soviet ambitions in Europe, but the idea that Crimea was not a part of Russia would have struck him as simply absurd.

Nevertheless, such incorporation has not only been contemplated but has been American policy. Crimea was gifted (drunkenly, it is said) to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, an event of seemingly little consequence as it was then all part of the Soviet Union. Then the Soviet Union split apart, leaving a Ukraine internally divided and comprising a segment which was always considered part of Russia. Had Western policy been to preserve a neutral or “Finlandized” Ukraine, the issue of Crimea’s status might never have come to a boil. But almost from the beginning, Western strategists put Ukraine’s integration into NATO on the table, an act that was perceived by Russia as unbelievably aggressive and threatening.

Several days ago, a delegation of senators led by John McCain decamped to Kiev, where they issued the expected statements about freedom and democracy. McCain promised bipartisan support for Ukraine’s “territorial integrity”—meaning Crimea belongs to Ukraine—and against “Russia’s baseless violation of these principles and efforts to divide the country.” He promised to lobby for long-term American military assistance to Ukraine. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy promised to “deliver a blow” to Russia to make clear the price to be paid for “aggression.” Dripping patronizing scorn, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake reminded Russians, “This is not your grandfather’s war.”

It’s not simply senators, of course. John Kerry lectures Putin about being stuck in a 19th-century mindset while condescendingly offering him an “off-ramp”—a face-saving way to allow the Western alliance to move right up to Russia’s borders. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton tells reporters that she is “trying to send the strongest possible signals to Russia … trying to ensure that they understand the seriousness of the situation.” But who is it really who fails to “understand the seriousness?” The senators who parachute into Kiev for a frisson of media coverage or the Russians who gag when the United States tries to push NATO down their throats, contradicting assurances given to Moscow as the Soviet Union broke up? As John Mearsheimer pointed out in an important Times op-ed:

Washington played a key role in precipitating this dangerous situation, and Mr. Putin’s behavior is motivated by the same geopolitical considerations that influence all great powers, including the United States.

What is the goal of the West here? If you listen to some, it is to provoke Maidan-type demonstrations in Moscow, to overturn Putin. National Endowment for Democracy’s chief, Carl Gershman, one of the major dispensers of the “pro-democracy” money being spread about in Kiev, warned last year that Putin risked losing not just his “near abroad” but Russia itself. “Dear Vlad,” McCain tweeted two years ago, “Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you.”

The Beltway hawks want to defeat Putin, depicted as a new Hitler by Hillary Clinton, to punish the Russian leader who put a stop to the oligarch looting spree of the 1990s that had sent Russia into a death spiral. Their dream: humiliating Putin, setting off “freedom” demonstrations in Moscow, perhaps a civil war to bring Putin down.

Why, one must ask, is this an American interest? Why would we want chaos in a state which possesses 8,000 nuclear weapons? If the neocons and neoliberals got their way and Putin is defeated and falls, who then assumes power? Or does Russia break into warring fiefdoms with various warlords vying for control? And in this scenario, who, if anyone, commands Moscow’s nuclear arsenal? Is this really the future—with all its attendant uncertainty, desperation, and humiliation—Americans want to see? Truly it is hard to imagine anything more stupid or shortsighted.

A postscript: Writing in the National InterestDavid Hendrickson pours much needed cold water on the notion that the coup which brought Moscow’s enemies to power in Kiev ought to be heralded as a victory for “democracy.” It overthrew a democratically elected leader, and even the mob-influenced vote to impeach Yanukovych fell short of the constitutionally-required supermajority. So we have John Kerry lecturing the Russians about democracy and the rule of law on the behalf of a regime that came to power in chaos, in violation of the most important of democratic norms, which is that elections count more than which crowds which can be mobilized in the street. And one more thing—the snipers the senators refer to on their revolutionary tourism visits to Maidan? Apparently they fired at both policeman and demonstrators equally, suggesting that the goal was to escalate the violence and chaos in the Maidan. Of course who ordered the snipers is not yet known, but as Hendrickson suggests, it’s hard to see how that kind of provocation would have been in Yanukovych’s interest.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.