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As President Trump sits down for his first one on one meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, some history and perspective are in order.
Trump and Putin will find plenty of common ground, most significantly in fighting Jihadism and global terrorism. And while there is room for movement on the difficult issues surrounding continued talks on nuclear proliferation, missile defense, and others good diplomacy can work a deal that is in the interests of both nations. There is even room for compromise on Ukraine.
But there is one area of disagreement that, at least from one perspective, is off the table. That is the status of Crimea. It’s non negotiable for Russia. Going into this summit, it behooves everyone to understand what is at stake in terms of Crimea. First some history.
The Crimean Peninsula juts out from the bottom of Ukraine into the north shore of the Black Sea. Its critical position in the Black Sea has made it a battle ground and prized possession for Empires over three millennium. It has been colonized by Greeks, Persians, Romans, Goths, Slavs, and Steppe nomads from the Mongols and Tartars. In the mid 15th Century, Crimea became a northern outpost of the Muslim Ottoman Empire and would remain in Ottoman control for over 400 years.
The Ottomans used the Crimean Peninsula as a launch pad for raids far into Ukraine and Russia. It is estimated that well over 2 million Slavs (Ukrainians and Russians) were taken as slaves between 1500 and 1700 and sent to modern day Turkey. In fact the word “slave” traces back to the Greek r word for Slav. To put some perspective on this, it is estimated that just under 400,000 black slaves were shipped from Africa to the Colonies in North America and later the independent United States. The Islamic Caliphate’s hold at the southern reaches of the Russian Empire was an existential threat, literally so for millions of Slavs.
By 1700 however, the Ottoman Empire was starting a long period of decline, while the Russian Empire, first under the reign of Peter the Great, and then under Catherine the Great, were in the ascendancy. Peter the Great in the early 18th Century had secured, through a war with Sweden, a port on the Baltic Sea, what was to become St. Petersburg. Russia however, desperately desired a warm water port. They looked South, where they had been war, on and off for centuries, against the raiding Mongol and Tartar hordes as well as the Ottoman Sultanate.
Constantinople, the great seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, from which Russian Orthodoxy had sprung, fell in 1453 to the Ottomans. It had been a dream of Christians everywhere to return Constantinople to the Christian fold and that feeling was no more passionately held than in Russia. Moscow became the “Third Rome.”
In 1783, under Catherine the Great, Russia routed the Ottomans and secured the Crimean Peninsula. Russia had its warm water port on the Black Sea, just 339 miles to the ancient city of Constantinople. Europe from Spain to Italy, to the gates of Vienna had been fighting Islamic armies for centuries. In 1683, the Ottoman’s siege of Vienna was broken, for the next hundred years they were on their heels in the Balkans and exactly 100 years later, they lost a critical hold on the European continent and a prize that lay at the belly of Russian Empire. Crimea had fallen.
For the next 171 years, Crimea was part of the Russian Empire and later, the Soviet Union. It was in 1954 that the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, “gifted” Crimea to Ukraine on the 300th Anniversary of the Ukrainian inclusion in the Russian Empire. At the time, of course, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, the “gift” of Crimea went almost completely unnoted in the West. After all, there was a massive Soviet naval fleet at Sevastopol before 1954 and so it remained after the “gifting.”
When the Soviet Union collapsed, chaos reigned. Boris Yeltsin, as best he could, tried to keep the pieces together. If he had been smarter, or shrewder, he most certainly would have demanded that in recognition and acceptance of Ukraine’s independence, Crimea should be returned to Russia. Alas, he was not and he did not.
In steps Vladimir Putin, a Russian nationalist who sees the collapse of the Soviet Union as a great “catastrophe.” He lamented it not because of the fall of Communism, but because with that came the dissolution of over 30 percent of the land that had it taken the Russian Empire centuries of wars and conflict to acquire. One thing Putin does not lack is shrewdness. In 2014, seeing a weakness and passivity in the West, particularly in the person of President Barack Obama, he pounced and took Crimea in a militarily incursion into Ukraine.
Why all of this background? Because, whatever our feelings or opinions about the justice of what’s happening in Crimea, it is critical that we understand it, also, through a Russian lens. From an historical prescriptive, they see Crimea as Russian; it has never been part of Ukraine, with the possible exception of a few years of the Kievan Rus period in 900 AD. Ukraine’s sole hold on Crimea was the post Soviet years, from 1991 to 2014, after the “gifting.”
Crimea is of critical strategic importance to Russia; it has been over two and half centuries. For the Russians to give up Crimea would be akin to the United States giving Texas or California back to Mexico or giving Florida back to Spain. Or, better yet, giving Alaska back to Russia. It isn’t going to happen, not without war.
We should dispense with the comparisons of Putin to Hitler and the Crimea to the Sudetenland. The Sudetenland, though having a large German population, has never been a part of Germany or even a German principality. It has been part of Bohemia and Moravia, which had been part of the Hapsburg Empire, and before that a part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Germans had zero historical hold on Sudetenland.
All of that said, we need to be firm on the status of Ukraine—that its independence is critical and that a Russia invasion of Ukraine could spark a major conflict. Whatever language we want to use, we need to be clear that an absorption of Ukraine back into Russia, is unacceptable. Putin will most likely not risk a war with the United States over Ukraine. An agreement can be worked out. This will probably mean that Ukraine will not be part of NATO and American missiles will not be stationed outside of Kiev or on the Don River. But it can also guarantee a free Ukraine.
President Trump and our diplomats can use this as leverage. If we come to the table with the recognition that Crimea is non negotiable to the Russians, our recognition of that reality can force Putin and Russia to negotiate on something we need. I trust Trump, Pompeo and Bolton will know what to ask for.
Photo credit: Sergei MalgavkoTASS via Getty Images