War Over Crimea: Has Russia Lost Its Soul? The Empire Strikes Back…

Take a look at these beautiful images of Imperial Russia’s Palaces on the Voice of Russia webpage. The stunning 360° video photography is breathtaking in its splendor.

Photo from video clip, Russia Imperial Palace Voice of Russia:   Teremnoy Palace, built for Michael I (ca. 1636)

Teremnoy Palace, built for Michael I (ca. 1636)

It’s equally breathtaking to think that a people capable of such artistry then, were also the ones showing the world the shoddy workmanship in Sochi at the 2014 Olympic Games. 

What happened?

Photo of House in Sochi collapsing due to inadequate foundation-structural support
Today’s Construction Doesn’t Stand Up In Comparison

That Communism let this talent and artistry slip away (or, forced it out, as they did the Jews from Moscow and the Tatar’s from Crimea) is a tragedy.

The sad part is why we never learn…

History is repeating itself yet again, or soon it will be for the Ukraine and Crimea. A working co-existence is slipping away (or perhaps, Russia is forcing this one out too, through propaganda and manipulation once again.)

In a country as large as Russia, or as diverse as the Ukraine, it is virtually impossible to use generalities like ‘all’ or ‘never’, ‘honest’ or ‘liar’. The stories are too complex.

It’s as easy as it is wrong these days to paint a country and its people with broad brush labels as ‘Communists’ or ‘Fascists’, ‘Anti-Semitic’ or ‘Pro-Nationalist’. In the news today we have each of these terms being thrown about as we debate just what Russia intends to do here. And yet, there are some things we can know with relative certainty.

At dinner the other night, a lawyer friend began talking about the “invasion” of Crimea, and how Vladimir Putin had calculated a high risk move.

It seems everyone has an opinion, but only by knowing the past and what it reveals about Russia, can we understand what Russia’s next moves are likely to be, and how we should prepare.

We know from Sochi that Vladimir Putin is keenly aware of the way events impact his legacy, and is likewise concerned about pushing the “right” image of Russia– strong, proud, united, when, until recently, Russia had been short on each of those things.

We also know from experience in the Republic of Georgia and the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Russia doesn’t shy away from destabilizing what he terms his “near abroad”.  Putin has declared the region as Russia’s “sphere of influence“, and strategically vital for Russia.

In another example you may not be aware of, take a look at Russia’s claims to “mediate” a conflict it fomented in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region, the Black Garden.

In Azerbaijan's Nagoro-Karabakh region, Russia plays both sides

In Azerbaijan’s Nagoro-Karabakh region, Russia plays both sides

This is a hot issue, so let me say that I lived and worked in Baku for 10 years at the beginning of this conflict- that alone will disqualify me in some eyes from telling a fair story, but it also means I have first hand experience with regard to Russia’s pattern of actions.

  • Like Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh was part of Stalin’s “divide and rule” strategy that friends in Moscow explained to me as Stalin’s way of keeping the populace so off-balance at home that they would not find enough gravitas to rise up against the supreme leaders.
    (How’s that working out so far?)
  • Like Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh is (was) a diverse region populated by multiple ethnic groups that outnumbered namesake residents. In Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh, a little more than half the population was ethnically Armenian vs Azerbaijani. In Crimea the indigenous ethnic Tatars were only allowed to re-settle (repatriate) in their native land after the 1980 pogroms ended. In Krasnodar (Sochi) it was the Circassians.
    (Same story in each region.)
  • The war over Nagorno-Karabakh has been ongoing for more than 20 years now, without resolution.  Armenia is reportedly supported by Russia (money, weapons) in the occupation of some 20% of Azerbaijani land- even as Russia simultaneously professes to be an “impartial mediator”.
    (Any wonder this is known as the “frozen” conflict.)
  • There have been at least 4 United Nations Resolutions calling for an end to the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijan territory.
    (None has been implemented by Armenia, nor enforced by Russia.  So much for worrying over tough talk.)
  • The OSCE is charged with mediating the dispute over territorial integrity via its Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia [pro-Armenia], France [pro-Armenia], and the US [heavily invested in Azerbaijan (oil) but with a very active, well-organized Armenian diaspora to consider as well].
    (Hard to believe they have been working on this for over 20 years, isn’t it?  Ok, not really.)

What do You think about the Ukraine and Crimea?

1. Deep down, what do you think Russia feels about the question of territorial integrity , especially when it involves one of these “near abroad” former appendages?
(If you answered, “Not much!” you might be correct.)

2. Drawing from Russia’s actions in Nagorno-Karabakh, what makes the us think that Russia will take the high road and let the Ukraine resolve its own internal reorganization?
(If you answered, “Too much vodka?” you’d be on a roll!)

3. Understanding Russia’s support for Armenia and its penchant for territory grabs, what hope is there that Armenia will comply with the UN resolutions to withdraw from Azerbaijani territory?
(I’ll bet you guessed this one. Are you batting 3-for-3 now?)

4. Being familiar with Russia’s divide and rule tradition, does anyone think Putin’s Russia will walk away from the Crimean Peninsula with only Sevastopol when he might have it all?
(I’d love to hear from anyone who’s got a well-reasoned comment in the “Sure he will” column.)

Though it’s just a matter of opinion here, Russia seems indeed to have lost the art in its soul. More importantly, though, what Russia does to its ethnic minorities is heartless, as well.

My thoughts and support are with the Tatars and others of the Ukraine’s ethnic groups who are listening for footsteps once again. To the people of the Ukraine who read this, I hope you know that people care about you.

As one leader put it, “It’s like a bad dream we can’t wake up from…

Victor Ostapchuk, a University of Toronto (Canada) expert in Crimean history warned us all saying, “The Tatar voice desperately needs to be heard, both as a matter of justice and as a matter of prudence, to avoid a new grievance in the Muslim world.” This goes for all the people of the Ukraine, Crimea included.

Let’s hope we’re not too late…

3 thoughts on “War Over Crimea: Has Russia Lost Its Soul? The Empire Strikes Back…

  1. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is an Armenian country and not an “Azerbaijan’s” at all.
    The fact that both countries – Azerbaijan and Karabakh – were included by Stalin into one administrative unit of the USSR (by the way, on an autonomy basis) for about 50 years is not enough grounding to pretend that one of these countries belongs to another. Note: Nagorny Karabakh was never a part of independent Azerbaijan.

    Word “Karabakh” is of Persian origin and means “Enchanting Garden” (gharan bagh), but not “Black Garden” as stupid Tomas de Vaal (who is not linguist) interpreted.


    • Gregory-

      Thanks for your comments on this complex issue. Your points are well taken. Further, I also agree that the issues in Ukraine, Israel/Gaza, and Nagorno-Karabakh are complicated by modern international law trying to deal with ancient territorial disputes.

      How far back does one go to determine who “owns” each piece of land?

      The maps of Europe in the 20th century alone show borders shifting multiple times. Which authority then has the right to declare “owning”? This is a particularly vexing issue as national identity is formed not just on boundaries, but on ancestries, traditions and heritage,

      The post I wrote questioned the problem of trying to resolve people issues with arbitrary decision-makers who clearly have vested interests in one outcome or another.

      —Is doing nothing better for the people than making a wrong decision? Perhaps time already passed has shown us that answer.

      —Is it possible to find truly neutral third parties to arbitrate a solution? Perhaps not in this day and age.

      Your points are noted, yet we are here, still without a viable solution for the countries mentioned in the post.


  2. I came across this post completely by accident while doing research on tourism in Crimea and decided to read it out of curiosity.

    Jonelle’s analysis starts promisingly enough: conflict in Ukraine is a complex issue and so we should resist simplistic explanations and quick answers, she tells us. Fair enough. Who wouldn’t agree with that?

    Unfortunately Jonelle immediately forgets her own cautionary words as she offers us the same simplistic and one-sided interpretation of the events in Ukraine that we have come to expect from western media: Russia is the aggressor, it has an appetite for grabbing territories, it mistreats minorities, it’s all Russia’s fault. So much for subtlety and nuance! Though warning against painting peoples and countries with broad brushstrokes, Jonelle opines that Russia has lost its soul. Oh my.

    “To the people of the Ukraine who read this, I hope you know that people care about you.”

    What about Russian-speaking people of Donetsk and Lugansk where thousands have been killed by indiscriminate artillery fire, Jonelle, does anyone outside of Russia care about them? Rhetorical question of course, it’s easy to see where your sympathies lie.

    Old prejudice dies hard – even in a “global nomad”.



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