The problem with Ukraine's history, the Russian version

There is an unusual twist in the current crisis over Ukraine and the Crimea because, as Vladimir Putin put it, Ukrainians and Russians are brothers. But even if true, Joe Schlesinger writes, there is no more bitter falling out than a family feud.

Ukrainians and Russians are brothers, Vladimir Putin says, but even if so, events have intervened

Pro-Russian demonstrators rally in the Crimean town of Yevpatoria on Wednesday as Russia rebuffed Western demands to withdraw forces in Ukraine's Crimea region to their bases. (Maks Levin / Reuters)

If what's happening in Ukraine sounds familiar it's because we've seen it all before.

It happened in the 1990s in another bitterly divided Slav society, Yugoslavia.

The Yugoslav federation was breaking up with infighting between its seven states. The most brutal use of force came from the country's dominant group, the Serbs, who resorted to "ethnic cleansing" to move their rivals out.

NATO, which had never gone to war in Europe before (or since) used its air power to oust the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

The Russians, Serbia's allies and patrons, fumed but did nothing because they couldn't. They had enough problems at home trying to recover from the shock of the fall of communism.

Now, the jackboot is on the other foot. It's NATO's turn to be incensed as Russia sends its troops into the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and threatens the new regime in Kyiv with further action.

U.S. President Barack Obama has issued a stern warning to Vladimir Putin to keep his hands off Ukraine. But the Russian leader isn't likely to be deterred by Obama's latest "red line" any more than Bashar al-Assad was by the one the Americans drew in the sands of Syria. 

There is an unusual twist in this crisis, however, because, as Putin put it, Ukrainians and Russians are brothers. (And there is no falling out more bitter than a family feud.)

From the Russian perspective, therefore, this problem begs to be handled as a domestic affair — not subject to interference from outsiders, be they the UN Security Council or NATO.

Russia's cradle

Today, though Russians tend to look at Ukrainians as their kid brothers, Ukraine is in fact more like Russia's cradle.

The first Russian state was based in Kyiv, and Ukraine is still often seen as Russia's cultural and spiritual homeland, the place where Eastern Orthodox Christianity took root.

But power passed on north to Moscow and St. Petersburg after Ukraine was overrun in the 13th century by Mongols from Asia. And that event still has its aftershocks. 

Members of Vienna's Ukrainian community protest against Russian troops in Ukraine on Wednesday as diplomats from Russia, the EU and the U.S. gathered in Paris to try to ease tensions. (Leonhard Foeger / Reuters)

The situation in Crimea is a perfect example. The West says it's an integral part of Ukraine, which is now in the hands of its Western-leaning opposition parties.

Moscow says it's Russian because a majority of the population is Russian. You be the judge.

For centuries, the majority of Crimea's inhabitants were Tatars, a Turkic-speaking people who arrived as part of the Mongol's "Golden Horde."

But under Soviet rule these people were devastated. By 1933, half of Crimea's Tatar population is estimated to have been starved to death, slaughtered or deported as part of the communist drive to collective agriculture.

In the wake of Second World War, then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin deported the Tatars that were left to central Asia, accusing them of collaborating with the German invaders.

There were indeed Tartars who joined the Waffen-SS, the Nazi force of foreigners from countries as diverse as France and India.

To be precise, 3,518 Tatars joined the Waffen-SS. But so did 70,000 Russians and Ukrainians.

Besides, punishing 200,000 people because of the sins of 3,518 is, to say the least, irrational.  

Nearly half of the deported Tatars died of hardships suffered in exile. They were not allowed back to Crimea until after the fall of communism and now represent a small minority fearful of being victimized again by Russians.

Florence Nightingale

But Crimea's Russians also have a justified complaint: the fact that the territory is legally part of Ukraine.

Their claim to the peninsula — aside from the fact that they represent 60 per cent of the population — is that it was conquered by the tsarist Russia in 1783.

In 1853, an alliance of Britain, France and the Turkish Ottoman Empire, fearful of Russian expansionism, attacked Crimea in a war that became famous in the West. (Think of Florence Nightingale, the pioneering nurse, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade.")

Though the Russians lost the three-year bloody conflict, they managed to hang on to the peninsula.

After the communist revolution, both Crimea and Ukraine became "autonomous" Soviet socialist republics.

Then in 1954, totally out of the blue, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader of the day, issued an edict turning Crimea into a part of Ukraine.

The handover was widely considered a gift from Khrushchev who, though Russian, owed much to Ukraine. He had spent his youth and early career there, and had a Ukrainian wife.

Brotherly love

The brotherly talk, though, can change. It certainly did in the case of Yugoslavia.

A century ago, it was the dream of Balkan Slavs, who for centuries had been ruled by outsiders, to have a country of their own,

The dream led a Serb to assassinate the crown prince of Austria, one of the Slavs' overlords, in Sarajevo in June 1914, thereby unleashing the First World War.

Ukrainian police separate ethnic Russians, on the left, and Crimean Tatars during opposing rallies near the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol in February as the standoff in Ukraine was escalating. One person died in the confrontation, apparently of a heart attack. (Baz Ratner / Reuters)

In a case of supreme irony, the slaughter of that war led to the assassin's dream becoming a reality when Yugoslavia was born.

Fast forward to the 1990s, however, and the exploding resentments between the Yugoslav ethnic groups once again put Sarajevo in the crosshairs.

The Bosnian city was besieged by Serb forces for four years in what has been the longest siege in the history of modern warfare.

The decade of fighting that tore apart Yugoslavia cost 130,000 lives and displaced four million people, one in every six Yugoslavs. And the region still has not fully recovered from its ravages.

For all our sakes, we can only hope that the Russians and Ukrainians — and most importantly Vladimir Putin — may have learned something from the disaster that befell their Balkan Slav brethren before it's too late.


Joe Schlesinger

Foreign Correspondent Emeritus

Joe Schlesinger was a foreign correspondent for CBC for 28 years, covering natural disasters, political upheavals and conflicts from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. In 2009, the Canadian Journalism Foundation honoured Schlesinger for his body of work.


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