The Russian military intervention in Ukraine’s autonomous republic of Crimea has brought relations between the United States and Russia to their lowest level in a quarter century. It has transgressed the sovereignty of one of the most populous countries in Europe, violated the terms of a diplomatic agreement to respect Ukraine’s borders, and placed Russia on a war footing with one of the few states in the post-Soviet world that has managed to hold multiple free elections. It is a military operation that is unsanctioned by any international body, wholly open-ended, and blessed only by the Russian Parliament.
Crimea is routinely described as “pro-Russian,” given that an estimated 58 percent of the population of two million is ethnic Russian, with another 24 percent Ukrainian and 12 percent Crimean Tatar. Many of its inhabitants, regardless of ethnicity, are actually Russian citizens or dual-passport holders. But the picture is even more complicated. A vital naval base run by another country, a community of patriotic military retirees, a multiethnic patchwork, a weak state and competing national mythologies — that mixture is why a Crimean conflict has long been the nightmare scenario in the former Soviet Union and now represents the gravest crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War.
But that is also the reason all sides must tread carefully. Affirmations about territorial integrity and cries of foreign invasion are empty mantras at a moment when a major European country — unbuilt by a string of fatuous governments and now further destabilized from abroad — has ceased to exist as a functionally unified state. NATO cannot possibly extend security guarantees to a government that does not control its own territory. Yet even in the midst of a standoff, Russia and the West have a clear common interest: forestalling a civil war in the heart of Europe.
If you were able to make your way through the closed airspace, past the demonstrators and Russian-run checkpoints, you could visit a spot that symbolizes why Crimea matters. The Cathedral of St. Vladimir rests on a small hill on Crimea’s southwestern coast. The church is a modern creation, gilded and graceless, but it stands on an auspicious site: the place where, it is thought, Vladimir adopted Christianity in 988 as the state religion of his principality, Rus.
To Russians, Vladimir is the first national saint and the truest progenitor of the modern Russian state. To Ukrainians, he is Volodymyr the Great, founder of the Slavic civilization that would eventually flourish farther north, in medieval Kiev. His church overlooks the expansive ruins of Chersonesus, an ancient Greek settlement that is one of modern Ukraine’s most convincing claims to continuous membership in the Western world.
Just around the headland is Sevastopol, the protected port and naval base where Tolstoy once served on the ramparts. During the Second World War, it was besieged and leveled by German bombers despite a heroic stand by the Soviet Army and partisans. It remained the seat of the Soviet Black Sea fleet after the war, and when the Soviet Union disappeared, the Russian and Ukrainian navies divided up the ships and berths. For generations, sailors and marines have returned from sea to retire in the city’s leafy neighborhoods.
An hour’s car ride away is Yalta, where czars vacationed and Chekhov wrote “The Cherry Orchard.” An hour farther is Stary Krym with its centuries-old mosque and the splendid palace at Bakhchisarai — two of the principal historical sites of the Crimean Tatars, the Muslim community that ruled Crimea for centuries before the Russians arrived. In 1783, when Catherine the Great wrested control from the Tatar khan and the Ottoman Turks, hundreds of thousands of Tatars fled the advancing Russian armies. A century and a half later, in 1944, those who remained behind were scooped up by Stalin and deported to Central Asia. Their children and grandchildren eventually returned to their ancient lands and now fly the blue Tatar flag, with its distinctive cattle-brand seal, alongside Ukrainian and Russian ones in the crowds of clashing protesters who have come into the streets of Sevastopol, Simferopol and other cities.
Has Crimea also now become a Sudetenland? Or is it just a Grenada? Some Western commentators have already suggested the former, comparing President Vladimir V. Putin’s dispatch of Russian forces to Hitler’s 1938 annexation of German-populated parts of Czechoslovakia. In his 90-minute telephone call with President Obama on Saturday, Mr. Putin used a novel justification for his country’s attack on a neighboring state: protecting the interests of both Russian citizens and “compatriots” — code not just for ethnic Russians but for anyone with a political or cultural disposition toward Russia.
In the parallel universe of the Russian media, the preemptive and humanitarian nature of the operation gets pride of place. The ouster of Ukraine’s former president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, was a takeover by militant “ultranationalists,” Mr. Putin declared, and Ukraine was slipping toward widespread disorder. That line resonates at home. In a poll carried out in late February by the independent, Moscow-based Levada Center, 43 percent of Russians called the overthrow of Mr. Yanukovych a violent coup and 23 percent labeled the developing situation a civil war. A plurality of respondents saw the entire affair as an orchestrated attempt by the West to draw Ukraine into its geopolitical orbit.
This interpretive frame may be hard to understand, but some things are not wrong just because Russians happen to believe them. Russian news crews were covering a real story in Ukraine: the chaotic dismantling of a legally sanctioned government, the quick breakdown of an agreed framework for new elections, and the creeping transformation of political disputes into ethnic ones.
All of this points to the chief opportunity as well as the chief danger for Mr. Putin. The Crimean affair is a grand experiment in Mr. Putin’s strategy of equivalence: countering every criticism of his government’s behavior with a page from the West’s own playbook. If his government has a guiding ideology, it is not the concept of restoring the old Soviet Union. It is rather his commitment to exposing what Russian politicians routinely call the “double standards” of American and European foreign policy and revealing the hidden workings of raison d’état — the hardnosed and pragmatic calculation of interests that average citizens from Moscow to Beijing to New Delhi actually believe drives the policies of all great powers.
The United States typically interprets its own actions through the lens of its principles. It reads the principles of other countries from their behavior. In most instances that leads to precisely the hypocrisies that Russia, China and other countries find so easy to condemn.
But Crimea is different, and the results are potentially disastrous. With rival militias now forming on the peninsula and the Russian flag flying over government buildings in parts of southeastern Ukraine, the immediate task of diplomacy is to rescue Ukraine from the consequences of its accidental revolution.
First, the European Union, the United States, and Russia must all agree that the principal goal is to prevent greater violence. The Ukrainian government must block armed groups from traveling to Crimea from other parts of Ukraine, just as Russia must halt the formation of pro-Russian militias in Crimea and beyond. Rather than returning to base, as President Obama has demanded, Russia must use the current disposition of Russian forces to police the very situation they have created. Any confirmed transfer of arms to civilians or non-uniformed soldiers from Russian stores should be treated as a violation of the United Nations charter.
Second, European and American officials must be clear on the reasons why the international community should band together to condemn Russian actions. It is not because of the violation of national sovereignty — a concept imperfectly defended by Americans and Europeans in recent years — but because Mr. Putin’s reserving the right to protect the “Russian-speaking population” of Ukraine is an affront to the basis of international order. Not even the alleged ultranationalists who Mr. Putin claims now control the Ukrainian government have tried to export their uprising to Ukrainian speakers in Poland, Moldova, or Romania, or indeed Russia itself. It is Mr. Putin who has made ethnic nationalism a defining element of foreign policy.
Russia was in fact a pioneer of the idea that, in the jargon of international affairs, is now called R2P: the responsibility to protect. Under Czar Nicholas I, Russia asserted its right to guarantee the lives and fortunes of Orthodox Christians inside the territory of its chief strategic rival, the Ottoman Empire. In 1853 Russia launched a preemptive attack on the Ottomans, sending its fleet out of Sevastopol harbor to sink Ottoman ships across the Black Sea. Britain, France and other allies stepped in to respond to the unprovoked attack. The result was called the Crimean War, a conflict that, as every Russian schoolchild knows, Russia lost.
The future of Ukraine is now no longer about Kiev’s Independence Square, democracy in Ukraine or European integration. It is about how to preserve a vision of Europe — and, indeed, of the world — where countries give up the idea that people who speak a language we understand are the only ones worth protecting.
Charles King, is Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University.