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Calamity in the Crimea

(Posted March 24, 2014)

James Roney, professor of Russian

The Ukrainian people recently expelled their former president, Viktor Yanukovych. Days later, soldiers showed up in Crimea, a region bordering the Black Sea with a large population of ethnic Russians. While the Russians are denying that the military forces there are Russian, the rest of the world is convinced that this is the case, and diplomats are mobilizing to come up with some kind of solution. James Roney, professor of Russian, discuses the history of Crimea and provides a context for the conflict there.

Q: Could you explain why Russia is doing what it is doing?

A: Well, none of it is clear. There are claims and counterclaims in terms of whether or not they actually want to annex it. The argument that they give is that this is an area which is over 50 percent Russian-speaking, so the people there are Russian by cultural background, they're Russian by ethnicity, and they speak Russian as their native tongue. At the same time there's a minority of Crimean Tartars, and then there's also a small group of Ukrainians in the area. That territory, I believe, was also in the 1950s signed over from the Russian Republic to the Ukrainian Republic by Khrushchev. At that point, that was an administrative change inside the Soviet Union, so they've always maintained there's a special closeness and brotherhood between the Byelorussians, the Ukrainians and the Russians; that's the three east Slavic people groups. So from their point of view, what they're doing is intervening to protect people of the same ethnicity as themselves.

Q: To protect them from what is going on in Ukraine?

A: From their point of view (this is their official position now) there was an agreement reached to have a new election, which was signed off on by European powers and the United States. Then Yanukovych left and there was further violence and the government was overthrown. From their point of view, there is chaos on the ground. The other thing that they are saying is that the temporary government passed a law, which removed Russian as an official language. They had more than one official language in the Ukraine because it's a multicultural, multilinguistic area, and that temporary government removed Russian as an official language. From the point of view of the state, they're moving in to provide order, to protect people of the same ethnic background as themselves and ultimately to call for a resumption of the agreement that was signed in the past.

Q: What do the majority of the people in Crimea want?

A: I don't think anyone really knows. They claim that they don't want anything more than being an autonomous region. They're sort of a semi-autonomous region already. And remember that this is a region with a major Russian naval installation, and so there a lot of ethnically Russian people in the area. And Russia, like any state, wants to maintain the security of a major military base. Most outside observers don't believe the claims that are in the Russian media, which say for example that there were attacks on Russian administrative buildings, so something had to be done. Most non Russian sources don't believe that really happened.

Q: Could this come to violence?

A: It depends. There certainly are people who are afraid that this could be part of a campaign that would lead to the Russian military prodding into the Eastern parts of Ukraine making the same claim about protecting Russian-speaking individuals, and could get people to say "we need your help." The worst-case scenario is that there could be a civil war inside Ukraine which could then draw in other powers. And that would be a disaster for Europe and the United States and for Russia. I would really like to hope that our diplomats can ignore the hysteria going on in the press and think about what's happening and take more rational action.

Q: What other foreign policy considerations went into this decision?

A: As far as foreign policy for Putin, it seems fairly clear that Russia's foreign policy now is designed to reestablish itself as a regional power, and they deeply regret the developments which led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the loss of some of these countries. I don't think any Russian wants to go back to the Soviet Union, but I think that they feel a special closeness to the border areas and particularly to the Ukrainians and Byelorussians because they're all part of this larger Slavic identity. And Putin himself has been reading and handing out to others Russian writings, which are on this idea of a common Slavic identity.

Zachary Lemon '14, Juniata Online Journalist

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