An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


2014 – The Russian Annexation of Crimea

2014 – The Russian Annexation of Crimea

18 March 2014 – Crimea

This sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen any more. Europe had found other ways to settle its disputes. Armies just don’t walk into their neighbours and steal their land in the twenty-first century. That Russia did it twice in the space of a few years in Ukraine and Georgia showed that this could no longer be taken for granted.

As usual, I will be taking an offensively flippant line with an event that continues to affect millions of people. Exhibit A... (Source)

As usual, I will be taking an offensively flippant line with an event that continues to affect millions of people. Exhibit A…

It remains to be seen what the long term implications are for the Russian invasion, but there is certainly a long history running up to it.

First, a historical caricature. The ruling classes in Russia suffer from chronic paranoia which, from time to time, has been justified. But this fear that everyone is out to get ‘em is also wedded to an inferiority complex. When you assume most foreign policy decisions are done to make the West take Russia seriously and/or provide a military buffer between Berlin and Moscow, some of the more batshit-crazy stuff makes a lot more sense.

During the Enlightenment, the Russian Empire began to contemplate its place in the world. It was Christian, but not Roman Catholic. Its lands extended East of the Urals, but they weren’t culturally Central Asian. To gain credibility on the world stage, Peter the Great ploughed investment into building new cities, complete with grand architecture, art and industrial prowess. To cement their power, the Tsars chose to expand their empire into Asia, while modernising the court on the European fashions of Paris, London, Vienna and Berlin.

What resulted was an absolute monarchy on the French or Prussian model, but without the economic prosperity or strong industrial base of those grand European empires. For the next three hundred years, Russia felt like it was playing a desperate game of catch up – one that it needed to win for its very survival.

Napoleon found Russia to be "a bit nippy" in Winter. (Source)

Napoleon found Russia to be “a bit nippy” in Winter. (Source)

History had taught them to be wary of the West, and it would continue to do so. German Empires in Prussia and Austria crept ever Eastwards and had far greater military technology and economic resources. Even the French, at one point, were knocking on the door of Moscow. While desperately trying to assert absolute monarchical control, Russia continued to try to build up its economy. In the meantime, its greatest defences were an abundance of people to use as soldiers and impenetrable winters.

This Low cartoon from the Daily Express showed that, perhaps, Stalin and Hitler were not exactly BFFs. (From the British Cartoon Archive)

This Low cartoon from the Daily Express showed that, perhaps, Stalin and Hitler were not exactly BFFs.
(From the British Cartoon Archive)

In the wake of the First World War, the new communist regime feared nationalist (tsarist) counter-revolution and hostility from capitalist nations. Later, it faced even greater hostility from the rise of fascism. In the 1930s, the fledgling Soviet Union made a deal with the German Empire to divide Poland in half. This would act as a buffer between Berlin and Moscow, as well and giving the country more land. It also bought them more time to prepare for an invasion should it occur.

It did. Stalin was so shocked he didn’t leave his room for days. He never made the same mistake again.1

Soviet occupation in Eastern Europe following the Second World War.

Soviet occupation in Eastern Europe following the Second World War. (Source)

In the Cold War, the Soviets were convinced a capitalist assault on Socialism was inevitable. To secure itself, it refused to leave many of the countries it “liberated” in the closing months of the Second World War. Much of the Austro-Hungarian Empire remained under Russian control until the 1990s. Symbolically, so did half of Berlin and the great Prussian ports of Konigsberg and Danzig.
Anyway. To bring this overly-simplistic narrative to a close, today Russia feels under attack again. Its economy is stuttering, no longer able to rely on high gas and oil prices to make up for its internal failings. The ruling classes are being squeezed by restrictions on their activities and sanctions in the West. Previous Soviet republics have either joined the EU or have democratic governments allied to it. Some of them even want to join NATO – an organisation designed to curb Moscow’s military power.

The invasions of Georgia and Ukraine were meant to remind those countries – and the EU – who rules in Eastern Europe. Moscow may allow minor things like elections to occur there, but the West should not fill their heads with ideas about liberalism and autonomy. Since many ethnic Russians still lived in these lands, the Putin administration declared it to be its duty to enforce order, to protect them from vindictive minorities. If you can smear them as fascists, all the better.

One of the biggest, recurring themes, then, is that Russia has consistently imposed itself on people from other countries for its own ends. Imperialism tout court. What happened in Ukraine was part of a long history of invasion, suppression and domination, all justified by the Russian authorities as pre-emptive self-defence.

Was this a show of strength from Moscow, then? Or a sign of weakness? Invasions shouldn’t be necessary if government remain under the thumb. They are, however, a useful distraction from the disruption caused by metropolitan types in the major cities back home. The ones who shamelessly call for a free press, gay rights and less corruption.

From a historical perspective, it will be interesting to see where the Putin regime goes from here. Living in the West, we have the luxury of not having to deal with the immediate consequences.

I’m as surprised as you, but this post actually was written on 5 October 2015. This note was written on 9 September 2016.
  1. This story is disputed, but historians are in broad agreement that Stalin was unprepared for a German attack, and at the very least did not expect one as early as 1941. The reasons for this are legion, including an ineffective army high command following the purges of anyone who disagreed with him. Turns out blind obedience doesn’t always breed competence.

    In any case, the point is – I like the story. Don’t let the truth (or lack thereof) get in the way of a good narrative.

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