There is a risk of appearing perverse or flippant when, in the face of unfolding events, one insists on taking the very long view and invoking centuries-old battles. Often, indeed, one senses that many of the seemingly intractable problems on the fringes of Europe could be swiftly resolved if history were finally forgotten, or at least deemed definitively irrelevant to politics.
And yet sometimes such a perspective is just what is needed. I do not know whether Crimea is one such time, but when I read of a new Russian annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, I cannot help it: I think straightaway of 1783 and the fall of the Crimean Khanate.
There is talk in the Russian and Ukrainian social media of a 'Second Crimean War', the first being, of course, the war of 1853-56, which pitted the Russian Empire against a coalition of Ottoman, British, and French troops, along with an assortment of minor players. Paris has both a 'Crimée' as well as a 'Sebastopol' metro stop, and the French role in this affair seems to have been crucial for France's rediscovery of its bellicose potential after Napoleon I's defeat. But the First Crimean War can tell us little about its supposed sequel, since in truth it was not principally Crimean until the tail end, but rather pan-Pontic, and even Baltic. France's military objectives were reached in the conquest of some territories in the Danube delta that had been seized by Russia. But by the time of this small victory the French public was hungry for more, and so the troops went on to the mythic battle of Sebastopol, and took at least a part of the peninsula, at least for a time, ostensibly in the aim of reconstituting a lost Turkish hegemony around the Black Sea.
So what is happening right now is less a repeat of the 19th-century battles around Crimea than it is of the initial 18th-century annexation. In neither case, of course, was there any question of Ukrainian sovereignty or historical claim to the peninsula. The khanate was one of many realms controlled by Muslim Turkic Tatars to the north and east of the Black Sea. It was established as an Ottoman vassal state in the late 15th century, and had its capital at Bahçesaray (now moderately Slavicized as 'Bakhchysarai'). The de-Tatarization of the peninsula was the principal concern of the Russian Empire from the time of its initial annexation.
A great number of Crimean Tatars assimilated, or went to Anatolia and assimilated there in some degree (estimates for the Crimean Tatar population of Turkey today differ wildly, from a few hundred thousand to several million; it all depends what criteria are used). Over the couse of the 19th century the Tatars were ethnically cleansed, expelled, and brutally repressed. In this respect, one should see the Russification of Crimea as part of the same broader process of annexation and incorporation of the Caucasus region (some but not all of whose ethnolinguistic groups are also Turkic). We see in fact a close parallel history with the Adyghe or Circassians of the Krasnodar region around Sochi, who like the Crimean Tatars ended up relocating in large numbers to Anatolia.
This project continued well into the Soviet period, and the Crimean Tatars were subjected to particularly brutal repression by Stalin and Beria in 1944, under suspicion of being 'fascists'. From the Soviet perspective, Ukranianization of the region was nearly as good as Russification. Both replaced an inherently intractable ethnic group with people from the USSR's Slavic core. This history is worth recalling because it reminds us that, today, it is somewhat superficial to analyze what is happening in Crimea in the way we've become accustomed to doing for the events in Kyiv and points west. Crimea has a long history as a Russian colony, and when it fell into Ukraine's hands at the collapse of the Soviet Union this was effectively the transfer of a colony, rather than the consolidation of a historical nation.
There is no question but that Putin is leaping on the opportunity opened up by the instability of Ukraine to attempt to reconsolidate the empire that partially contracted in 1991, and that has been going through phases of contraction and expansion for centuries. To this extent, the re-annexation of Crimea is to be vigorously opposed, not because it fractures a natural unity (as, say, a Russian invasion of Western Ukraine would), but because it marks the renascence of a properly imperial power. Ukraine had simply enjoyed temporary usufruct, by geographical circumstance, of a sliver of that empire.
I see Crimea more in continuity with recent events in Sochi than in Kyiv: the symbolic consolidation of Russian hegemony in historically non-Slavic, Muslim regions that have been contested since the late-18th and early-19th centuries. This development is in many respects more significant than the matter of Kyiv's geopolitical orientation. It hints at a growing thirst for hegemony over the entire Black Sea. This could eventually lead to a confrontation with Turkey, which for its part is rediscovering, in parallel fashion, its own neo-Ottoman imperial ambitions.
Putin's only argument to justify the new Russian imperialism is that, as a matter of fact, Russia is strong enough to pull it off. There is nothing more to it than that. If you have some time, watch a video or two of Ramzan Kadyrov on YouTube. Watch him on horseback, or at target practice, or throwing money in the air while dancing. This is Putin's appointed warlord in Chechnya, and his only claim to authority in that beleaguered republic is (i) heredity, and (ii) his proven track-record of violence. One rises to the position of statesman, under Putin's regime, by the display of virtues that would not have been out of place a millennium ago: strength, mightiness, ferocity in the field of battle.
There have been recent reports that Putin has sent one of his faithful ministers of parliament, Nikolaï Valuev, to assess the situation in Crimea. Valuev is a former heavyweight boxer, who is over seven feet tall and once knocked out Evander Holyfield. He looks like a classic James Bond villain. One of the leaders of the Ukrainian revolution is a man named Vitali Klitschko, leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform-- UDAR, which means 'punch' in both Ukrainian and Russian. He is also a former professional boxer who once fought Lennox Lewis. There is already talk in the Russian Twittersphere of an inevitable match between Klitschko and Valuev that will decide the fate of Crimea. Such a thing is not impossible in a moral-political climate set by Putin.
There is a legend that extends at least back to the stories the Greeks told themselves about the Scythians, according to which these people were such savage warriors that they were prepared to kill great numbers of their own people just to make the enemy quake and run the other way. While the Scythians were probably northern Indo-Aryans, the label 'Scythian' has always been slippery: sometimes it's the Turks, sometimes the Mongols, and sometimes Russians. Balkan and Slavic peoples are praised or condemned for being able to turn back their enemies by adopting 'Scythian' ways themselves, as when Vlad the Impaler made a wall of impaled Transylvanian Christians before the gates of Brașov, and drove back the invading Turks. The stereotype extends all the way to popular entertainments of recent years, as when the vaguely Turkish character Keyser Söze, in the 1995 American movie, The Usual Suspects, resolved the crisis of his family's tragic kidnapping at the hands of evil enemies by shooting, not the enemies, but his entire family.
One cannot help but think of this ancient trope when one recalls the Russian security forces' response to the hostage crisis in Beslan in 2004, or the Nord-Ost siege in Moscow two years earlier. The enemy shows force, we show more force in retaliation, and we demonstrate our invincibility by demonstrating our indifference to the loss of innocent lives on either side. The regime acts as force majeure, as a power of nature that can't be talked down or made to see things differently. We are in the realm of stereotypes here, and there is nothing natural or inevitable about Russia taking up the ancient role of the Scythians. But I am convinced that Putin himself believes in these stereotypes, that playing out these stereotypes is a winning strategy for his political career, and that this does not bode at all well for Russia's neighbors.
I'm drawing mostly on memory here and I hope I'm getting my facts straight. In the past, I have found Alan W. Fisher, The Russian Annexation of the Crimea, 1772-1783 (CUP, 2008), particularly helpful for understanding the history of the region.
I'm also thankful to Andrey Slivka for recently reminding me of the crucial role of the Tatars in shaping Russian and Soviet policy toward the Crimea.
And thanks to Vladislav Davidzon, for taking me to those dark corners of Twitter where boxing and politics blend naturally together.