Well there were six people killed during the Crimean crisis; two Russians and four Ukrainians. For the most part the Ukrainian forces, surrounded in their bases, surrendered peacefully. Russian troops took great care not to open fire unless absolutely necessary. Even the western media were unable to spin that.
Crimea is the home of the Black Sea Fleet: It has been since the 1700s, which is why Russia has always fought so hard to protect it. The Black Sea is very important to Russia for obvious reasons, the first one being that most of Russia’s coastline is frozen for much of the year. Much of the Sea of Azov is too shallow for larger war-ships and tankers. So the warm deep ports of the Black Sea are vital to Russian interests.
East Ukraine constitutes about one third of the country; the portion of Ukraine east of the Dnieper River. It contains five provinces or Oblasts — Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia. This part of Ukraine was Russia under the Tsars. The Dnieper formed the border between Russia and the Hapsburg Empire. It is mostly populated by ethnic Russians and has historically been part of Russia. East Ukraine was included in the new state of Ukraine by the early communists in an attempt to dilute the Ukrainian culture and “russify” Ukraine. Crimea needed no such “russification.” It was already Russian. But Ukraine itself is actually two countries cobbled together from several Russian republics and some of the old Hapsburg ones. The Ukrainian Bolsheviks, created the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which on 30 December 1922 became one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union. One of the founding members of the Kiev Bolsheviks was Nikita Khrushchev, who would play an important part in the expansion of Ukraine to include those small Russian republics.
When Ukraine voted for independence in 1991; the Russian government immediately recognised it, and the clauses of the ensuing treaty were the result. The treaty was mainly concerned with conditions regarding Ukrainian Russians and Military alliances. Ukraine committed itself to guaranteeing the rights and properties of the Russian population of east Ukraine and to not allowing any foreign military activity on its soil. Crimea was given a sort of semi autonomous status to allow Ukraine access, mostly for trade purposes, but Ukraine also maintained a military presence there. Bear in mind that Ukraine still was considered an ally at this stage by Russia, so a Ukrainian military presence in Crimea was just seen as an extra protection for those deep-water Black Sea ports.
Of course in the west; while everyone enthusiastically supported the Ukrainian vote, just as Russia had done; there was a sudden loss of enthusiasm for respect for democracy after the Crimean referendum.
The 1997 Kiev Treaty further formalised and cemented the original agreements and was also overseen and accepted by the UN and by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Years of unrest in Ukraine, beginning in 1991, culminated in another coup in 2014. The new government was directly and openly supported by the Obama administration and immediately began tearing up its treaties with Russia and courting NATO, with the encouragement and support of Hillary Clinton amongst others. Far right groups like “Right Sector” began patrolling neighbourhoods along side Ukrainian security forces. These groups were supported by Washington which had been doing everything in its power to destabilise Ukraine since 1991. A series of pogroms was launched against Russian businesses and ethnic Russians in general, usually by Ukrainian militias but often overseen by Ukrainian state forces. East of the Dnieper, pro-Russian militia groups began to spring up in response, and they in turn were supplied by Moscow. Parents began sending their children to relatives in Russia for safety.
About forty thousand Russian Ukrainians, most of them children were evacuated to Russia during 2014. The only mention of this I saw in the western media was a lot of self-righteous grandstanding about the fact that Russian troops had crossed the border to organise and protect the convoys. Over 750,000 Russian civilians fled to either Russia or Crimea during the shelling of Kharkiv and Donetsk, alone. This was seen as a partly successful attempt to cleanse Eastern Ukraine of ethnic Russians. And there was not a whisper of protest from Washington for the actions of their allies, but there was an awful lot of bluster about “Russian aggression.”
The west predictably claimed that Russian action in Crimea was a breach of both the 1994 Budapest Memorandum; and the Helsinki Accords, both of which cover the sovereignty of independent states and both signed by Russia: But it was a transparently weak claim, even though it was lapped up by the western press. Crimea was clearly not an independent state by any stretch of the imagination, and never had been; and in fact was both historically and politically a Russian state. Furthermore it was Ukraine not Russia that was in clear breach of internationally recognised treaties.
Putin denied that he sent special troops into east Ukraine, but nobody buys that and it is clear that Russian forces were involved in defending Russian populations in east Ukraine. But once again, Putin had been reluctant to intervene directly in Ukraine until after it had already been established that US and West European Special Forces were already on the ground, training and supplying Ukrainian militias. In that case both sides were in breach of international treaties so I am not sure why the finger is pointed at Russia alone.
So Ukraine was a mess, mostly thanks to Obama, but the big question was still Crimea, because Crimea is of such vital importance to Russia. The rest of Ukraine; not so much. By this time the calls in East Ukraine, Crimea and Russia itself, for Putin to do something were at a crescendo. Putin responded by ousting the Ukrainian forces from Crimea, and threatening to take Ukraine by force, from the Russian border to the Dnieper. There was at least one parachute division sent to the border near Kharkiv which was to be dropped west of Kiev if it came to that. The securing of Crimea was something Putin was obviously itching to do: Ukraine and Obama conspired to give him the excuse he needed; but the invasion of Eastern Ukraine was something he was clearly reluctant to do, which is presumably why he didn’t do it.
Putin’s response to the crisis in Ukraine saw his approval rating in Russia soar to 80%. He had been quite unpopular since he had stolen the throne from the very likable but ineffective Medvedev. The crisis in Ukraine was not Putin’s doing; but he steered Russia through it with the skill of a seasoned statesman, refusing to rise to the constant baiting from the Obama administration, but also refusing to back down.
Despite my criticisms of Putin, I, like many Russians am glad that Putin was in the driving seat because I think it might have been a lot worse if a less capable leader had been in charge.
The short war in Georgia was also about NATO on Russia’s borders and about Russian dominance of the Black Sea. It was not about South Ossetia or Abkhazia. It was also clearly not about any kind of Russian expansionism despite the sensationalism in the western press, because Russia pulled out of Georgia shortly afterwards. Saakashvili had made clear his intention to make Georgia a NATO member; which is why he sent Georgian troops to Iraq under American command. He also proceeded to tear up all previous agreements with Russia; and like Obama on Ukraine; Saakashvili failed completely to understand how Russia would react. Russian troops were confronted in Georgia, by Georgian troops wearing American uniforms, using American equipment, and driving American military vehicles. Even though Putin was not in charge at the time; he had a lot of influence on how it played out and some people even accused Medvedev of being Putin’s puppet. Either way there was no way Russia could tolerate NATO bases in Georgia any more than it would tolerate them in Ukraine.
In fact you can take that right back to the Cuban missile crises. For America it was about Cuba, its proximity to the United States and of course Kennedy’s ego. For Russia it was about Turkey, and more specifically the Black Sea, and of course Khrushchev’s ego. But there is no doubt that Russia will go to war if Crimea is at stake, and nobody in Russia is quite sure why the US government has consistently failed to understand that.
And I am not waving a Russian flag here. I recognise that Russia has been completely wrong on many occasions. Russia was wrong on Chechnya, wrong on Afghanistan and wrong on many other things. You can take that right back to the invasion of Czechoslovakia and further. But on Ukraine and Georgia, Russia was clearly acting both reluctantly and defensively, having been backed in to a position, by the west, that left Russia with no choice but to draw a line in the sand and say “no further.”
NATO responded with a series of new deployments and massive war games in Poland and the Baltics, once again right on Russia’s border.
Russia gave up most of Eastern Europe, including Ukraine voluntarily. Many of those countries signed treaties agreeing not to allow foreign military alliances (read NATO) on their soil. That was the only condition in most cases. Since then NATO has bribed and bullied its way into almost every one of them, all the while accusing Russia of aggression. The USA has more than 60 military bases worldwide outside of the United States. Russia has three. And NATO continues to push against Russia’s borders despite the fact that its raison d’être no longer exists. It has sparked a new arms race in Europe and it has led by design to the disintegration in relations between Russia and Ukraine. So the fact that many Russians were relieved when Hillary Clinton lost the election in the USA is not a surprise to anyone who understands Russian views on NATO, and on the Obama administration’s recklessly dangerous meddling in a region that both Clinton and Obama displayed a breath-taking ignorance of.
You also need to understand Russian history in order to understand Russia’s attitude to NATO. Russia has been invaded many times by military alliances mostly from the west. But the one invasion that is burned into the cultural memory of every Russian is Barbarossa. There is no way to describe the scale of the devastation and the loss of life, and there are many Russians still alive today who remember it. But Russians do not call the invaders “the Germans.” We call them “the fascists.” Russia was not invaded by Germany alone; but by an international alliance of countries led by Germany. Nobody thinks that NATO is the same thing as the fascist Axis; but it is very clearly a large western military alliance that is expressly anti-Russian and is building up on our borders. (while accusing Russia of aggression of course.)
So when Russia is building military bases on the south bank of the Rio Grande, and holding war games in the Gulf of Mexico; and off the coast of California; then maybe the USA will finally have the right to accuse Russia of aggression.