The Crimea has suddenly become the new focus of American-Russian competition.
Russia remains an oppressive society and is getting worse. A small group of oligarchs and politicians is draining away the wealth of the country, while a corrupt government stifles individual rights and suppresses efforts at social protest. The government builds its legitimacy by strongly supporting its Russian ethnic majority, but the growing percent of the non-Russian population (now almost 20%, largely Muslim) makes this an approach fraught with longer term consequences.
America remains the leader of the Free World, promoting the ideals which made it great: the worth of the individual, the freedom to live an independent life, the opportunity to build the American dream. These ideals stand in stark contrast to Russian reality. Unfortunately, they also stand in some contrast to American reality. Our own economic and political situation undermines the very ideals we profess. Internally much of the wealth of our own country is being drained away by a narrow group that grows increasingly wealthy as the larger population struggles with daily life. Such wealth inequality has become a central challenge for the nation, while political polarization has major public figures appealing to more and more restricted elements of the population. On the international stage, the nation has acted with increasing conviction of its own righteousness. Leadership of the Free World has promoted deterioration of the Free World, as American economic distress has spread to Europe. Wealth inequality, unemployment, and polarization there have resulted in disarray within the European Union, which now cannot even guarantee its own prosperity much less reach out to others.
Under pressure of the last Amerian-Russian competition, the Cold War, and the perceived bipolar world it created, America often adopted a foreign policy of "realism" toward unsavory regimes. This continued even after the end of the Cold War, at times with hardly any rational basis, as the long-term American support for President Hissène Habré of Chad or the blatant support of Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran. JFK's stirring words, "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty," failed to provide the guidance the nation needed. Instead, long-term support for Hosni Mubarak and other Middle East autocrats undermined any thought of helping to lead Egypt in a new direction. With American ideals badly tarnished, new regimes struggled to articulate a basis for a new beginning. In country after country, new governments took charge and failed to uphold basic tenets of liberty. A new government in Georgia so alienated the Abkhasians and Ossetians that they declared independence. Georgian efforts to subdue them militarily resulted in a short but intense war with Russia which solidly supported the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a dispute presaging the current squabbles over the Crimea.
Instead of working to unify his fragmented country, the new Egyptian president, Mohammad Morsi, focused his efforts on supporting one faction, the Muslim Brotherhood, and in the process fragmented the nation. Similarly, instead of acting to unify his nation, Nouri al Maliki, leading an Iraqi regime installed by America, is strongly favoring Shiite elements of the population at the expense of Sunni and Kurdish elements, threatening to lead his country into civil war.
With Western encouragement, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine threw out Viktor Yanukovych and brought Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko into power. But the new government not only failed to address economic challenges and pervasive corruption, it failed to reach out to large Russian and non-Ukrainian elements of the population. The result in 2010 was that Viktor Yanukovych soundly won a fair and open election. But he then continued that same tradition of seeking support from only one element of the population and accepting widespread corruption while turning strongly from the West towards Russia. When he pushed that orientation too far, rejecting closer association with the European Union, a popular uprising from mainly ethnic Ukrainians forced him to flee the country.
Russia reacted by focusing on a supposed "orgy" of violence by nationalists, fascists, reactionaries and anti-Semites now in control of an illegitimate government. Crimea had formerly been a province of Russia before Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine, a transfer that meant little in the context of the Soviet Union. But now, the heavily Russian inhabitants of the Crimea promptly arranged a referendum and overwhelmingly voted to declare independence from Ukraine. Vladimir Putin concurred, claiming that the people of Crimea should be allowed to "determine their own future," comparing them pointedly to Kosovars, who, after a NATO air war, ultimately declared Kosovo's independence from Serbia in 2008. Russia immediately accepted the referendum and then formally declared Crimea to now be a province of Russia.
While it is true that Putin's expressed need to defend the Russian population is certainly overblown, and the referendum was not only hurried but also electorally flawed, it still seems clear that the overwhelming majority of the Crimeans prefer to be part of a Russian that wants them instead of a Ukraine that works to muffle them. And the Russian reference to Kosovo certainly evokes sympathy in many international quarters.
Perhaps this can serve as a wake up call for the West, a need to re-think support for our own ideals and for democratic regimes. Largely rhetorical support for an invigorated Georgia and cheering from the sidelines for the Orange Revolution in Ukraine did not work very well. Perhaps the events in the Crimea will spur a new effort to promote the ideals that made America great in the first place, ideals that are truly universal but face deep international skepticism that America really stands for the ideals it professes.
Now we have a dichotomy, a newly energized Ukraine is turning to America and the West, while a newly energized Crimea is turning to Russia and the East.
Let the competition begin!
Let America and the West reinvigorate their own ideals and work with a new Ukrainian government to demonstrate to the world how open democratic societies can prosper, how instead of alienating minorities, they can integrate and empower them.
And let Russia demonstrate to the world what sort of a Crimea it can help to build, a Crimea integrating its own residual Ukrainian population and indigenous Crimean Tatars into a new Crimea proudly demonstrating the benefits of Russia's managed democracy.