The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Crimea’s suddenly inevitable ‘sovereignty’

I scooped Vladimir Putin, and the rest of the world too.

“Crimea Catches Sovereignty Bug; Coveted Region Wants Freedom From Newly Free Ukraine” was the headline of an article I wrote for The Post about ethnic Russians in Crimea who wanted independence or reunification with Moscow. The article appeared more than 20 years ago. You might think, then, that I should be sympathetic with the Russian president finally catching up with me and annexing the province last week. Or that I would agree with the American security expert, a former high-ranking White House official, who told me last week, “Well, Crimea was always Russian. But if they go any further—that would be bad.”

But no. I take the opposite lesson. What’s noteworthy is that, despite the tugs of history and ethnicity, Ukraine and Crimea managed to get along pretty well for more than 22 years. As long as there was a will to work things out politically, people worked them out, allowing for degrees of autonomy, respecting more than one language, and so on. Only when a Russian dictator decided that it would be useful for his own purposes did Crimea’s position inside Ukraine suddenly become intolerable to ethnic Russians, and its excision supposedly inevitable.

I covered the Soviet Union as it fractured into 15 independent countries, in 1991, and one of the great fears at the time was that the fracturing wouldn’t stop at 15. All across the Communist empire, borders had been drawn irrationally—or rationally, from the Politburo’s point of view, to split nations and induce submission. Now many people predicted an era of terrible bloodshed.

Within Russia itself — officially known, don’t forget, as the “Russian Federation” — there were dozens of claims to sovereignty. The Muslim Tatars in Tatarstan wanted their freedom, with the old city of Kazan as their capital. The Sakha, all the way out in Siberia, in the “republic” that had been known as Yakutia, figured they had enough gold and diamonds to fund a very nice life as an independent nation. The Karelians along the Finnish border didn’t want to get left behind; neither did the Circassians, or the Ossetians. The United Nations could have doubled its membership without too much trouble.

It never came to that. There was some terrible bloodshed, most notably when Moscow decided to quash the sovereignty bug in Chechnya. But for the most part, political give-and-take in what was then a nascent democracy found ways to accommodate nationalist stirrings within Russia.

And Russia and Ukraine, though they spent years negotiating and renegotiating the lease for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, found ways to manage the Crimea question without violence or bloodshed — even though, as a local newspaper editor told me then, “The Crimea is the pearl, the very tastiest morsel.”

Now Putin would have us believe that he’s just put things back in their natural place. But when you start forcibly redrawing borders, sometimes the consequences are difficult to control. During that trip to Crimea, I interviewed  the Tatar chief at what was then the ruined palace of the Tatar khanate in Bakhchisaray, not far from Crimea’s modern-day capital. Like most of his people, Mustafa Jemilev had been brutally deported to Central Asia by Stalin (two siblings died along the way), and now that they were coming home, they definitely did not want to be part of Russia again.

“We are not Christians, and if they slap us on one cheek, we cannot guarantee we will turn the other cheek,” Jemilev told me then. “We will try to cut off the hand that slaps us.”