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What history can tell us about Russia, Crimea and Vladimir Putin

Russia's President Vladimir Putin gestures as he addresses a joint session of Russian parliament on Crimea in Moscow on March 18, 2014.  (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an agreement that formally recognized the "reunification" of breakaway Ukrainian region of Crimea with Russia.

 "To understand the reason behind such a choice," Putin said in a speech to parliament, "It is enough to know the history of Crimea and what Russia and Crimea have always meant for each other."

History. That was the central point of Putin's speech. And he wasn't just creating history by agreeing to accept Crimea – he was correcting history. Correcting the historical mistake from 1954 that saw Crimea end up as part of Ukraine.

Putin didn't stop there. He lashed out at the West about events such as the downfall of the Soviet Union, Kosovo, NATO expansion, Libya, Iraq and Syria. He argued that the Western historical narrative of these things was twisted; that U.S.-led military actions in places such as Kosovo and Libya had been illegitimate, and that America's reaction to Crimea's referendum was, at best, naive and hypocritical.

Few Western observers failed to note the historical rhetoric that formed the core of Putin's argument. Fareed Zakeria called it "the most significant geopolitical problem since the Cold War," while Brookings scholar Steven Pifer argued that it was the "most blatant land grab in Europe since WWII."

Putin believes he has learned history’s lessons. But has he?

World War II

One of the most common references in the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, Crimea  and Russia has been that of World War II and Nazi Germany. In his speech today, Putin invoked his favored tactic for criticizing the Kiev government, calling them "fascists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites."

It's true that the Euromaidan protests had an element of far-right nationalism to them, but the situation in Crimea, and Putin's justification for it, have also reminded others of Nazi Germany's actions before World War II – Hillary Clinton even went so far as to directly compare Russia's pledge of support for ethnic Russians based abroad to that made by Adolf Hitler for ethnic Germans as part of Nazi Germany's plans for "anschluss" and unification of all Germans under an "all-German Reich." Notably, when Austria was  annexed by Germany, it held a referendum.

Fall of the Soviet Union

The fall of the Soviet Union has always been a bugbear for Putin: not so much because he loved Communism but because it seemed to mark the end of Russia's time as a great power at the center of an empire. Back in 2005, he even called it a "genuine tragedy."

In today's speech, the Russian president returned to his anger over the end of the Soviet era, and in particular, how the situation in Crimea was handled. "Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones," he said, "overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders."

The situation was especially significant in Crimea, he said, which became part of Ukraine in 1954 after a "personal initiative" from Communist Party head Nikita Khrushchev. "It was only when Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realized that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered," he explained.

Putin's theory on Crimea's place in Russian history makes some sense: The peninsula had been part of Russia from 1783 to 1954, and even under Ukrainian rule housed Russia's Black Sea Fleet. It's not always a pretty history, though. For example, the entire Crimean Tatar population was deported from Crimea during World War II, and a huge number are believed to have died. Putin touched on this in his speech, admitting that the Crimean Tatars were "treated unfairly" but adding that "millions of people of various ethnicities suffered during those repressions, and primarily Russians."

Putin also neglects to mention that Crimea's decision to remain part of Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union was decided by a referendum on independence in December 1991. That election found that 54 percent of Crimean voters favored independence from Russia – a majority, though the lowest one found in Ukraine.


Northern Cyprus is one interesting example that Putin actually neglected to mention. In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus and established control over the northeastern portion of the island, and in 1983, the Turkish north of the island declared independence from the Greek south, calling itself the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus." The U.N., however, did not recognize it, and to this day only Turkey does.

Crimea and Cyprus are remarkably similar situations, David Klion at the New Republic argues:

Turkey’s pretext for invading Cyprus was a coup, which is the term Putin uses to describe the overthrow of Ukraine’s corrupt but democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych. In this case, the coup was sponsored by Greece’s military junta with the aim of uniting Cyprus with Greece. This aim was unpopular among ethnic Turks, many of whom welcomed the Turkish invasion. Turkey faced near-universal condemnation for its actions, and has weathered regular U.N. resolutions criticizing the occupation ever since. While Cyprus never ended up joining Greece, both countries eventually found a home in the E.U., where membership has continually eluded Turkey.

Putin may have wished to avoid the comparison to Cyprus, it seems, as the end results were so unfavorable: a lack of recognition for Northern Cyprus, the rest of Cyprus moving toward Europe, and the diplomatic isolation of Turkey.

The reunification of Germany

Two of the most important events in post-WWII history were the division of Germany among Allied powers after the war, and the subsequent reunification of Germany after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"I believe that Europeans, firstly Germans, will understand me," Putin said during his speech today, pointing out that "not all countries who were Germany's allies supported the very idea of unification" at the time. "Our country, on the contrary, supported explicitly and sincerely the aspiration of Germans for national unity," he said. "I am certain that you have not forgotten this and I count that German citizens will support the aspiration of the Russian world and historical Russia to restore unity."

It's true that Russia did play a significant role in reunification negotiations after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, with Mikhail Gorbachev a key supporter of a tactic that allowed the two Germany's to negotiate on their own, without the outside powers coming in until later. Regardless, it doesn't seem as though Germany feels much gratitude here. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been a frequent critic of Russia's stance on Crimea over the past few weeks.


The breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the so-called "Velvet Divorce" after the "Velvet Revolution" that ended communism in the state in 1989, was another big change in Europe's borders, with Czechoslovakia splitting between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. While it was a relatively controversial move at the time – the New York Times noted "wide regret" at the end of a nation formed after World War I – nowadays the split is viewed as a (relative) success.

Putin didn't mention Czechoslovakia today (perhaps the non-contentious divide of a country doesn't speak to the current situation in Crimea), but those who used to live in Czechoslovakia have commented on Crimea: Czech President Milos Zeman has said Crimea's referendum violates Ukraine's constitution, while the Czech foreign minister has said it reminds him of Soviet action during the 1968 Prague Spring.


Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia fell into a number of wars that eventually led the country to split into the states of Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia.

Of particular note was the Bosnian War, which began in 1992 after a successful referendum on independence in the multi-ethnic region, despite a significant Serbian minority boycott and their attempts to establish their own state. After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence, Bosnian Serbs, with the support of Slobodan Milošević's Yugoslav government, began a strategy of ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosnians and Croatians in the eastern part of Bosnia. After the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995 (during which an estimated 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and women were killed in a U.N. safe area), NATO intervened with a sustained air campaign called "Operation Deliberate Force" that saw Bosnian Serb forces attacked. Within months, a peace agreement was reached.

The breakup of Yugoslavia, and especially the Bosnian war, has an interesting legacy for Russian in light of of the current situation in Crimea. At the time, Russia contributed forces to help with the NATO-led peacekeeping efforts, but later events, including Kosovo and the allegations that Russia was helping to hide Bosnian Serbs involved in atrocities, made it clear that Russia wasn't happy with how things went.


In a key part of his speech today, Putin contrasted the situation in Crimea with that of Kosovo, a Albanian-majority region of Serbia that eventually became recognized as independent in 2008. Here's what Putin said, in full, according to the Kremlin's transcript:

Moreover, the Crimean authorities referred to the well-known Kosovo precedent – a precedent our Western colleagues created with their own hands in a very similar situation, when they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country’s central authorities. Pursuant to Article 2, Chapter 1 of the United Nations Charter, the U.N. International Court agreed with this approach and made the following comment in its ruling of July 22, 2010, and I quote: “No general prohibition may be inferred from the practice of the Security Council with regard to declarations of independence,” and “General international law contains no prohibition on declarations of independence.” Crystal clear, as they say.

Putin is right that in some ways Crimea, with its Russian majority, does look a little like Kosovo with its Albanian majority. There was use of force by outside forces in both cases. Both held referendums on independence.

But what's more significant than the similarities between Crimea and Kosovo are their differences. In a post over at the Guardian, Daniel Drezner points out that NATO only intervened in Kosovo in 1999 after there was significant evidence collected from Kosovo of Serbian abuses. Notably, while NATO military action wasn't sanctioned by the U.N., it did take place after United Nations Security Council Resolution 1199, on which Russia had voted. Plus, NATO only bombed after its requests for an international peacekeeping force were rebuffed.

Perhaps more importantly, while Kosovo was a de facto independent state after NATO's  intervention, it didn't formally announce independence until 2008 (Kosovan Albanians had previously tried to in the early 1990s but it was only recognized by Albania). That's almost 10 years between conflict and independence, rather than the mere weeks we've seen in Crimea. Even then, a significant number of states and organizations, including Russia, China and even the United Nations, have not recognized Kosovo as a sovereign state.

Putin does have an argument: The American justification that Kosovo was a "special case" seems exceptionally broad. But it's certainly not a "crystal-clear" situation.

The future: Scotland and Catalonia

Scotland (now a part of the United Kingdom) and Catalonia (now a part of Spain) could well be independent sovereign states: Both are due to have referendums on independence later this year. While Putin didn't mention either today, Russia has used both to justify the Crimean referendum in the past. For example, Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko recently said, "No one says the Scotland referendum is illegal."

There are a whole range of reasons that Scotland and Catalonia are not much like the situation in Crimea. At its most basic, the referendums in Scotland and Catalonia are not taking place in an atmosphere of violence, the U.K. has agreed to recognize the Scottish results (though Spain will not not recognize Catalonia's), and the campaign period was longer than two weeks.

Ultimately, Putin's appeal to history makes sense in two strands of his political thought: the memories of a Russian empire that drive his plans for a Eurasian Union and his argument that the West's international dominance is decadent and undeserved.

Where he trips up, however, is in his belief that history can act for a justification in Crimea. History is often complicated and incoherent: Europe’s ever changing borders don’t necessarily justify yet another change.

UPDATE: This post originally stated that Spain would recognize the results of the Catalonian referendum. It has been amended to reflect the fact that Spain has in fact said it will not.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.



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