“If there were a moral to be drawn from the Crimean War which might apply to the present it would be this: in a war between Russia and the West, it is the powers which keep out who will be the the real gainers…” AJP Taylor, February 1951

By James W. Carden

The issue of Crimea has been back in the news of late, but if Professor Taylor’s insight is anything to go by, perhaps it never really went away.

Last month, the British naval carrier, HMS Defender, was fired upon by Russian forces patrolling the Black Sea. The Defender was there (with, perhaps not coincidentally, a contingent from the BBC) for the ostensible purpose of supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Shortly thereafter, NATO held a large naval exercise in the Black Sea which was then shortly followed by a joint military exercise between the US, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania in Western Ukraine.

Given all this activity, now might be a good time to revisit some history that is at risk of being lost and which might help lend a different perspective as to what has been unfolding in the region since the fall of communism some thirty years ago.

It is not defending Russia’s actions in 2014 to acknowledge that Putin’s motives in annexing Crimea are not hard to discern.

The most recent round of geo-politicking around the status of Crimea began in 2008 at a NATO Summit in Bucharest where the world’s largest military alliance declared that the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine would become members of NATO. Russia’s response, only months later, was to invade Georgia in response to a wondrously ill-considered provocation by then-Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili.

Some years later, in March 2014, in the aftermath of a violent street coup fomented by a tacit alliance between Ukraine’s westernizing liberals and its fascist far-right, three former Ukrainian presidents (Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yuschenko) issued a call to tear up the Kharkiv Pact, an agreement which gave Russia rights to base their Black Sea Fleet in Crimea until 2042 in exchange for discounted prices on Russian natural gas.

Given NATO’s clear designs on Ukraine (what the National Endowment for Democracy’s outgoing president Carl Gershman has called “the biggest prize” of the post-Soviet space) the national security threat this posed to Russia cannot be easily dismissed.

The new government, led by the State Department’s hand picked premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk quickly moved to delegitimize the Russian language and to make pariahs out of 1/3 of the country by launching an “anti-terrorist operation” that was led by the neo-Nazi Azov battalion which targeted both civilians and combatants in the Russo-phone east of the country.

These moves by Kiev directly challenged Putin’s policy of protecting Russian minorities abroad and so, a war which has killed over 13,000 people and resulted in the displacement of over a million commenced.

For all the debate over Crimea, one voice that is rarely cited by commentators in the West is that of the late Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Recall that during the first cold war Solzhenitsyn was a favorite of American hardliners like Washington senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson and the founder of the postwar American conservative movement, William F. Buckley.

Today Solzhenitsyn is held up as an exemplar of Western values among both popular conservative writers and also among some far less thoughtful neocon apparatchiks.

Though not often cited, Solzhenitsyn wrote about the status of Crimea and Russia’s relations with post-Soviet Ukraine in a small but powerful book published in 1994 called The Russia Question.

In it, Solzhenitsyn describes with barely concealed contempt how Russian president Boris Yeltsin bungled the breakup of the Union treaty at a clandestine meeting he held with the sitting presidents of the Soviet Socialist Republics of Ukraine and Belarus in a small forest town outside of Minsk in December 1991. It was there, according to contemporaneous press reports, writes Solzhenitsyn, that Ukrainian leader…

…Kravchuk promised his colleagues…a real and indissoluble union , “invisible” borders, a single army and currency.  But all this soon turned out to be a lie. Nothing of the kind was formed and after some time Kravchuk openly declared: “we must end the myth of invisible borders.”

While expressing “best wishes for the development of Ukrainian culture and distinctiveness” Solzhenitsyn noted the irony of seeing…

…Ukraine’s nationalists, who in the past so staunchly opposed Communism, and in all, it seemed, cursed Lenin, sorely tempted from the first by his poisoned gift: eagerly accepting the false Leninist borders of Ukraine (including even the Crimean dowry of the petty tyrant Khrushchev).

As Solzhenitsyn makes clear, the US has been trying to pull not only Crimea but the Russian naval port city Sevastopol into the West’s sphere of influence for the past thirty years. Solzhenitsyn notes that the American ambassador to Ukraine, an ethnic Ukrainian by the name of Roman Popadiuck…

…had the gall to declare that Sevastopol rightly belongs to Ukraine. Based on what historical erudition or relying on what legal foundations did he pronounce this learned judgement?—he failed to clarify. Why should he, when the State Department immediately supported his opinion? This—regarding Sevastopol, which even the madcap Khrushchev did not conceive of “granting” to Ukraine, for  it was excluded from the Crimea as a city under Moscow’s direct administrative supervision. (May one ask: what business is it of the State Department to comment on Sevastopol at all?)

All of this is simply to point out that the issues surrounding the status of Crimea are far more complicated than as usually presented in the American press. The best course of action with regard to Crimea may well be that as suggested by AJP Taylor some seventy years ago.

This article was produced in partnership between ACURA and Globetrotter.

James W. Carden is a former adviser to the US state department and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative and The Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft.