The Crimean crisis

Most Filipinos probably do not know where Crimea is. In any case, it is doubtful if there are OFWs there. I have not heard the Department of Foreign Affairs issue alerts for Pinoys in Ukraine, the way it recently did for those working in Venezuela. But, though they may not know where Crimea is, chances are Filipinos will be able to recite lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” That poem immortalizes the unquestioning valor of the more than 600 cavalrymen who foolishly charged the well-positioned Russian artillery forces in a memorable episode of the Crimean War of 1853-1856.

The poem singularly extols the tragic heroism of England’s soldiers, whose death in that ill-advised offensive against the entrenched Russian position on Crimean soil sparked a parliamentary inquiry into the perils of miscommunication and the failure of military intelligence. But it does so in ways that speak out against the recklessness and brutality of war.  Wrote Tennyson: “Was there a man dismay’d?/ Not tho’ the soldiers knew/  Some one had blunder’d:/ Theirs not to make reply,/  Theirs not to reason why,/ Theirs but to do and die:/  Into the valley of Death/ Rode the six hundred.”

So powerful are the cadence, the rhythm, and the imagery of Tennyson’s poem that it easily became the favorite of my generation. I learned it in Grade 6, and then again in high school, where I first became aware that the bad guys in that encounter were the Russians. It was the start of the Cold War, and it did not matter much that the valiant 600 of the Light Brigade were fighting outside of their own country in a war that took place a century before. What I distinctly remembered, and what seemed to matter then, was that these heroic cavalrymen from noble England, with their gleaming sabres and lances, were fighting against the ruthless Russians. “Plunged in the battery-smoke/ Right thro’ the line they broke;/ Cossack and Russian;/ Reel’d from the sabre-stroke/ Shatter’d and sunder’d./ Then they rode back, but not/ Not the six hundred.”

One hundred sixty years later, we hear the bugle of war once more being sounded against the Russians on the issue of Crimea. Western media have been portraying Russia’s Vladimir Putin as a land-grabber. Cold War rhetoric fills the air once again. What is conveniently forgotten is that Crimea, whose inhabitants are predominantly Russian-speaking, used to be part of Russia. It was the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who capriciously transferred it to Ukraine when the USSR still existed.

Ukraine has been in turmoil since a people power coup overthrew its duly-elected president, with the overt encouragement and assistance of the United States and the European Union. The people in resource-rich Eastern Ukraine, and not just Crimea, reject the new regime in Kiev that has been installed in place of the deposed government of Viktor Yanukovych. Russia felt compelled to resist what it perceived as undue Western intervention in the affairs of Ukraine. Its foreign minister declared at the start of the crisis: “Russia is aware of its responsibility for the life of compatriots and citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take these people under protection.” And so it did.

It is a complex affair that can quickly descend into a civil war and eventually split Ukraine into east and west. Ukrainians in the capital believe that what they have achieved is a revolution in the name of democracy.  Crimeans think that the regime change that happened in February was a conspiracy hatched by the European Union and the United States on the back of legitimate grievances against government. Vladimir Putin immediately saw the threat this posed to Russian national interest, particularly its access to its Crimean naval bases in the Black Sea.

Ukraine has called on the West to intervene to stop the march of Russian hegemony and save democracy. Yet it ignores a principle of international law that is enshrined in Article 1 of the United Nations Charter—the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.  Crimea has voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine, and that decision is begging to be respected. The United States and the European Union protest that the referendum is not valid since it was conducted literally under Russian guns. But how different is that from American troops overseeing an election in occupied Iraq?

At the 15-member UN Security Council meeting last March 15, Britain, France, and the United States tried to stop the referendum on Crimea’s fate. Thirteen voted for the resolution, but it was vetoed by Russia, a permanent member. China abstained. Explaining the veto, Russia’s UN representative, Vitaly Churkin, argued that the overthrow in February of the duly-constituted government in Kiev by an “unconstitutional armed coup” led by “radical nationalists” had created a “legal vacuum” in Ukraine. The uncertainty, he said, gives the Crimeans the right to separate from an existing state “when future coexistence within a single state becomes impossible.”

More than 95 percent of those who participated in last Sunday’s referendum voted to secede from Ukraine. Unless they are violently prevented by Ukrainian nationalists, it is certain that Crimeans will return to the Russian fold. Hobbled by economic troubles at home, neither the European Union nor America is in any position to wage another Crimean War.  And, indeed, economic sanctions against Russia may hurt Europe more. But, when one steps back to take in the big picture, what is truly amazing is how, in this era of global interconnectedness, national identities can still be quickly mobilized to make war.

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