This March will mark the two-year anniversary of the Crimean status referendum and the territories’ so-called ascension into the Russian Federation. This action was not well received within the international community. NATO condemned the action calling it “military escalation,” the US sponsored a UN Security Council resolution that called the move “illegal,” and the EU “deplored” what it called an “unwarranted escalation of tensions.” However, the Russian government took a different stance stating, “Only citizens themselves, in conditions of free expression of will and their security can determine their future.”
For two years, the West has painted the crises in Crimea, and the greater crises in the Ukraine, as nothing more than an act of Russian aggression, but this narrative is incomplete. To begin with, Crimea has historically never been a part of the Ukraine. It was transferred from the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, which it had been part of since the 18th century, to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 as a move of good will from then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In addition, while the referendum results were likely exaggerated (a reported 96% voted to breakaway from Ukraine and rejoin Russia), this does not mean there wasn’t an authentic desire to rejoin Russia. A United Nations poll conducted in 2011 found that over 60% of people favored rejoining Russia if they were given the chance. This is partly because over 60% of the peninsula identifies as Russian, while only 24% identify as Ukrainian.
For post-Soviet Russia, the situation in Crimea is merely a fraction of a much larger problem that is the state of Russia’s borders. A phrase commonly used in the immigrant justice and justice in Palestine movement: “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” This is the situation facing Russia today. The confines, which currently define the Russian nation, are not reflective of the true Russia and have left Russian territory, and Russian people, in the hands of foreign nations.
This problem is difficult for people in Western society to understand because our understanding of borders stem from our belief in the nation-state. We see national and ethnic identity as intrinsically linked and believe the nation is the geographical homeland of our ethnic identity. Additionally, we view borders as defining the boundaries of our ethnic homelands. We accept that French people might live beyond France’s border, but that both the political and cultural nation of France does not.
However, this is not the case in the rest of the world. The Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation formally created in 1908 by Belgium, is an artificial conglomeration of over 250 ethnic groups, many of whom have very little in common. Its inhabitants identify by their ethnic group rather than their national identity. Demographic surveys show that there are Luba, Mongo, and Bakongo, but in fact no Congolese in the DRC. The only reason this nation has not been balkanized and homelands created for each of these ethnic groups is that the DRC is one of the most resource rich nations on the continent and dividing up the country would be extremely unprofitable for the current Congolese government.
The Russia we see today faces a similar problem. Russia is a very ancient nation that has experienced geographical fluctuation for hundreds of years, but the current state of Russian borders isn’t what many would call the “True Russia.” In fact, the current borders that define the Russian federation, for the most part, were either imposed on them or a creation of Soviet Bureaucracy. Before the birth of the Soviet Union, Russia spanned from Warsaw to the Bering Strait. After the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia ceded around 1 million square miles of territory to Germany and after World War I, that territory was divided along various divisional boundaries, some arbitrary and some legitimate. Nations such as Poland and Finland, who had political and historical standing, gained independence. On the other hand, new artificial nations, such as Georgia and Belarus, who prior to this were merely geographical regions within Russia, were created as buffers between Europe and the newly communist Soviet Union. This creation of new states also occurred during the tenure of the Soviet Union, when Russian territory was given to the Soviet-controlled Ukraine to increase industrial output. This territory included Crimea, which remained in Ukrainian control after the fall of the USSR.
There is a reason that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov finds the word “annexation” problematic when discussing Crimea — there is a true desire among the people living in Crimea to return to Russia. This desire is also present among the people of eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, and northern Kazakhstan. The reality facing Russia is that the borders Russia is forced to live behind do not reflect the true ethnic homeland of the Russian people and, as Americans, this again is hard for us to understand. Our government brands Russian reclamation as aggression because we do not understand the situation Russia is facing. While we have lost colonies in the past, we have never lost part of our contiguous land mass. We have never had presidents speak of how we will rescue fellow Americans who now are forced to live under the laws of another government. Whereas a major politician in the State Duma committee, Leonid Slutsky, stated “ [when] fellow Russian citizens are in jeopardy you understand that we do not stay away.”
Russia’s acquisition of Crimea was not void of aggression, but it also was not void of justification. As we approach two years of sanctions, renewed tensions, and demonizing rhetoric, I believe it is time we reevaluate our position toward Russia and open an honest dialogue about righting the historical wrongs.