Some of the best coverage of the conflicts in Crimea and Ukraine recently were in The New Yorker. Few in the West seem to remember the long-suffering history of the region. As many as eight million Ukrainians were purposely starved to death by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the early 1930s. Yet this genocide did not prick the West's conscience like the Jewish Holocaust did, and certainly is not used as a major argument for Ukrainian independence from Russia the way that the Jewish Holocaust was a major rationale for creating the independent nation of Israel.
Jon Lee Anderson reports on upheaval in the Crimea, with predictions of "a river of blood" coming with Russian occupation:
For the second time in seventy years, the Crimean Tatars are forced to confront a complete upending of their lives. The Tatars, Muslim descendants of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde, saw virtually their entire community—some two hundred thousand people—uprooted in May, 1944, after Stalin’s forces took Crimea from the occupying Nazis. Stalin justified the occupation by pointing out that some Tatars had fought alongside the Nazis in the war—even though others had fought in the Red Army. Nearly half of the Tatars are thought to have died in the harsh conditions of their deportation and the early years of their exile.
In the late nineteen-eighties, as the Soviet Union opened up a bit, Tatars were allowed to return, and a trickle began coming back from Central Asia. Those who could afford it returned to their villages, but few provisions were made for their reintegration into Ukrainian society, and there was no compensation for the properties they had lost. Many ended up squatting on public lands, where they remain. Known as the “original inhabitants” of the peninsula, Crimea’s Tatars now constitute twelve per cent of the region’s population. They are the poorest and least educated section of society, and the least represented in local government. For all the rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin—and from Kiev—they are effectively the Ukraine’s Lakota Sioux.
Nervous Baltic Republics, Belarus, Moldovia
Citizens of the Baltic republics -- Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- as well as the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Moldovia watch nervously to see what happens with Ukrainian independence. They too were once part of "Greater Russia," and Vladimir Putin might want them back as well.
I also note that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Ten years ago, George W. Bush was roundly criticized for "weakness" in light of Putin's authoritarian pressures on Ukraine, much as Barack Obama is criticized for "weakness" today. In both cases, one wonders what the strategic interest of a war-weary US is in the Ukraine, which in Cold War terms, is still within Russia's "sphere of influence."
The American people can sometimes be roused to foreign intervention by appeals to higher morality and idealism, or the principle that "aggression must not be rewarded," as George H.W. Bush declared before "liberating" Kuwait from Iraq. But such appeals to principle are highly selective and often don't work out well (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, now a mess). We have so far resisted intervention in Syria and Ukraine on the grounds that realism and pragmatism must prevail, but it's not clear that diplomacy is having much impact.
The more I study foreign relations, the more I realize morality, realism, pragmatism and principles of non-aggression are selectively applied in the world.