As I watched the news about Russian troops in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and considered a tangle of questions about why Moscow would make such a risky move, a memory kept nudging me. In September 2008, fresh from besting troops in the small nation of Georgia, someone in the Russian military thought it would be a good idea to give a group of reporters a tour of its naval base in Crimea, Ukraine.
At the time, U.S.-friendly officials1 in Kiev were worried that after Georgia, Russia might make a push for greater control in Ukraine. They alleged that Russia had handed out passports left and right in Crimea, presumably to seed the area with Russian citizens whom the Kremlin might one day say it had to rescue.2
So a Kremlin-sanctioned trip was arranged for reporters, most of them Russian, to come see the place for themselves. I was working for a U.S. newspaper chain and, based in Moscow at the time, I finagled a spot. The two days at the port of Sevastopol were full of the usual show and tell: ships and speeches, with authentically bad military meals between.
On the second day, we were led to a church overlooking a cemetery where the earth held the bones of Russians, among others, killed during the Crimean War. All day long, Russian naval officers said that while they didn’t intend to leave Crimea—the lease with Ukraine was then due to expire in 2017—they saw no reason for trouble.3 The Orthodox priests introduced by the Russian media handlers said the same.
And then came the vodka. After three or four shots—marked by naval officers and priests exchanging elaborate toasts with each other and the press—a man who’d been introduced as Father Igor Bebin stood up. “The West shuddered when Russia showed them the sword, and the Black Sea turned red with blood,” Bebin said. Or, to be precise, he shouted. He was referring to the Crimean War, which had ended some 152 years earlier.
The sword was shining again, Bebin said. The men around him roared with pleasure and agreement.
But Russia lost the Crimean War. As it did the Cold War so many years later. And here was a collection of Russian patriots, cheering at the memory. That, I think, is why the moment keeps returning as I read about Ukraine.
After Georgia—however irrational that short war looked from the outside—the world had to take Russia more seriously. No matter what happens in Ukraine in coming weeks, that will be even truer now. Perhaps as much as any broader geopolitical machinations, that’s the point.
1. Led by then-president Viktor Yushchenko. He was a reported poisoning victim and the hero of the 2004 Orange Revolution, whose personal disputes with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko played no small role in destroying the legacy of the revolution. That dysfunction, in turn, paved the way for the political revival of the man whose presidential aspirations were shoved aside by the Orange Revolution in the first place: Russia-backed Viktor Yanukovych. Ukrainian politics are nothing if not operatic. Back to top
2. A variant of Russia’s argument in Georgia, after President Mikheil Saakashvili badly miscalculated in August 2008 by pushing troops into South Ossetia, a Georgian territory over which a Russian peacekeeping force had de facto control. Whatever the impetus for the move—Saakashvili’s administration argued that it was countering Russian troop advances, and Russia said essentially that it had to protect its citizens and that Saakashvili was crazy—it didn’t end well for Georgia. After the Russians picked off Georgia’s air defense systems, its jets could bomb at will. Russian troops pushed deep into Georgia-proper and in less than a week had total control before pulling back. Today, South Ossetia and another territory, Abkhazia, are firmly under Russian control. Back to top
3. The lease was extended in 2010 for another 25 years in a deal signed by Viktor Yanukovych, the president who recently fled Kiev. In return for the lease extension, the Russians gave Ukraine $40 billion in natural-gas subsidies. Back to top