Kyiv’s Yalta European Strategy Conference and Crimea: Welcome to Trumpians, New Cold War Hawks, Tatars and Nuclear Saber Rattling

To what extent will the festering matter of Crimea inflame east-west tensions and further contribute to a “new Cold War”?  Late last year, I was invited to the Yalta European Strategy meeting (or YES), an annual Kyiv gathering of policymakers, experts and others.  Ever since Russia militarily occupied Crimea in early 2014 and later annexed the area, Kyiv has dreamt of one day regaining control over the peninsula.  Not surprisingly, YES tended to reflect Ukraine’s sense of grievance and hawkish panelists were in no short supply.

In the midst of a hot war with Russian-backed separatists in the Ukrainian east and mounting casualties, the public is in no mood for compromise on Crimea, a fact which Viktor Pinchuk found out to his dismay.  A wealthy industrial magnate and art philanthropist, Pinchuk has sought to promote Ukraine’s pro-western agenda and aspirations by funding and convening YES throughout the years.  Recently, however, Pinchuk took an odd turn by writing a controversial Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that Kyiv should reconcile with the Kremlin.  Rather than insisting that Moscow return Crimea, Pinchuk wrote that Ukraine should drop the issue for twenty years in an effort to promote a peaceful settlement in war-ravaged Donetsk and Luhansk.

Needless to say, Pinchuk’s commentary did not go down very well within elite Ukrainian political circles, let alone amongst Crimean Tatars who have suffered under the thumb of Russian occupation.  Take, for example, Refat Chubarov, head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, who wrote on his Facebook page that Pinchuk “urges us — Ukraine and Ukrainians, including Crimea and Crimean Tatars — to surrender.”  Perhaps surprised by the critical public reaction to his column, Pinchuk himself opened the YES conference by explaining that Ukraine should certainly try to regain lost territory.  In a further move which may have mollified his critics, Pinchuk invited Chubarov to speak at the YES conference.

Wounded Ukrainian Pride

            In a sense, the swift public relations backlash against Pinchuk wasn’t too surprising.   Consider that Ukrainians even get upset when their TV channels broadcast maps of their country which exclude Crimea.  When the controversial maps were displayed, social media users reacted angrily and forced the media to apologize.  One observer told the BBC that the incident amounted to “an act of media sabotage.”

However, to really understand why Crimea still stirs such passions and depth of feeling, one need look no further than the post-annexation milieu. Four years after Russia’s questionable referendum, which was widely viewed as unlawful, there has been a steady deterioration of material conditions within Crimea.  Indeed, local residents lack employment and are forced to pay high bribes.

Even more egregiously, Russian security forces in Crimea have reportedly “committed or condoned… extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, raids, disappearances, arbitrary detention, physical abuse, torture, deportation, harassment, forced psychiatric hospitalization, and politically-motivated prosecution.”  The climate has become so draconian that authorities have resorted to fining people for merely speaking out against Russian rule.  Officials have gone after anyone challenging the Kremlin, from Crimean Tatars to ethnic Ukrainians to pro-Ukrainian activists to independent journalists.  Meanwhile, Moscow has invested heavily in a formidable propaganda and state media machine.  Under such conditions, many Crimeans are unsurprisingly afraid to talk to outside reporters.

Nuclear Saber Rattling in Crimea

Meanwhile, many Ukrainians mourn the loss of Crimea and believe that Kyiv should have put up more of a fight against the Kremlin.  The hand-wringing is certainly understandable, though nationalists’ rhetoric has been incendiary and somewhat worrying.  Take, for example, Oleh Lyashko of the Radical Party, who has said that Ukraine’s decision to voluntarily give up its nuclear arsenal after the breakup of the Soviet Union was a mistake which needs to be “corrected.”

A high-flying ultra-nationalist who charters private flights around Ukraine, Lyashko has developed a loyal following amongst anti-Russian young men.  The populist has supported infamous Azov Battalion, a volunteer brigade which has engaged Russian separatists in the east.  The outfit espouses far right nationalism, and is reportedly run by an extremist patriot group which considers Jews and other ethnic minorities as “sub-human.”

Lyashko’s enthusiasm for nuclear weapons is worrying enough, but his stance has been echoed by establishment figures within the government such as Secretary of National Security and Defense Council Olexandr Turchynov, who has said that Ukraine made a mistake by giving up its armaments.  “Taking into account recent events, including Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and occupation of Donbas, we can see that disarming was a historic mistake,” he remarked, adding “Security guarantees given in return are not worth the paper they were printed on.  No one takes weaklings seriously. They are humiliated and used.”  Pavlo Rizanenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, voiced similar sentiments, declaring “In the future, no matter how the situation is resolved in Crimea, we need a much stronger Ukraine.  If you have nuclear weapons people don’t invade you.”

Russian Arms Buildup in Crimea

            Could Ukraine’s wounded pride over Crimea prompt Kyiv to try and regain its status as a nuclear power?  In theory, Ukraine could manufacture nuclear weapons again since Kyiv still has some highly trained scientists from the Soviet era, as well as several civilian nuclear reactors and stores of natural uranium.  On the other hand, Ukraine lacks a reprocessing facility which could enhance its reactor fuel to bomb-grade level, as well as the necessary centrifuges needed for uranium enrichment.  Time magazine concludes, “A nuclear Ukraine isn’t impossible, but it’s almost certainly not going to happen.”

Unfortunately, such reports haven’t stopped Putin from building up his arsenal in Crimea, and Moscow has reportedly installed S-400 air defenses in Crimea while doubling the peninsula’s locally-based armed forces.  Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs has sounded the alarm, remarking, “Moscow is turning Crimea into a huge military base with land, air and sea components.”  On a more worrying note, the official added that Russia had upgraded its military infrastructure so as to deploy nuclear weapons on the peninsula.  The Federation of American Scientists, however, has discounted such claims and dismissed the reports as “dubious rumors and overly alarmist.”  The outfit writes that “a nuclear-capable weapon is not the same as a nuclear warhead,” and though the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol includes nuclear-capable vessels, “the warheads for those weapons are thought to be in central storage in Russia.”

Whatever the case, Putin has publicly stated that he was ready to put Russian nuclear weapons on standby during the initial crisis in Crimea.  Needless to say, such escalation has led to a war of words, with NATO none too pleased with the prospect of Russian nuclear weapons in Crimea, and veteran Russian politicians hitting back by saying the Kremlin should reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in the event that NATO moves against Crimea.

Trumpian-Hawk Incoherence on Crimea

            When Russia annexed Crimea, the move sparked the most significant crisis in east-west relations since the end of the Cold War and led the U.S. and Europe to launch sanctions against Moscow.  Such tensions were placed on vivid display at the YES conference in Kyiv, with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko playing to wounded pride by remarking that the Crimea conflict should not be “frozen,” forgotten or accepted.  The politician added for good measure that the “the aggressor” should “pay a high price.”

Petro Poroshenko at YES.

Former U.S. Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich chimed in, saying that Russia would have to leave Crimea.  John Bolton, George W. Bush’s former ambassador to the United Nations, was also present at the YES conference.  When Russia first invaded Crimea, the Washington insider accused the Obama administration of being too soft on Moscow, later decrying U.S. and European sanctions against Russia as mere “pinpricks.”  Needless to say, however, such hawkishness didn’t stop Bolton from taking a plumb job as national security adviser to Trump, whose own policy views towards east-west conflict are all over the map.

Other conference participants were somewhat more measured in tone than Bolton, though that’s not saying much.  In a speech, State Department envoy Kurt Volker remarked that Russia’s proposal to introduce United Nations peacekeepers in Donbas was worth considering.  Volker has also stated that developing nuclear weapons would not be “a realistic option for Ukraine.”  But Volker, who has served as executive director at the hawk-like sounding McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University, has also said that “we” should not accept the occupation of Crimea and should strive for the “restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”  Earlier, in a 2014 column written in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Volker asked plaintively, “Where’s NATO?,” adding that “as we approach the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ukraine has been invaded and NATO is almost invisible.”  More recently, Volker has gotten on board with the notion of arming Ukraine.

Murky Trump Affair and Crimea

Apparently, hawks like Volker and Bolton mould their views on Crimea based on whatever their boss happens to say at a given time, which is highly erratic and inconsistent at best.  In a startling departure from conventional U.S. foreign policy priorities, Trump seemed to condone Russia’s annexation of the peninsula, remarking during the presidential campaign that “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.  And you have to look at that.”  After assuming office, however, Trump contradicted his earlier position by insisting that Russia disavow its ties to Crimea or continue to face ongoing sanctions.

There’s some reporting, however, suggesting that behind the scenes Trump has still sought to favor Russian interests on Crimea.  According to the Independent, Trump’s infamous personal lawyer Michael Cohen participated in a meeting to discuss a so-called “peace plan” which would have given Putin control over Crimea.  The meeting also included a Ukrainian-American businessman and Felix Sater, an American-Russian businessman, both of whom were linked to Trump.  Later, “details of this meeting are believed to have ended up on the desk of Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former security adviser who was forced to resign…over his alleged secret dealings with Russian officials.”  To make things even murkier, the Ukrainian businessman subsequently died in “unexplained circumstances.”

Left-wing Crimean Journalist

Who speaks for Crimea?  If one merely focused on confabs like YES, one might come away thinking that the foreign policy spectrum was quite narrow.  “Obama’s flaccid leadership has tragically lost Crimea for good,” Bolton once remarked, leading some to wonder “for whom is Crimea actually lost?”  Presumably, Trump’s national security adviser was referring to large and impersonal forces such as NATO.  Meanwhile, most leftist writers have simply ignored Crimea, thus effectively ceding the issue to hawks or Trumpians which, needless to say, are becoming increasingly more difficult to distinguish from one another.  Ironically enough, some leftist ideologues have adopted a similar framework to the right by emphasizing an “us” vs. “them” perspective, only this time it is the United States which should respect “Russian interests,” presumably by sacrificing the Crimeans.  Within this polarizing debate, other more reasonable Ukrainian voices which call for a bit of nuance, for example by calling for greater Crimean autonomy but not at the point of Russian bayonets, essentially get frozen out.

For rightist hawks or conversely even leftist ideologues, Crimea would seem to be an abstract conflict whose human face is unknown.  In an effort to get away from insider wonky discussions at the YES conference, I caught up with Evgeney Leshan, a left-wing journalist who grew up in Crimea while the peninsula still belonged to Ukraine.  In March, 2014 Leshan witnessed Russian annexation of his homeland when the Kremlin took over Crimea while forcibly conducting a referendum.  Later, when he saw what was happening in Donbas, Leshan enlisted in the army because, as he put it, “I realized the war in the east would be worse than what we saw in Crimea.”  For Leshan, the Crimea story is painfully real since it gave rise to Russian dictatorship, the curtailing of freedoms, kidnappings, arrests and “Russification” of local culture.  Ultimately, however, solving the Crimean problem will not be easy as long as Putin is in power.  “Let’s not forget, however, that Putin will die someday,” Leshan explained.  “The struggle for power in Russia will intensify after that.  Any empire collapses sooner or later.”

Eyewitness to Occupation

For a further perspective, I spoke with Valerie Schiller, a librarian and associate researcher at Viktor Pinchuk’s Art Center.  A native of the Crimean city of Sevastopol, Schiller now lives in Kyiv with her parents and feels somewhat torn about events back in her homeland.  Growing up in Sevastopol, which historically served as a Russian military base, Schiller didn’t feel very ethnically Ukrainian.  In fact, she doesn’t recall her parents explicitly telling her “you live in Ukraine and this is the Ukrainian language.”  Indeed, many people didn’t even hold Ukrainian passports, while others hailed from Russia and served in the Russian army.  When the family sat down to watch television, the Schiller clan only watched Russian news.  And while Crimea is home to ethnic Tatars, Schiller never bumped into them because Sevastopol is mostly comprised of ethnic Russians.  In fact, some local schools and universities held classes solely in Russian and Schiller didn’t even hear the Ukrainian language until she was seven years old.  “It was so weird,” she said, “to be sitting in class and I could sort of understand Ukrainian but I couldn’t speak it.”

Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula has split Schiller’s family, with the young librarian and her parents taking Kyiv’s side and other relatives siding with Russia.  Historically, the Schiller clan had ethnic German roots, and the young librarian’s father can never forgive the old Soviet Union for repressing his German family.  To Schiller’s father, Russia signifies backwardness and during the EuroMaidan revolution, he developed patriotic feelings towards Ukraine while cultivating a keen interest in Ukrainian embroidery.  “He’s not patriotic because he’s really taken with Ukraine,” Schiller clarified, “but rather because he’s anti-Russia.”

As for herself, Schiller was obliged to leave Crimea after Russia’s annexation due to her own pro-Ukrainian leanings, but also because the region had become suffocating and even more culturally conservative, which held little appeal.  Nevertheless, Schiller still misses the sea and the mountains, and right after the Kremlin took over her homeland, she was angry and felt as if “someone had taken Crimea away from me.”  Though she doesn’t understand her relatives’ pro-Russian sentiments, she has moved past such family disagreements.  When I asked Schiller what she thought about hawks at YES and whether Ukraine should militarize further, she answered “these are difficult questions.”  In light of her own personal experiences, Schiller tended to be cautious.  “The only way to find a solution and beat Russian propaganda,” she said, “is by respecting one another.”

Tatar Leader’s Perspective

Back at the YES conference, I sought to learn more about Crimea by attending a panel discussion featuring Refat Chubarov.  The Tatar leader, however, seemed oddly out of place on the panel, which featured a who’s who from the power elite.  On the stage to the left of Chubarov sat Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Secretary General of NATO, Kurt Volker, and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations; while on the right sat former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma.  At the beginning of the discussion, Haass introduced Chubarov and admitted rather sheepishly to the audience that he “had no idea” what the Tatar Mejlis was.

Perhaps, foreign policy experts might want to learn a bit more about the Tatar experience before leading panel discussions about what ought to be done in Crimea.  The Mejlis, or representative body of the Tatars, has been banned by the Kremlin as retaliation for Tatar loyalty toward Ukraine.  Once housed in an elegant building in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, the Mejlis, along with Chubarov, have now been banished to Kyiv.

When one considers what the Tatars have been subjected to, their fortitude under duress would seem even more remarkable.  When Russia called for a referendum on Crimea’s future status, Tatars largely boycotted the vote.  In retaliation, the Kremlin increased repression of the Tatar population, including abductions, arrests, searches and long jail sentences based on supposed claims of “terrorism.”  After the panel discussion, Chubarov told me that anyone who opposes Russian rule faces “obstacles in practically all walks of life – they are not given jobs and get surveilled by the authorities.”  Painting a chilling portrait of conditions, Chubarov added that the Kremlin has been conscripting Tatars into the army, which has prompted many to flee Crimea outright.  “Parents don’t want their children’s lives to be turned upside down by having to serve in the Russian army and later getting sent off to Syria, the Caucasus or elsewhere,” he exclaimed.

Controversial History

At a previous YES conference, Chubarov argued that the West should provide Ukraine with weapons.  Speaking candidly, however, the Tatar leader conceded that “there is now no clear-cut agreement as to how to regain Crimea.”  Despite the many challenges, Chubarov hoped the world would not forget or abandon the Tatars, as had occurred in World War II.  Warming to his historical theme, the Tatar leader pointed out that Stalin had accused the Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis in 1944 and subsequently deported them to Central Asia (for more on this historical controversy, see the postscript attached to my article here).  Many Tatars died of starvation and disease en route, and it was only decades later that they were allowed to return to Crimea.  In 1945, Chubarov pointed out, the “Big Three” of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met at Yalta for a historic conference, but “no one mentioned the Tatars.”

To this day, politics and symbolism behind the Yalta conference still rankles the Tatar community.   In 2005, when Crimea still belonged to Ukraine, Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli erected a gigantic monument to the “Big Three” which he intended on installing at Yalta in honor of the historic wartime conference.  At the time, however, authorities scrapped the plan after Tatars protested the inclusion of Stalin as part of the monument.  Ten years later, however, the Russian authorities in Crimea demonstrated no such sensitivity and at long last installed Tsereteli’s monument over the objections of the Tatar community.  One local Tatar leader remarked, “We do not mind Roosevelt or Churchill but we do not want to see Stalin on the territory of our motherland.

Zurab Tsereteli is known for his over the top and nationalistic Russian sculpture (from a 2017 trip to Moscow’s Zurab Tsereteli museum).

Crimean Ethnic Cleansing?

            Meanwhile, those Tatars who choose to protest, even in single-person demonstrations, are fined in what Amnesty International calls “a brazen crackdown.”  Even more disturbingly, reports suggest that Russian authorities are imprisoning Tatar human rights activists in psychiatric institutions where they are subjected to abuse.  “In the later decades of the Soviet era,” notes the Guardian, “psychiatry was used to systematically confine and punish dissidents. Under the current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, various cases of alleged punitive psychiatry have resurfaced, leading many to believe that the Soviet-era practice has returned.”

Not stopping there, Putin has promoted the so-called “restoration” of a 500-year old Crimean Tatar mosque which perversely has wound up eroding the structure’s authenticity.  Simultaneously, meanwhile, Russia has sought to reduce Tatar culture in the school system.  “Step by step,” Chubarov told me, “the authorities are cleansing schools of Tatar language instruction in favor of Russian.”   In addition, the authorities have banned Tatar TV outlets and even demonized the role of Tatars in history textbooks.

Putin’s ultimate goal, Chubarov believes, is to essentially carry out a kind of “ethnic cleansing” of Crimea.  But of course, “Russia wouldn’t dare shove all the Crimean Tatars in freight cars and deport them like Stalin did in 1944, but by carrying out repression, the Kremlin hopes the Tatars will simply leave of their own accord.”  Already, the Tatar leader told me, Russia is doing its utmost to alter the demographic and ethnic composition of the peninsula and hundreds of thousands of people from Russia have been resettled in Crimea.  Chubarov said the government is prioritizing people employed in the armed forces, FSB, judicial branch or law enforcement.  “Housing is being constructed very quickly for these folk,” Chubarov noted, “and they move in with their families.”  In this fashion, even if Crimea somehow reverts back to Ukrainian rule at some point in future, Russia will have created a great number of intractable and structural problems on the ground.

Plight of the Tatars

Not stopping there, Crimean authorities have clamped down on Tatars by claiming they are allegedly members of “radical” religious groups.  The Tatars are predominantly Sunni Muslim and trace their roots back to Turkic and Mongol tribes.  According to Chubarov, Russia has sought to exploit such facts by accusing the Tatars of being Islamic extremists and terrorists.  “This is a total lie,” the Tatar leader told me, adding that “by making such accusations, the Kremlin hopes the West won’t hark on Russia’s violation of human rights because Putin is engaged in a fight against Muslim extremists” (perhaps, the U.S. foreign policy establishment holds similar prejudices and it’s rare that such folk actually mentions the plight of the Tatars, even when hawks employ incendiary rhetoric against Putin).

A mosque in Odessa, on the other side of the Crimean border (from a trip in 2016).

Make no mistake, Chubarov declared, “We have a lot of historical experience with Russia and all our misfortune stems from Moscow.”  On the other hand, the Tatar leader didn’t let Ukraine off the hook, either.  While the peninsula was under Ukrainian rule between 1991 and 2014, Kyiv didn’t pay much lip service to the Tatars or their rights, and such a “short-sighted policy” allowed pro-Russian sentiment to gain hold throughout Crimea, thus making a Kremlin takeover that much easier.  It was only when Russia invaded Crimea, and the Tatars carried out non-violent protests against the Kremlin, that Ukrainians realized they had taken their Crimean compatriots for granted and began to see the error in their ways.  To top it all off, Ukraine neglected to recognize the Tatar Mejlis for twenty three years because there wasn’t sufficient political will to do so.  It was only later, once Russia annexed Crimea, that Kyiv finally conferred such recognition.

Leshan, the journalist from Crimea, said that Tatar refugees have been welcomed in Ukraine though significant barriers remain.  All refugees from Crimea, he told me, face some degree of discrimination, and the Ukrainian state hasn’t made life any easier.  Indeed, officials force refugees to collect mountains of tedious paperwork and people have difficulty finding suitable housing and employment.  Meanwhile, racism is a problem in wider society and particularly on the Ukrainian rightist circuit.  Schiller, the researcher from Pinchuk art center, performed volunteer work to help Crimean refugees when she first arrived in Kyiv.  On the one hand, she said, society as a whole seems to have finally acknowledged the Tatars and Ukraine’s historic debt toward Crimea, but on the other hand “we still have these stereotypes that refugees love Russia and they are just coming to Ukraine to get money.”

Political Role of the Tatars

To their credit, Tatars have not resorted to the kind of armed insurgency which characterized the Chechen conflict.  Indeed, Tatar leaders say they are committed to non-violence and will do their utmost to defend their rights within internationally accepted legal norms.  It wasn’t until more recently, however, that the Tatars were given their political due, with a couple of isolated exceptions.  Take, for example, the Ukrainian anarcho-syndicalist Autonomous Workers’ Union, which supported the Tatars during Russia’s annexation of Crimea, remarking at the time that  “It’s high time that leftists and anarchists of the West cut ties with so-called ‘anti-imperialism’ which comes down to the support of Putin’s regime against the U.S.”

“If Ukrainians need a source for inspiration,” notes the otherwise establishment and predictable Foreign Policy magazine, “perhaps they can look to the Tatars.”  The publication points out that during the Cold War, some non-violent protesters in Eastern Europe successfully resisted Soviet influence.  “Similarly,” the publication notes, “nonviolent resistance in Crimea would make Russian control of the peninsula, despite the referendum victory, problematic” since both Tatars and Ukrainians make up almost forty percent of the Crimean population combined.  If the two were to pool their resources, they could carry out “a variety of low-risk actions,” including “subtle forms of noncooperation” and tax boycotts.

Perhaps these suggestions are worth considering, but since Foreign Policy published its article in 2014, Russia has increased its pressure on the Tatars, thus making protest that much harder.   To its credit, YES included the perspective of a Tatar leader during its most recent conference, though such elite gatherings could certainly make a greater effort to listen to Crimeans on the ground who have the most to lose.  As per the original Cold War, today’s hawks and foreign policy experts will undoubtedly seek to frame east-west tensions by wondering what “we” can do to contain Russia.  Perhaps a more important question, however, is “for whom” are we actually fighting?

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