Last week in this column, I expressed admiration of the line President Obama and other Western leaders had taken in supporting the ouster of Russian ally Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency of the Ukraine. It was easily foreseeable and widely predicted that Russian president Vladimir Putin would retaliate, as his Russian official ego is even pricklier than that of the Soviet leaders whom he served in the days when the USSR was America’s only rival as a superpower, and intermittently asserted an eminent domain over neighboring countries, including East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan, all of which it occupied militarily. As I wrote last week, Crimea was assigned to Ukraine only in 1954, and that country’s claim to it now is not unquestionable. Given the fact that about 60 percent of the population of Crimea is ethnically Russian and that almost half the others are Tatars of no more affinity to Ukrainians than to Russians, the ability of the Ukrainian government to hold the loyalty of Crimea was always doubtful, especially as Russia has never officially acknowledged the legitimacy of an independent Ukraine. As I also wrote last week, it is galling for the Russians to rely on the Ukraine for a naval base for its Black Sea fleet.
It was not a matter of immense importance to the Soviet Union where its naval forces were until the mid Sixties, because Russia was never a very serious naval power, boxed in as it was in the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the White Sea, and at Vladivostok in the Far East. Its naval effort was in submarines and it did not have a large merchant fleet. But after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nikita Khrushchev began, and Leonid Brezhnev continued, a major naval and merchant-marine build-up, which severely strained the Soviet economy and drove the United States to an even larger naval expansion. It was as ineffective as Kaiser Wilhelm II’s challenge to the Royal Navy in the 20 years prior to World War I, a challenge that strained world tensions and drove Britain into the arms of the French and Russians — and resulted in total failure: When war came, the German navy engaged in only two days of fighting and ultimately surrendered and scuttled itself. The Soviet navy achieved no more, but there was no war between the Great Powers and the fleet subsists, though it is aging, and the Black Sea Fleet is a tenant of the Ukraine, needs the agreement of the Turks to exit the Black Sea, and is shadowed in the Mediterranean by the U.S. Sixth Fleet and can get to an ocean only via the Suez Canal or through the closely watched Straits of Gibraltar.
As this is being written, Russia has effectively invaded Crimea, reestablished a Crimean semi-autonomous republic, and given Ukrainian forces in the area an ultimatum. The commander of the Ukrainian navy, such as it is, has defected to the new pro-Russian entity of Crimea. The new government in Kiev has appointed new regional governors to replace the Yanukovych loyalists, but it is not clear that the writ of the central government will run any more authoritatively in the largely Russian eastern regions around Donetsk and Dnepropetrovsk and along the Russian border, a rich coal and steel area, than it has in Crimea. The danger to the West is that it goes on autopilot and Western leaders blather a lot of self-righteous paraphrases of King Lear about “costs” and red lines, which Putin could hardly be blamed for ignoring, and yet which will incite increased skirmishing between Ukraine and Russia and could lead to Russian aggression against Ukraine as a whole. This would be no day at the beach for the Russians: The Ukrainians are fierce fighters, and they would be assisted, at least materially if not in combat forces, by the West; and if Brezhnev’s Soviet Union could not hold Afghanistan, Putin’s shrunken remnant of that country would have insuperable problems with three times the number of Ukrainians, on the borders of NATO (albeit in terrain less conducive to guerrilla war than Afghanistan is). The Munich parallel, incidentally, has been overdrawn: Britain and France could not go to war to prevent Czech Germans (in the Sudetenland) from adhering to Germany. Chamberlain’s mistake was in spurning Stalin, agreeing to such a fast timetable, not securing a serious guarantee of the surviving Czechoslovakia (which the Poles and Hungarians then attacked), and representing the shabby episode as the triumph of “Peace with Honour.” (There was neither peace nor honor.)