Placing the Crimean crisis in historical context

Thomas Donlan takes a break from offering well-informed economic observations this week and instead devotes his Barron’s editorial commentary to the history and possible future of Crimea.

Crimea is a holding pen for bitter memories. With peace and security, Crimea would make a pretty nice little country. Its warm shore-side climate and scenic mountains made it a favorite resort in the peaceful interludes of the 20th century. Like Ukraine, Crimea could prosper if its own peoples and their friends beyond the border could leave well enough alone. With a neighbor like Vladimir Putin, however, neither Ukraine nor Crimea can expect to be left alone.

Internally divided as it is, Ukraine also has little to contribute to regional peace and security. Its leaders and would-be leaders show no signs of recovering from their severe case of political kleptomania. Pro-Russian or pro-West, Ukrainian leaders have been pro-wealth for themselves above other goals.

Are there stable solutions for the lands between Russia and Germany? Stalin thought he had one: massive exile of Germans from Eastern Europe and the permanent Russian occupation of its small countries. …

… Big-power politics is no solution, as the Soviet Union showed when its empire collapsed. Putin may believe it was a disaster to liberate a couple of dozen small countries on the Russian periphery; more likely, the disaster was that the Russians did not go further when they had the chance to dismember the so-called federation that the Bolsheviks inherited from the czars.

For 200 years, Russia has wasted its potential and embittered its subject peoples in the Caucasus, Siberia, and the Far East. It should give up the imperial designs of the czars, but its current leaders have conditioned themselves to believe in the power of paranoia, following the examples of Ivan the Terrible, Alexander III, and Stalin.

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