The trick is to make whatever you’ve done, however foolish, seem heroic, especially if it involves the Crimea. On October 25, 1854, it was the charge of British light cavalry, led by Lord Cardigan, against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, and that was a royal screw-up. The idea was that the British forces would send that famous Light Brigade to pursue and harry a retreating Russian artillery battery – the sort of thing a light cavalry is designed to do – but someone up the chain of command changed the orders and had the light cavalry mount a frontal assault against an entirely different artillery battery, one that wasn’t retreating at all, one that was dug in and had established overlapping fields of defensive fire. Oops – but the Light Brigade charged anyway, and reached that fixed battery, or those few who were left alive reached that objective. Then they retreated, defeated.
It had been a suicide mission, but orders are orders, and these were honorable and faithful soldiers. Theirs was not to reason why. Theirs was but to do or die, so into the valley of death rode the six hundred. That’s how Alfred, Lord Tennyson put it in The Charge of the Light Brigade – a bit of jingoistic piffle about the wonders of the disciplined and selfless heroes of the British Empire, that glosses over the blundering stupidity of those at the top, getting everything wrong. Tennyson’s poem is, then, about the nobility of the fight, not the stupidity of the war, the sort of poem that little boys and John McCain love. Do or die! Only cowards ask questions – everyone knows that – and that made sense when Tennyson published that poem, two months after the Light Brigade was wiped out. Tennyson was poet laureate for most of Queen Victoria’s reign after all, and hiding the folly of those at the top, while lauding the good and noble British, generically, is what that job was about. His job was to be the apologist for the Empire, and the message then was the same as the message now – Support the Troops! We just slap yellow ribbons on the back of our SUV’s these days – the days of heroic poems are over and Tennyson’s best lines sound quaint now. My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure? No one other than Rick Santorum says such things these days, and no one remembers the Crimean War.
That might be a mistake, as heavily armed military forces are now roaming Ukraine’s Crimea, and are believed to be Russian, but they are without uniform insignia of any kind, and refuse to say whose orders they are following, so something is up, and we may end up playing the part of the British in 1854:
Tension dramatically mounted in Ukraine’s Crimea region Friday as its ambassador to the United Nations warned Russia against any further violation of its territorial borders, a warning that came as the United States urged Russia to pull back from the region or face possible consequences.
“We are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside Ukraine,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in televised comments from the White House. “It would be a clear violation of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine and of international laws.”
Obama said any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be “deeply destabilizing” and he warned “the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”
Obama didn’t say what those costs would be, but he probably won’t be sending in the Light Brigade. We don’t use guys on horses these days. Still, it’s the Crimea, and it’s a mess:
The remarks were the latest in a series of fast-moving developments that saw Ukrainian officials grappling with rising secessionist passions in the Russian-majority region, where the airspace has been closed and communications have been disrupted.
Ukraine accused Russian Black Sea forces of trying to seize two airports in Crimea but said Ukrainian security forces prevented them from taking control.
Ukraine Interior Minister Arsen Avakov earlier characterized the presence at the airport of unidentified armed men, who wore uniforms without insignia, as an “armed invasion.”
The crisis echoed throughout the world, with the U.N. Security Council president holding a private meeting about the crisis enveloping Ukraine and world leaders calling armed groups not to attempt to challenge Ukrainian sovereignty.
They had their odd revolution of sorts, throwing out the president they had actually elected, who turned out to be a crook, grabbing all the goodies for himself and his friends, and jailing anyone who complained – and who had decided to turn down all cooperation with Europe and deal only with Russia, enraging the Ukrainian-speaking majority, who don’t think of themselves as Russian in any way, but pleasing the Russian-speaking minority in the industrial east of the country, and down in the Crimea. The Ukraine used to be part of the Soviet Union. Some don’t miss those days at all. Some really do miss those good old days, and Vladimir Putin, the former KGB guy, seems to want to reassemble the old Soviet Union. What any of this has to do with the United States is a mystery, but we support the concept of self-determination, and this matter had been settled the previous weekend – the people spoke. We also support democracy, the idea that people get to vote on how things are run, and who should run them, and this odd revolution was about tossing out the guy who had been elected freely and fairly, which is a bit troubling – but no matter. The Russians can’t just go in and take over.
Russia may not want to do that. Just as Hitler argued that the Sudetenland, where most of the folks spoke German, not Czech, was really part of Germany, and just as Saddam Hussein argued that Kuwait had really always been part if Iraq, the worry now is that Putin is implying the same thing about the Crimea:
At a press conference outside the U.N. Security Council, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N., Yuriy Sergeyev said the country was prepared to defend itself and urged the U.N.’s moral and political support for the Kiev government, particularly in Crimea. …
Ukraine suspects Russia of fomenting tension in the autonomous region that might escalate into a bid for separation by its Russian majority. “We still have a chance to stop the negative developments and separatism,” Sergeyev said.
Sergeyev accused Russia of violating its military agreement by blocking Ukrainian security forces, including its border guards and police, in the region.
“This group is making a serious mistake challenging our territorial integrity,” he said.
But Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaliy Churkin, compared the reports of Russian troops taking charge of positions on the ground to rumors that “are always not true.”
Yes, but sometimes they are true, and the situation is unstable:
Crimea was handed to Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954. Just over half its population is ethnic Russian, while about a quarter are Ukrainians and a little more than 10% are Crimean Tatars, a predominantly Muslim group oppressed under former Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
Meanwhile, Russian lawmakers introduced two bills Friday to simplify annexing new territories into the Russian Federation and simplify access to Russian citizenship for Ukrainians, the state news agency Itar Tass said.
One bill also stipulates that the accession of a part of a foreign state to Russia should be taken through a referendum, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
Maybe Russia won’t invade and grab the Crimea. They’ll just make half of the population official Russian citizens, which would make the Crimea a de facto part of Russia anyway – no muss, no fuss – but their troops are there:
Back in Kiev, Andrii Parubii, chief of national security and defense, said Ukrainian military and police forces had stopped Russian military forces from seizing two airports in the Crimean region.
The Russian military is on the outside of both airports, Parubii said in a televised news conference from the Ukrainian parliament.
Weapons were not used during the operation, according to Avakov, the interior minister.
Russian armored vehicles were moving toward Simferopol, the regional capital, on Friday, the Ukrainian news outlet TSN reported.
Men in military uniforms had been seen patrolling the airport in Simferopol, as well as a military and civilian airbase in nearby Sevastopol since early Friday.
Avakov said the armed men at the Sevastopol air base were troops from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, stationed in the port city. They were in camouflage uniforms without military insignia, he said.
And this isn’t good:
Moscow alarmed some observers by announcing the surprise military exercises Wednesday in its western and central areas, near the Ukraine border.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s largest telecom firm was unable to provide data and voice connectivity between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine because unknown people had seized telecommunications nodes and destroyed cables, it said Friday. There is almost no phone connectivity or Internet service across Crimea, said Ukrtelecom, which is the only landline provider.
Things aren’t looking good, and maybe we ought to do something, but that was that first Crimean War:
The immediate issue involved the rights of Christians in the Holy Land, which was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The French promoted the rights of Catholics, while Russia promoted those of the Orthodox. The longer-term causes involved the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and the unwillingness of Britain and France to allow Russia to gain territory and power at Ottoman expense.
Maybe we’re still fighting that same war, without the overlay of religion. Another empire fell, the Soviet Union, and we don’t want Russia to grab and hold key suddenly-autonomous territories. That’s why the Light Brigade was charging. That’s why Obama is making ominous and purposely ambiguous vague threats. The odd thing is that the Ukraine, as a distinct entity, was created as a result of the Crimean War – new borders were drawn where none had existed before. We may have to fight over those again.
Do we want to do that? Is that reasonable? Don’t we have better things to do?
That depends on who you ask. Tennyson may be dead and gone, but we still have John McCain:
In response to reports of a Russian takeover in parts of Crimea, Arizona Senator John McCain said on Friday, “We are all Ukrainians,” before calling for swift U.S. economic aid to Ukraine, condemnation of Russia at the United Nations, sanctions against Russian officials and the installation of U.S. missiles in the nearby Czech Republic.
Russian President Vladimir Putin believes “this is a chess match reminiscent of the Cold War and we need to realize that and act accordingly,” McCain said, in an exclusive interview with TIME. “That does not mean I envision a conflict with Russia, but we need to take certain measures that would convince Putin that there is a very high cost to actions that he is taking now.”
Yeah, he’s at it again:
McCain made his declaration in response to a question from TIME about his famous 2008 statement, “We are all Georgians,” issued when he was a Republican presidential candidate after Russia invaded Georgia. Asked whether he feels the same way about the plight of Ukraine six years later, he agreed. “We are all Ukrainians in the respect that we have a sovereign nation that is again with international boundaries… that is again being taken in as part of Russia,” he said in an interview in his Senate office. “That is not acceptable to an America that stands up for the rights of human beings. We are Georgians. And we are Ukrainians.”
Yeah, and his strength is as the strength of ten, because his heart is pure, or at least that’s the general idea:
In the interview Friday, McCain said President Obama has “been incredibly naïve” about Putin’s goals. “Putin wants to restore the Russian empire, that’s his ambition; he’s stated it many times. Therefore no one should be surprised,” McCain said. “I predicted it and I’m not a genius. But I know Putin.”
In short, don’t think, charge, heroically, although McCain isn’t calling for war:
McCain says he wants to see the Obama Administration move a short-term economic aid package for Ukraine as quickly as possible. Kiev is “on the verge of an economic collapse. That would give credibility to the new government,” he says. The U.S. should also be working on a long-term International Monetary Fund bailout for the Ukraine, McCain says.
On the military front, McCain believes Putin needs to face a show of U.S. strength. Putin is “convinced that the United States is weak and there’ll be no significant retaliation of his occupation of the Crimea and possibly eastern Ukraine,” he says. He wants to see Obama revive the Bush era missile defense plan, which would have placed U.S. missiles in the Czech Republic.
Right – setting up lots of our missiles in the Czech Republic will stabilize things in the Crimea, snazzy but wholly defensive missiles designed to shoot down other missiles aimed at western targets. What? How does that threaten Russia? Maybe it’s a head-fake. Look! Missiles! Maybe the word “missiles” is magic. The rest of the item comes down to McCain saying that Obama should be “braver” – but one thinks of the superbly brave men of the Light Brigade charging on, to their deaths, because someone wasn’t thinking. Tennyson made that sound heroic. It was, and it was also stupid and pointless, and tragic.
That doesn’t matter. McCain is old-school. Unthinking bravery is all, even if everyone dies, which is what Tennyson and all the other propagandists for the British Empire were peddling. They were peddling that because that sort of thinking is what maintains an empire, because if you start to realize what is actually happening at the top, you can get a bit angry:
President Obama was interrupted during a speech to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Friday by a protester who accused him having a plan for a “nuclear war with Russia.”
The president’s remarks came less than an hour after Obama warned Russia about military intervention in Ukraine in a statement from the White House briefing room.
“I’m sorry, who is that back there? What the heck are you talking about?” Obama said to the shouting. “I don’t know anything about that plan. I don’t know what you’ve been reading.”
The protester had been reading Tennyson, or watching Fox News, but at Bloomberg News, Leon Mangasarian talks to regional experts who see no war coming:
[Eastern European analyst Anna Maria] Dyner said economic concerns are an even bigger reason discouraging Russia from overt intervention in Ukraine. The Kremlin doesn’t have “a huge amount of money to spend on such a big operation,” she said. More fundamentally, she added, Russia’s slowing economy is a factor.
“Ukraine is an important gas transit country to Europe and a conflict would probably damage pipelines, further harming ties with the West,” Dyner said. “This would damage the Russian economy, which is the last thing Putin wants right now, just as they’re thinking about reforms amid weak growth.”
Perhaps economic constrains will keep a lid on things, but Luke Harding argues here that “Moscow’s military moves so far resemble a classically executed coup” in Crimea:
Seize control of strategic infrastructure, seal the borders between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine, invoke the need to protect the peninsula’s ethnic Russian majority. The Kremlin’s favorite news website, Lifenews.ru, was on hand to record the historic moment. Its journalists were allowed to video Russian forces patrolling ostentatiously outside Simferopol airport. …
From Putin’s perspective, a coup would be payback for what he regards as the western-backed takeover of Kiev by opposition forces – or fascists, as the Kremlin media calls them. The Kremlin argument runs something like this: if armed gangs can seize power in the Ukrainian capital, storming government buildings, why can’t pro-Russian forces do the same thing in Crimea?
Add to that Joshua Keating arguing here that nobody now would be able to stop Russia from having its way with Crimea:
The fragile new Ukrainian government, which has other problems, not the least of which is keeping other parts of the country from splitting off, doesn’t really seem like it’s in a position to retake Crimea by force, risking a full armed intervention by the Black Sea Fleet. These moves likely violate the 1994 agreement between the U.S. and Russia under which Moscow agreed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty within its current borders in return for Kiev giving up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons. Beyond verbal warnings, the United States certainly seems extremely unlikely to intervene.
On the other hand, Keating warns that those who think that Obama isn’t brave, and that Obama is naïve, and that he’s a wimp who’s always getting slapped around by Putin, who looks like the real leader here, always winning these things and making Obama look bad, needs to think again. Grabbing Crimea would hardly be a big win for Putin:
Gaining de facto control over yet another dysfunctional pseudostate, essentially ensuring long-term tension with Kiev in the process, certainly doesn’t seem as good an outcome as what Russia thought it was getting a month ago: a government of the whole of Ukraine tied economically and politically to Russia rather than Europe. This isn’t really a great outcome for anyone.
Another way to put that is that there’s no point in fighting over a tiny part of the spoils of the former Soviet empire, when you’ve already lost the far larger part. Winning there only makes things worse. It’s not do-or-die. There’s no need for any heroic charge. It’s just that too many remember the stirring words:
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
The futility of the action and its reckless bravery prompted the French Marshal Pierre Bosquet to state “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” (“It is magnificent, but it is not war.”) He continued, in a rarely quoted phrase: “C’est de la folie” – “it is madness.” The Russian commanders are said to have initially believed that the British soldiers must have been drunk.
That’s a natural assumption, but the trick is to make whatever you’ve done, however foolish, seem heroic. For that you need poetry, or guys like John McCain. But every empire has lots of those.