Skip to main content

West may ultimately have to accept Crimea as part of Russia

By Jim Sciutto, CNN Chief National Security Correspondent
updated 5:34 PM EST, Mon March 3, 2014
  • Ukraine uprising stokes Cold War tensions
  • Ukrainian melting pot of cultures and loyalties complicates politics
  • Russia's military intervention calls into question sanctity of international borders
  • U.S., international community may have to accept Russian annexation of Crimea, if it occurs

Washington (CNN) -- The names involved in the escalating crisis in Ukraine -- Crimea, Sevastopol, Simferopol -- make it sound far away and far removed from America's allies and its interests. But the tensions there in fact hit very close to home for the United States.

First, Ukraine is not a distant empire but an integral part of Europe. Its capital, Kiev, is just a short flight from cities Americans visit all the time: Rome, Frankfurt, Paris.

And, it is neighbors with some of America's closest allies.

Just along its western border are Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. All four are members of NATO and, as a result, the United States is obligated to defend them militarily if they come under threat.

Ukraine is not a NATO member, but there had been discussions in recent years of enhancing ties.

Second, a tug of war is playing out inside Ukraine between East and West.

President Barack Obama has said the Ukraine crisis is not part of "some Cold War chessboard," but Cold War-era divisions are evident on the ground.

Ukraine's east is predominantly ethnic Russian and Russian speaking. The percentage is as high as 75% in the easternmost areas. Ukraine's west, by contrast, is dominated by ethnic Ukrainians. In the westernmost areas, fewer than 5% speak Russian.

McCain: We need sanctions for Russia
Cooper: Ukranians volunteering to fight
EU calls on Russia to withdraw forces
EXCLUSIVE: Tymoshenko speaks to CNN

Obama: U.S. weighing steps to 'isolate Russia' over Ukraine crisis

Those cultural and historic divisions pull western Ukraine toward the West and Europe, and eastern Ukraine into the arms of Russia.

Now, it is not black and white.

Even in the hotly contested Crimean peninsula, two out of five residents are not Russian. But Ukraine's demographic map displays a clear division, which is now playing out in cities and towns and -- it appears -- even inside military bases.

"To be sure, there is an East-West divide in Ukraine, but I think it's often overstated in the West," said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

"Certainly in the last two decades of Ukraine's independence, that line has blurred a lot," Pifer said. "Bear in mind, in eastern Ukraine, while the majority of the people there may speak Russian, it's still a majority population that are ethnic Ukrainian. The only place in Ukraine where Russians are an ethnic majority is Crimea."

"My sense is that in eastern Ukraine while they might not be wholly comfortable with what has happened in Kiev in the last 10 days, they are not talking about separatism. It's a very big distinction between eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

Third, as Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday, Russia's military intervention violates international law, the United Nations charter and several post-war military agreements -- all of which designed to keep the peace in Europe following several 20th century wars.

Russia's violation of those agreements calls into question its ability to keep the peace going forward as well as basic principles such as the sanctity of international borders.

Kerry rebukes Russia's 'incredible act of aggression' in move into Ukraine

Russia is claiming that ethnic Russians in Ukraine are calling for Russian help, a claim with little so far to support it on the ground.

And, looking forward, experts note there are many more Russians in, for instance, the Baltic state of Latvia, which, unlike Ukraine, is a NATO ally. What would happen if Russia did the same there?

So what are Russia's interests? Why would it risk so much for a seemingly tiny corner of Ukraine. The answer lies with one of those distant-sounding places mentioned at the start of the piece: Sevastopol.

Crimea caught in a 'war of information'

Sevastopol is home to the base of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. It is Russia's only warm-water port, the only port Russia has that provides access to the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic year-round.

This is an essential tool for projecting Russian military power abroad. When Ukraine's government abruptly shifted from pro-Russian to pro-European following protests in Kiev, Russia appeared to identify a threat to its core interests.

"I think what were really seeing are the initial steps in some form — maybe premature on my part, but that's OK -- of an annexation by Russia," said retired Army Gen. James "Spider" Marks, a CNN contributor.

Its response is the massive military intervention the world is witnessing right now.

Marks said the key thing is to ensure that the crisis doesn't escalate. And to accept reality.

"I think the United States and the international community is probably going to have to accept a half a loaf -- in other words, the annexation of Crimea may be a fait accompli. We have to accept that and have to acknowledge that if (Russian President Vladimr) Putin is not going to act against Ukraine, it's certainly in our best interest," Marks said. "This might, in fact, be Version Two of containment -- in fact I'd suggest it is."

Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:58 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 broke apart in the air after it was hit by a burst of "high-energy objects" from outside, a preliminary report by Dutch aviation investigators said Tuesday.
updated 7:34 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
"There were many scenes that defied logic," writes OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw, who was one of the first international observers to arrive at the site.
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Wed September 3, 2014
On a country road in eastern Ukraine, a scene of bucolic tranquility was suddenly interrupted by the aftermath of carnage.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
In the city of Donetsk, the devastation wrought by weeks of fighting between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces is all too apparent.
updated 8:00 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
CNN's Diana Magnay reports from the front lines in the Ukrainian conflict.
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
A few miles south of the town of Starobeshevo in eastern Ukraine, a group of men in uniform is slumped under a tree.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
It's been building for months. And now, according to some, Russia has launched a "full-scale invasion" of Ukraine.
updated 9:43 AM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
A shopkeeper's mutilated body, relatives' anguish, homes destroyed ... this is Donetsk.
updated 7:12 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
A 20-minute drive from Kiev takes you to a neighborhood that feels more like Beverly Hills than central Ukraine.
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Photos illustrate the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as fighting continues to flare in the region.
updated 8:34 AM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
Western leaders stepped up sanctions, but the Russian President shows no sign of backing down.
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Future imports, exports between the EU and Russia are now banned -- but existing contracts continue.
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
updated 4:37 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Information about Ukraine, the second-largest European country in area after Russia.
Learn more about the victims, ongoing investigation and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
updated 5:25 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.