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With the Crimea occupation and the further rather aggressive steps it seems as if Russia tries to annex parts of Ukraine, and it is unclear whether the Crimea is already an annexation of the Ukraine in a fully political view since there are some points that make the Crimea Russian heritage - at least from the viewpoint of the Russians, which is politically quite important of course.

Is there a political reason why Russia might be less expansionist regarding Ukraine than it is said to be, and that inspite of the occupation / annexation of the Crimea? So that Russia is shown worse than it politically is?

Is there a way to show Russia's standing in such a light that everything is still understandable, or is Russia "just wrong" in its aggressions?

Or just to make it a one-liner: does Russia not want to annex parts of the Ukraine? Which would not be on-topic, it seems. Therefore:

Can the aggressions of Russia against Ukrainian territory be understood in a politico-historical light?

Background of the question (not part of the question)

The idea of this question arose when in Germany, vice admiral and chief of the German Navy Schönbach had to leave his position. Among other things, he had said that the Crimea will not come back (which accepts the annexation of Ukrainian territory) and after this, he said that it was nonsense to say that Russia wanted to annex parts of Ukrainian territory (link to the talk).

This question is not about judging upon this logically or about the internal motivations of this vice admiral.

Some points to ponder

The reasons in favor of Russia or Ukraine could be politico-historical, for example:

  • the NATO enlargements of the last decades with events and developments over time that are quickly overseen might force Russia to some steps one does not understand at first sight.
  • Russo-Turkish wars took place in 1676–81, 1687, 1689, 1695–96, 1710–12 (part of the Great Northern War), 1735–39, 1768–74, 1787–91, 1806–12, 1828–29, 1853–56 (the Crimean War), and 1877–78. As a result of these wars, Russia was able to extend its European frontiers southward to the Black Sea, southwestward to the Prut River, and south of the Caucasus Mountains in Asia. --> likely, Ukraine alone would not have conquered the Crimea on its own.
  • There is an ethnical / DNA difference between Russians and Ukrainians. Though both are Slavic, you cannot just say it is all the same anyway --> imagining Russians on Ukrainian territorry as mere Slavic brothers might not be enough to make a Ukrainian believe that the Crimea is not "lost"
  • As the Russians in eastern Ukraine were settled there in Soviet time (which likely tried to make a corridor till the Crimea, my guess; most important is that there were no Russians in the whole area in historical times before, and Ukrainian cossacks starved or froze to death during Holodomor, for stats on rural excess deaths see How to get per 1000 deaths numbers for the 1932-34 Holodomor in Ukraine for the rural areas only, against the less starving town population?), this would mean that any homogenous migration is dangerous - world-wide, see also Chinese expansion in the Manchuria as a historical example of how to take a land by migration. This Russian settlement would still not make it Ukrainian territory then. --> Losing the land to an expansionist suppressive country should be avoided in any case, else this makes another precedent of "how it goes".

From searching for a map of "Moscow Russian expansion", you find out quickly that it all started from tiny Moscow area, taken from here but you will find many more of course.

There was a longer text here on cossacks, it is now an answer at What exactly does Putin mean by 'genocide' in Ukraine? - though likely not fitting there either. (btw, this link to the question about genocide seems to be on-topic. Therefore, a question about an opinion of Mr. Putin is allowed in this community, while this question here was closed in the first place since it was only about understanding the opinion and internal motivation of a person. or something like that. I do not see why the other question is different from that.)

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Answer

Since the question is closed, an answer or rather opinion to this in the question. This does not belong to the question.

In my opinion, this research on Ukrainian(-Cossackian) history has not been done enough. What is obvious is that Russia is expansionist and was it all over the history with war and cruel methods, but it also had to be like that perhaps: the perhaps most important outweighing point is that Russia defeated the even more expansionist Ottomans (who had conquered even the new "homeland" in nowadays Turkey and tried expanding till Austria), making the Crimea a possible gift for Russia for the efforts in the Russo-Turkish wars.

A short search for similarities in history:

  • You might compare it with the multi-ethno conglomerate Prussia (German, Polish, Czech) that annexed more and more of nowadays Germany. For example, they annexed the most northern part of Germany, the Schleswig area in nowadays Schleswig-Holstein, from Denmark after Holstein Germans had moved into the area for decades until they were the majority there. When Denmark tried to hold the land by enforcing Danish as the administrative language, Prussia took this as a reason to proclaim this land as historically German and took it (Prussia --> Russia, Schleswig area --> Ukraine). Prussia aimed to create one homogenous High German speaking area. It removed any Low German that was still spoken in the north from public spaces, creating the nowadays language gap to the Netherlands and by this destroying the Northern German old Hanse and Low German identity over longer time through increased possible migration within High German speaking Germany. And by this, Prussia centralised the power in all ethno-German areas, and the uniting key was that this huge Prussia fought back the even more expansionist French from taking Western Rhine area. France made a complete stupidity by reaching out for the Rhine as a natural border, since that was historically not grounded, which then united even the annexed parts with Prussia. And in the end Prussia founded Germany in a military way by fighting down Habsburg afterwards (Brother War), all in all a bad military expansionist story, but it goes back to the needed win against France. (Prussia --> Russia, France --> Ottomans). On the other hand, the loose union of small states without a big Prussia would perhaps have fought back France as well. This cannot be said for sure, though, which mirrors a bit what happened in the Russo-Turkish wars - a loose Slavic union might perhaps not have got that far to win against the Ottomans.

  • You might also compare the mass immigration of Russians with China's annexation of Manchuria which happened by planned mass migration of Han Chinese to Manchuria in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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The two slight similarities are of course not the copy of what is happening. One just sees that homogenous migration, as mass migration, by military act, forced bad conditions on the local people or as long-term event of economic migration, can take land, the methods can end up all the same.

On the other hand, Russia has used the help of the cossacks to get this far at all and win. It is unfair against the Ukrainian cossacks who were forcefully and often cruelly replaced with Russians in the nowadays conflict areas of Ukraine in Stalinist time. There were also Russian cossacks in the Soviet union, but the nowadays Russian speakers in the Ukraine are likely ethnical Russians, not Russian cossacks. On the Crimea, there few cossacks in Stalinist time (those who had fled from the Bolsheviks), but that does not mean that the cossacks would not have a share in trying to get it back from the Ottomans. Cossacks had at least tried to conquer the Crimea in mid 16th century and just could not hold their positions and later helped in the Russo-Turkish wars.
That is why Ukraine should find out itself how they see their own Russian speaking population (which is not the original population) and take the next steps:

  • officially accept the suppression by Russia, after all, Russia is also an important friend and the main Slavic power and brings some advantages in resources, Russia is the least culturally different occupant that you can have there, it is a geographic neighbour and a new bigger union with Russia like a small Soviet Union can have economic advantages.
  • or go for NATO.
  • join with the rest of the Slavic countries into a sort of eastern NATO (not powerful enough perhaps, but historical, see the military join of cossacks together with the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth as hints).
  • or make the Russian-speaking Ukrainians leave as a revenge for Stalinist cruelties (not realistic, but would be the same as was done to the Ukrainian cossacks before). This would likely lead to civil war and war against Russia, but it is still something that has to be said.
  • Do nothing and let go: do not leave the area and do the everyday life as always.
  • Make a clear ethnic geografic split with Russian speakers so that all Ukrainians leave Eastern Ukraine and do not mix with the Russian speakers anymore, since it is bearing the heavy burden of the Holodomor, exclude Russian speakers from any Ukrainian politics. After all, the conflict area was only colonised by cossacks in the 16th century, see the map about the "Wild Fields". It was not Russian either, but perhaps it is better to keep away from such "Ukrainian" Russians who are likely just part of a long-term expansion.

This conflict shows how any expansionist state can trigger many more bad things, and in my opinion, any expansionist state starts already with being 50 % on the wrong side when claiming conquered land as historically its own unless the weak points are openly discussed. Especially the Stalin time when the Russian corridor through eastern Ukraine until the Crimea was made by organised settlements was a totally new point to me, never heard of before, hope I have not misunderstood it. But if I understood it right, this would mean that making the nowadays mainly Russian speaking Ukrainian areas autonomous and getting a fully Russian-speaking area from Moscow till the Crimea would just be another win of the cruel Stalinistic settlement policy. Wrapping it up, having Ukraine with the Crimea and a share of Russian speaking population was historically right. Losing the full corridor and the Crimea to Russia is historically wrong since it was not Russian speaking until organised settlement took place that replaced Ukrainians. If that is true, Russia must invade to reach the Stalinist aim, and that explains also why they directly occupied the Crimea: since Ukraine will not accept the Russian suppression for historical reasons. Any longer digging in history would lead Ukraine to decide to hold the Crimea and the eastern lands, regardless of whether there are so many Russians nowadays. That would mean that green men were likely the only chance for Russia to catch the Crimea, and that Russia's actions are thus politically understandable, but prove Russia once again as a long-term aggressor which Ukraine should not trust for historical reasons.

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    The Chief Admiral was expressing his assessment of the situation, at odds with policy statements. As he likely knew. Regarding the breakaway mini-republics in Donetsk and Lugansk, Russian MFA pretty clearly stated that it preferred the status quo, as laid down by the Minsk II accords. It is IMO signaling that further steps such as official recognition, intervention to preserve the Minsk II lines, etc, were considered backup options in response to attempts to overturn the status as of the ceasefire. Whether "historically/politically right?" would IMO be answered in the future
    – Pete W
    Jan 24 at 14:21
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    It seems too speculative to answer, but there is the question of what you mean by "annex": integrate within the Russian Federation, or include in a larger union with Belarus and other friendly states, with the possibility of increased integration and military cooperation in the future, such that (as in the EU) sovereignty is pooled albeit with some degree of Russian dominance.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 24 at 18:54
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    I'm voting to reopen because I now think this is fully answered by the second edit to my answer.
    – Allure
    Feb 7 at 9:55
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    Have not read that wiki, but it´s historicaly wrong. Cossacks are not an ethnity, it´s a name for some kind of militia, my ennglish is very bad so militia would be the closest explanation I know, but posibly not the best. There were russian and ukrainian cossacks as well the only thing comon to all cossacks is to be an orthodox and fight against islamic invaders, which were tatars at that time.
    – convert
    Feb 13 at 12:19
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    I looked at the recent edits to this questions because the high number of them triggered an automatic moderator flag. It appears that you might have some misconception about what Politics Stack Exchange is about. This is not a platform for opinions or debate. It is a platform for objective information about politics and political processes. When your primary intention is to spread your personal opinions on the Ukraine conflict or are looking for people to discuss different viewpoints, then this isn't the right community for that.
    – Philipp
    Feb 14 at 10:59

2 Answers 2

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The question is problematic because could is a very weak standard. One could survive a free fall from several kilometers up, it just isn't very likely.

Also, Russia has occupied and tried to annex part of Ukraine, as much of the international community understands the borders. This annexation has not been formally acknowledged by the rest of Europe and the US, and Russia certainly wants to get it accepted.

  • The Crimea had been conquered by the Czarist Russian Empire from the Khanate centuries ago. Since then, Russia has seen it as a part of Russia. Russia fought the memorable Crimean War there to hold it against Western powers.
  • The Soviet Union transferred the Crimea from the Russian SFSR to the Ukrainian SSR. This was generally understood to be a mere administrative detail, as long as both Soviet Republics were part of the USSR.
  • Then the USSR broke up. Russia accepted and guaranteed the the sovereignty of Ukraine, in exchange for Ukraine giving up their nuclear weapons and thereby simplifying the post-Soviet security architecture.

One can make a good case that the Crimea was historically Russian. If there had been a treaty on a transfer of territory, freely negotiated between the two countries, I predict that it would have been accepted by the international community without any fuss. However, Russia had several times affirmed that borders in Europe should not be changed by force, and a referendum under the guns of the little green men was widely seen as illegitimate.

So one could make the case that the Crimea is a different case from the rest of Ukraine and that the Russian conquest of that part of Ukraine is no indication of any Russian desire to conquer the other parts of Ukraine. One could also realistically estimate that the Crimea is not going to be returned, barring more significant upheaval in the post-Soviet states or a military defeat of Russia -- and defeating a nuclear power is extremely dangerous. But Ukraine would be wise to reserve the cessation of any part of their territory as a powerful bargaining chip for the final settlement of the conflict, and that is nowhere in sight. Compare how West Germany held out on formally accepting the Oder-Neisse line until the final settlement.

Russia might be satisfied with taking Crimea and enforcing a privileged zone of interest in some or all of the Near Abroad, restricting the sovereignty of Ukraine.

Russia might be trying to re-incorporate all of Ukraine into Russia.

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    Russia fought back Crimea not from Ukraine (since one might read your text like that), but from the Tartars / Ottomans. Russia and the Ottoman Empire went to war in October 1853 over Russia's rights to protect Orthodox Christians; to stop Russia's conquests France and Britain entered in March 1854. While some of the war was fought elsewhere, the principal engagements were in Crimea. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Crimea I read it as if Russia lost that war, but Crimea was heavily destroyed and many Tartars fled. Russia got the land by treaty from the Ottomans after the Crimean war.
    – ETathome
    Feb 8 at 23:59
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    @ETathome, is my clarification better?
    – o.m.
    Feb 9 at 6:06
  • Yes, this is better, since I had misunderstood it first and then meant in a discussion that any expansionist country is to be forced back and that Russia has nothing to do in a Ukrainian area (wrong). Even if we see that Russia once emerged from the tiny Moscow area, it was the leading power of the slavs that got it back. Small bonus: getting back the Crimea was tried already by the cossacks in mid 16th century who served later in Tsarist Russia as police. And those cossacks seem to have been often Ukrainians. They occupied Moscow in 1610, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cossacks.
    – ETathome
    Feb 9 at 23:24
  • With the historical conflict between the cossacks and Russians and with the help by the cossacks in Tsarist Russia in all border areas, there might be a way to say that Ukrainians (who likely were the "main cossacks" out of the different ethnical backgrounds of cossacks that were there) have a historical right to get at least a share of the Crimea (!). The Crimean war is not everything. Anyone interested, please read at least the first paragraphs of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cossacks.
    – ETathome
    Feb 9 at 23:36
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There are no objective criteria for what is right or wrong - since people necessarily have different opinions about it, particularly when they come from different countries and/or cultural backgrounds, but even when they come from the same family.

Historically right is usually what is written in the history books - which again depends on who wrote the history books (it is usually the winners writing what is politically suitable at the current moment - e.g., one can go to Barnes&Noble and easily convince oneself that the American history books about WW1 written before the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia are usually sympathetic to this state, describing it as a victim, whereas the books written after the event describe it as an aggressive and subversive state, instigator of terrorism. There are historical facts to support both points of view.)

As an example rather similar to Crimea (Krim is a German and Russian word), one could mentioned the American military base in Cuba - Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. After the Cuban revolution, and installation of a regime hostile to the United States, the US refused to evacuate the base. Some military action has ensued - both local, as well as in a form of an attempted invasion of the whole island. However by now all these have been largely forgotten - for decades the base served as a proud front line in defending "freedom and democracy" (see its depiction in A few good men), until becoming a focal point of the infamous scandal about prisoner treatment. (To qualify the comparison, it is worth pointing out that, one the one hand, Guantanamo had never been a US territory; on the other hand, the Cuban government has behaved itself inconsistently by cashing the US checks for the lease of the base, while claiming that it wanted the US out.)

Northern Cyprus could serve as another example, which became nearly respectable with time. The situation with Taiwan, which officially does not exist as a country, is yet another one.

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    Northern Cyprus is not accepted by time at all, much further away from any resignation than it seems to be with the Crimea. There is just no one who would wage war against Turkey for that because it is not worth the frustrations and risks of war. Turkey has not even any historically grown rights in Northern Cyprus and even Turkey itself is not a good example for "over time" acceptance, it is fully conquered area and there are upcoming tensions with Greece that touch the topic of war again for historical reasons. Northern Cyprus is also not forgotten, see the great tension in the near sea.
    – ETathome
    Jan 26 at 0:12

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