[For more recent comment on change in Ukraine, click here
Many of us Yanks are aghast at what is happening in Sevastopol. Russian gunmen—pretty obviously current or retired Russian military officers stripped of insignia—appear to be taking over key installations. They want the area to stay Russian, and they appear ready to use force if necessary to make that so.
We Yanks are shocked, shocked to find that Sevastopol is the traditional home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. We are shocked, shocked, to find that it remains so, notwithstanding the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991 and Ukraine’s subsequent independence.
Not many of us think of how Sevastopol became Russian, culturally and linguistically, through organic growth. Russian sailors and their land support troops stayed after retirement, where they had come to live. They liked the warm weather and pleasant seaside location. So Sevastopol became Russians’ San Diego.
More important, many of us Yanks avoid thinking about Guantánamo.
We haven’t wanted to think about it much since 9/11. Why? Because what had been a sleepy, nearly obsolete naval base suddenly became a prison, a concentration camp and Constitution-free zone that has made a mockery of our rule of law and global democratic leadership.
Last summer, New Yorker
Magazine published an excellent and marvelously readable historical review of Guantánamo. Its author is Paul Kramer, then an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt. Everyone who complains or worries about Sevastopol should read it
As Kramer’s history reveals, there are striking similarities between Sevastopol and Guantánamo. Both naval bases were built and virtually annexed by imperial powers for one reason only: they were superb natural ports with extraordinarily strategic locations and good natural defenses. Both became enclaves of imperial foreigners on others’ soil.
Both Sevastopol and Guantánamo had ill-defined borders for many years. Guantánamo’s have never
been defined precisely in treaty or lease. Today only barbed wire and a huge mine field (one of the world’s largest) that surround our naval base define Guantánamo’s limits.
Both Sevastopol and Guantánamo remained constant seats of imperial power as military and political change swirled around them. Except for the Nazis’ capture of Sevastopol in World War II, no one could dislodge Russian or American military might, respectively. So no one else tried. Lawyers and diplomats acknowledged this simple truth later, with post-facto justification.
There are also important differences between the two ports. Guantánamo has served as far more than a naval base. At times it has been a vast prison, a concentration camp, a refugee relocation and deportation center, and even a detention camp for HIV-positive Haitian refugees. Today it still serves as Constitution-free zone and a small concentration camp for Islamic militants held by a nation too timorous to confine them on its own soil.
The “terms” of the leases are different, too. Russia’s lease on Sevastopol reportedly runs until 2042. Our “lease” on Guantánamo, if you can call it that, is and always has been indefinite. (The lease “rent” is laughable, just thousands of dollars per year.) We Yanks assume the power and claim the right to stay there until, if ever, we decide to leave.
With this history, Guantánamo gives us Yanks no cause for lecturing Russia or Russians on morality. Our handling of Guantánamo has been as bad as or worse than their handling of Sevastopol, even today. At least it has been utterly inconsistent with our claims to moral superiority.
But if we Yanks can stop finger wagging for a moment, there are valuable lessons to be learned from Guantánamo. In all its history as a naval base, it has never been the site of a military battle, naval or otherwise. Soviets aimed cruise missiles at it during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it was our second most important naval port (after New York) during World War II. But it has never been attacked and has never participated directly in any attack on the Cuban mainland—not even during the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion.
So despite its awful recent history as a prison and concentration camp, Guantánamo has been something of an island of stability in the tumultuous Caribbean. In the worst of times, politics and mistrust cut it off from the rest of Cuba, to the point where it had to make its own drinking water, by desalinizing sea water. In the best of times, it provided Cubans with employment, parts, services and hard currency and received willing labor in return. Sometimes it gave economic refugees fleeing Cuba and other Caribbean tyrannies indirect help.
Yet there’s an even more important respect in which Sevastopol differs from Guantánamo. It’s a medium-sized city in a relatively densely populated region. In contrast, Guantánamo is an isolated American outpost deliberately kept apart from the rest of Cuba. When we built it, the area was a parched wilderness. Then, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cubans reinforced our mine fields with impenetrable barriers of cactus.
So today Guantánamo is an island within an island. If ever we leave, Cubans will (if wise and prosperous) clear the mine fields and cactus and turn it into a big merchant port. If not, Guantánamo may ultimately rust and return to arid nature.
Not so Sevastopol. The Black Sea Fleet is a Russian enclave in the middle of a populated region. So is Sevastopol. Neither the Fleet, nor the Russians who man and support it, nor Russians who retired from it or immigrated to join them are going anywhere.
These are so-called “facts on the ground,” aka “reality.” They are not going to change. No one is going to deport millions of ethnic Russians “back” to the frozen north, any more than we are going to deport 11.7 million undocumented Hispanic immigrants.
Under Stalin, Slavic people and their guests suffered enough forced deportation to last them a millennium. Now disparate linguistic and ethnic groups are going to have to learn to live together in something resembling harmony. The alternatives are unthinkable.
Right now Russia is flexing its military muscle. That is Russians’ way, at least in their “near abroad.” It certainly is Putin’s. But it needn’t mean violence. On the contrary, a silovik
like Putin may flex his muscles precisely to avoid
Russia has had plenty of recent experiences with relatively peaceful change. Not the least were the peaceful liberation of Eastern Europe and the Baltics and the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Russia also has experience with local autonomy, not only in Crimea and Ukraine recently, but also in the numerous autonomous regions and republics that Lenin and Stalin created in Russia’s enormous land mass, and that still survive today.
So the goal of diplomats everywhere should not be re-starting the Cold War or backsliding into “spheres of influence.” Klemens von Metternich has been dead now for a century and a half. His political philosophy gave us nothing but our species’ two most horrible wars and oceans of misery. We need to be smarter than he in the twenty-first century, let alone the Nuclear Age. Let’s not exhume him.
Russia is the single most-invaded major power of the last two centuries. It has the right to defend itself. It has the need and the right—plus the military ability—to keep the things it sees as necessary to its defense. They include its Black Sea Fleet and its Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
These things are non-negotiable. We and the world should be happy that Russia managed to keep its nuclear weapons and nuclear technology to itself as the Soviet Union dissolved. That was an extraordinarily important accomplishment.
Today what’s important is that local people be free and happy. If a majority in Sevastopol, or in Crimea, wants to join Russia, we Yanks should not object.
In my view, it would be better for them to become more autonomous and reserve judgment, for change is coming everywhere faster than anyone can imagine. But any decision to secede, join Russia, regroup or become autonomous should be made by a majority of the people affected. Foreigners, we Yanks included, can only watch, as long as the process is fair.
What matters is not that Ukraine, Sevastopol or Crimea lean this way or that. What matters is three basic principles of government and humanity, toward which all diplomacy should strive.
First and foremost, every individual should have a choice. Loyalties and allegiances, regions and boundaries should be fixed by ballots, not bullets.
Second, whatever spinoff nations or autonomous regions emerge, they should scrupulously respect the rights of minorities within them. Every individual living in a spinoff nation or region should have full rights of citizenship, whatever his or her national origin, ethnicity or language.
Last but not least, every new political entity should honor all treaties and agreements of the nation from which it spun off. This includes the lease for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. (Russia did precisely as much when the Soviet Union dissolved.)
Change is coming to Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe that is not already free. It was foreordained when Poland’s Solidarity movement swept much of Eastern Europe and Pope John Paul II subtly raised its banner. It was further predestined when the Soviet Union dissolved.
The task of the international community today is to ensure that it happens without violence, and with careful consideration for real people everywhere, especially including minorities. The half-European nation that suffered most in the last century from violent revolution and terrible wars—Russia—ought to understand this point better than others.