Argument

Different Chapter, Same Book

What Crimea’s history can teach us about Crimea’s future.

In 1979, Russian writer Vassily Aksyonov wrote a satirical novel called The Island of Crimea, in which he played with an alternate history of Crimea in the 20th century: The region became neutral and independent. One of the big political questions that the novel raised was whether the Russian people, including the inhabitants of the Crimean peninsula, could ever have a state free of tsarism, communism, and imperialism.

Current events have brought into sharp focus the geopolitical significance of Crimea, while also showing that Aksyonov's plot is likely to remain a fantasy, at least for the time being. It is a real possibility that a separatist rebellion in Crimea, on the heels of President Viktor Yanukovych being ousted in Kiev, could split Ukraine for good. If this happens, Moscow is unlikely to formally annex Crimea -- but even an independent Crimea would probably be dominated by Russia's long reach.

On May 25, when Ukrainians go to the polls in the recently announced general election, voters in Crimea will be asked to decide whether or not they wish to be free of Kiev's authority. Crimea only became a part of Ukraine in 1954, and the region of some two million people remains strongly pro-Russian. That its residents want greater autonomy can hardly be doubted. The critical question, rather, is whether moves will be made to connect Crimea to Russia either formally or informally -- perhaps even before May. Will the regional parliament in Simferopol decide itself to separate Crimea from Ukraine's authority and ask to become part of the Russian federation? Or will Moscow be "invited" into the region even sooner -- sending in military "advisers" and possibly troops to protect the security of Crimea and its Russian population from so-called subversive foreign elements and the nationalist government in Kiev?

Understanding these questions, and the context surrounding them, requires a look back at Crimea's long, complex, and multicultural history. Settled during the Stone Age, it was incorporated, in different periods of history, into Greco-Roman civilization, the Byzantine-Empire, the Kievan Rus, the Ulus of Jochi, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire. After the defeat of the Mongols by Timur in 1441, it was also a Khanate, an independent political entity of Crimean Tatars. Tatars are now a minority in Crimea, as many perished either in Stalin's Great Purge or during the en masse deportation to Uzbekistan at the end of World War II. It comes as no surprise that today Tatars are on the side of the Ukrainian revolution.  

Today, Crimea remains very dear to the Russian nationalist psyche. The peninsula became part of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great in 1783, providing access to the Black Sea and new land for development. At the end of the 19th century, Alexander III built two lavish palaces in the coastal city of Yalta, called Livadia and Massandra. Stalin hosted Roosevelt and Churchill at Livadia at the Yalta Conference in February 1945; the U.S. president even stayed at the palace.

The Crimean city of Sevastopol, known in Russia as "the city of Russian glory," plays a particularly important role in Russian perceptions of Crimea. Two bloody battles took place there: the first in 1854 between Imperial Russia on the one hand and the Ottomans, French, and British on the other; the second during World War II between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Both battles have been glorified in Russian art, literature, and popular culture. And Sevastopol still harbors the Russian Black Sea fleet.

It was in 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine -- a gesture that was later very difficult to reverse during the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Bitterness about the loss of Crimea remained in the hearts of many Russians, both ordinary people and politicians, and pro-Russia nationalists have continuously strived for independence (with their most recent, serious effort occurring in 2004, amid resentment at the outcome of the Orange Revolution).

Now, some leaders in Moscow seem to be willing to put Sevastopol or all of Crimea back under Russia's thumb. Indeed, in the wake of the political revolution in Kiev, developments are dangerously close to spiraling out of control. Although the Russian foreign minister has spoken of Moscow's intention to respect the "territorial integrity" of Ukraine, Russia ominously conducted military exercises close to the Ukrainian border this week. Meanwhile, masked men stormed governmental buildings in Simferopol and raised the Russian flag. (Their efficiency and professionalism made it look like they were full-time soldiers -- possibly Russian ones -- rather than spontaneous protesters.) "Crimea is Russia," one of their signs proclaimed. "We want a united Russia," the leader of the group is reported to have said.

Two major airports in Sebastopol and Simferopol have also been taken over by unidentified gunmen, and Russian transport planes reportedly landed at the latter on Friday. (Airspace is now closed in the region.) In addition, armored Russian vehicles have ben seen in Crimea's major cities and elsewhere. Amid these developments, U.S. officials have warned Russia against military action. "I urge them not to take any steps that could be misinterpreted, or lead to miscalculation during a very delicate time," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters.

The Ukrainian crisis, and Russia's influence in it, is reminiscent of the crises in Eastern Europe during the Cold War years. In particular, the events in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 come to mind. In both cases, military intervention was requested to quell unrest, and Moscow complied after a period of consideration and hesitation. Even more apt, however, is the comparison with Russia's war with Georgia in August 2008. At the end of that conflict, the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia split from Georgia, and Russia quickly recognized both territories as independent countries. Although hardly any other nation followed suit and offered diplomatic recognition, both territories are now under the full, de facto control of Russia, while Georgia has no influence.

This might well be the model that Russian President Vladimir Putin has in mind regarding Crimea. A notionally independent but Moscow-dependent Crimea would satisfy Russian interests. Internationally Moscow could claim not to have annexed Crimea, but Russian nationalism, namely the strong feeling that Crimea is an integral part of Mother Russia, would be satisfied. And the geopolitical significance of Crimea, including its role as the home of the formidable Russian Black Sea fleet, would also have been retained for Moscow.

Would the European Union and the United States be happy with such an outcome? Hardly. Would they be able or willing to do much about it? Not likely. It is not probable that anyone in the West would wish to go to war over Crimea. Perhaps Putin has realized this, too, and thus is flexing his muscles in the region.

In Sevastopol Sketches, Leo Tolstoy described the horrors of the Crimean War (1853-1857), which resulted in the victory of Russia's imperial armies and further control of Crimea by the tsar. The last of the three stories, "Sevastopol in August of 1855," ends with a very grim observation on the mood of Russian soldiers, despite their success in battle:

"On stepping upon the further end of the bridge, nearly every [Russian] soldier pulled off his cap and crossed himself. But behind this instinct there was another, oppressive and far deeper, existing along with it; this was a feeling which resembled repentance, shame, and hatred."

The triumph of conquest, in other words, was marred by the disgrace of imperialism, ironically undercutting the nationalism that had propelled the invasion in the first place.

One hopes leaders in Moscow, including President Putin, will take time to reread Tolstoy before they decide to interfere further in Crimean politics, take military action, or otherwise try to dominate a region Russia once controlled.     

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Repeal and Restore

How President Obama can end the war on terror, once and for all.

Does anyone remember the speech in which President Barack Obama promised to end the war on terror? Let me remind you: Speaking last May at the National Defense University (NDU), the president noted that, with "the core of al Qaeda... on the path to defeat" and most of its affiliates "focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based," the scale of the threat the United States now faces "closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11." The president was inviting a national discussion on whether, how, and when to declare the war over.

But it never happened. So let's have that discussion now.

If there's a passage in the NDU speech that people do seem to remember, it was the president's spirited defense of the use of drones. Fewer of us recollect that the president also announced that he had signed a "Presidential Policy Guidance," which stipulated that, henceforth, the United States would use lethal force outside war zones only against a "senior operational leader" of al Qaeda or an affiliate who "poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons," and only under conditions of "near-certainty" that the target was present and "non-combatants will not be injured or killed." 

While the details of drone strikes remain shrouded in mystery, the administration has almost certainly failed in some cases to satisfy those stringent standards announced in the speech. Nevertheless, the president was making a down payment on his promise to put an end to the post-9/11 policies he had inherited. He also promised to finally close the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay and to use diplomacy and aid to address "the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism."

In every supremely lawyered syllable, Obama was saying: It's not a war anymore. If you look very closely at the guidance on the use of lethal force, Obama was agreeing to bind himself to the rules governing behavior in non-battlefield settings, including the requirement of an imminent threat and the high threshold for the avoidance of civilian casualties. The same holds true for Guantánamo, since international law prohibits indefinite detention save during hostilities.

If the United States is no longer at war, the president doesn't need extraordinary war powers. Congress granted those powers on Sept. 14, 2001, in the form of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which permits the president to "use all necessary and appropriate force" against the organizations which carried out the attacks of 9/11. The AUMF is the heart of the legal structure of the war on terror. Repealing the statute, more than any single act, would mark the end of that war. In his speech, Obama called on Congress to "refine, and ultimately repeal" the act. Yet he has said virtually nothing on the subject since then.

The president has also never identified the moment when he believes he could do without those powers. How about at the end of this year? That's when all combat troops will have withdrawn from Afghanistan, thus ending the actual "war" of the war on terror. What's more, in his most recent State of the Union speech, Obama said that Guantánamo should close by the end of this year (though that will prove much harder to do).

Harold Koh, the former State Department legal counsel, told me that he favors a repeal of the AUMF in the near term, preferably by the end of 2014. Last summer, Rep. Adam Schiff offered a resolution to do just that. It lost, but garnered 180 votes. Schiff told me that he will re-introduce the measure this spring.

The AUMF has a reciprocal relationship to the measures it authorizes. If you're not at war, you don't need it. And if you don't have it, you can't engage in war-like acts such as the indefinite detention of belligerents. One very good reason to repeal the AUMF is to make it absolutely clear that the United States does not wish to have that authority. There is, for example, no further justification for indefinite detention. No new inmate has arrived at Gitmo since 2008, and when the United States withdraws combats troops from Afghanistan, it will no longer be encountering adversaries to be detained.

If Congress repealed the AUMF, the president would still be able to rely on the powers enumerated in Article II of the Constitution to defend America from attack. Both Harold Koh and Matthew Waxman, a former Bush administration legal official, agree that this would include the authority to use drones -- or special forces -- for targeted missions, so long as they abide by the more stringent terms of the president's 2013 guidance on the use of lethal force. (The president would probably still be able under certain circumstances to order the killing of an American citizen, as he is now reportedly considering.) Nevertheless, a president without war powers would probably shy away from the outer limits of his constitutional prerogatives, looking instead to the other instruments at his disposal to deal with terrorism.

The AUMF is, in any case, very nearly obsolete. In Yemen, Somalia, and across North Africa, the United States is no longer fighting al Qaeda but its affiliates. The Supreme Court has ruled that the AUMF covers "associates" of al Qaeda, but demarcating this category has become an increasingly Jesuitical exercise. Especially after the war ends in Afghanistan, courts are going to be skeptical about the invocation of war powers against tenuously linked associates of al Qaeda. For this reason, Waxman and three colleagues have argued for updating the AUMF rather than repealing it, setting out clear criteria for the use of force and compiling a list of terrorist adversaries.

That's a sensible response if you think the most important objective is to preserve the president's freedom of action against terrorist groups. But I would say the most important objective is to restore America to itself. That doesn't simply mean forswearing war powers Americans were quick to grant after 9/11. It also means ending the reign of fear that inevitably emerged after the terrorist attacks. Americans still live inside their fear -- or at least their elected representatives behave as if they do. Think of the insane overreaction to the prospect of holding the trials of major figures like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian courts in the United States, or of transferring such figures to American prisons; or of the convulsive police reaction to the Tsarnaev brothers' bombing, which paralyzed metropolitan Boston; or of the pervasive military presence in so many public spaces. This is a national pathology that must be overcome -- especially before some new terrorist slips through the net and launches a successful strike on U.S. territory.

Obama will have excellent political reasons for putting off the repeal of the AUMF. The Republicans will rain down demagoguery from the skies -- especially should a new terror attack occur. And sure, Obama could "refine" the law rather than repeal it, even if a new statute would be very hard to design. He could also ask Congress to pass a new AUMF that must be annually renewed, which, as Koh suggests, would have the added virtue of forcing Congress to become a partner in the legal response to terrorism.

But Obama can afford to take political risks -- he isn't running for re-election. And, as Schiff points out, thanks to the national war exhaustion, Republicans are far more receptive to dialing down the counter-terror volume than they were only a few years ago.

Most fundamentally, however, no half-measure will convey the message that Obama plainly wants to transmit: We are no longer at war with terrorists.

It is increasingly clear that this president is pursuing a subtractive foreign policy. He ended torture. He removed American troops from Iraq; he is removing them from Afghanistan. All this is necessary, but it is still not the legacy he imagined for himself, or that his supporters hoped for. It is now within his power to end the war on terror. And that is something the American people will thank him for.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images