He told the Russian Senate that the use of force was necessary to “protect citizens of Russia” in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Later, in a phone call with President Obama, he justified the action in terms of saving Russian “compatriots,” or those with cultural ties to the motherland.
Since 2000, Mr. Putin has championed this “compatriot” policy toward Russian speakers in countries of the former Soviet Union, from Latvia to Moldova. For years, his regime has handed out Russian passports to many citizens of these now-independent countries.
Putin used “protection of Russian citizens” to justify a war with Georgia in 2008 and to take control of two Georgian enclaves. He still uses the policy to keep troops in Transnistria, a piece of Moldova.
Putin could have many motives for such military interventions. He may seek friendly nations as buffer states along Russia’s wide-open borders. He might seek to restore Russian glory as a great power. He may need to create foreign crises as a way to bolster his power at home in the face of a troubled economy.
But playing the ethnic card could be his weakest excuse. It is one used by Czar Nicholas I in the 19th century to justify an attack on Crimea. In 1938, Adolf Hitler used a similar reason to annex a German-populated area of Czechoslovakia.
Ethnic politics, at least in American and European eyes, is steadily fading away in the face of melting-pot assimilation, globalization, and the rise of democratic principles to lift all ethnic or religious groups. National identity in many countries is becoming based more on shared values than on shared history, territory, or interests.
“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”
Germany’s leader, Angela Merkel, wants to test Putin’s “pretext” of saving Russian compatriots in Ukraine. In a phone call to Putin Sunday, she proposed that an international “contact group” go to Ukraine and mediate between the various ethnic groups. In this way, Putin’s claim to saving “compatriots” could be tested on the ground with what the German chancellor calls a “fact-finding mission.”
Putin agreed to the idea, perhaps to deflect political momentum in the United States and Europe toward imposing economic and financial sanctions on Russia and its pro-Putin elite.
Just over half of Crimea’s 2 million residents are ethnic Russian. The rest are Ukrainians and Tatar. It remains unclear how many of those ethnic Russians want to join with Russia or prefer to stay within a democratic Ukraine. For now, pro-Putin forces in Crimea want to call a referendum to settle the question. But at the least, an international body should supervise such a vote.
According to The New York Times, Ms. Merkel told Mr. Obama that Putin seems to be “in another world.” Perhaps she meant that Putin truly seeks an aggressive ethnic-based foreign policy that runs counter to what the European Union stands for.
The Ukraine crisis, precipitated by a pro-EU revolution last month, represents an opportunity to challenge the notion that national identity runs along bloodlines. Humanity’s progress has been based on a broader view of community.
Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, may have realized this point last week. He vetoed a measure passed by Ukraine’s parliament that would have demoted the Russian language, thus irritating the Russian-speaking minority.
Few countries today are ethnically or racially homogeneous. Embracing or rising above differences only strengthens a country. Democracy is the best way to achieve that. Putin should now let the Ukrainians figure that out.