In the 1990s, my fellow Ukrainians kept asking me, “Why are you always defending the Crimean Tatars? They are just going to betray us, like they did during the Cossack wars.” They were referring to the Battle of Berestechko of 1651, in which, as all Ukrainian schoolchildren learn, the Tatars withdrew their forces in the middle of the confrontation, causing the Ukrainian Cossack army to suffer debilitating losses at the hands of a Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth army.
Yet since Ukraine’s rebirth as an independent state in 1991, the Tatars have consistently proven to be faithful to the Ukrainian nation. They supported the steps the government took to establish democratic rule, even when that meant sacrificing their own interests. During the 2004–2005 Orange Revolution, the Crimean Tatars joined the cause of defending free and fair elections. A group of Tatars actively fought in the Euromaidan revolution that began in November.
Crimean Tatars trust that an independent Ukraine will have a democratic government that will protect their rights. They supported the government even when Ukrainian politicians deliberately stalled the resolution of their land-ownership claims and demands for autonomy. Both issues are existentially imperative for the Tatars because they might undo some of the damage done when Soviet state police deported the entire Tatar nation from Crimea in 1944. About half of the Crimean Tatar population died during, or as a result of, these deportations, and those who survived were stripped of their worldly possessions. Their children and grandchildren slowly returned to the peninsula after the fall of the Soviet Union, and many are now seeking to reclaim their familial land.
The other major ethnic groups who live on the Crimean peninsula, the Russians and the Ukrainans, both have another homeland. The Tatars only have Crimea, which they thought was secure under Ukrainian control. But then came the Russian invasion in February. Even during those difficult days, the Mejlis (the representative governing body of the Tatars) resisted Russian annexation and boycotted the illegitimate referendum. Tatar leaders reiterated their stance in Simferopol, Ankara, and New York, and even on the phone with the Kremlin.
And what did Ukraine do? It pulled its army out of Crimea, leaving the Tatars to fend for themselves. History repeated itself, except in reverse: This time it was the Ukrainians who withdrew their forces from the battlefield before the fight was over. I am not blaming the Ukrainian government, which had no choice but to leave. I am simply pointing out how this situation is likely to be perceived by our faithful allies, the Crimean Tatars: They supported us on the Maidan, and we abandoned them to the mercy of the Russian occupiers. The loss of their trust in Ukraine is a psychological wound that will take a long time to heal.
The Crimean Tatars now have no good options. Some have left Crimea, settling in mainland Ukraine or even further west. Others have remained on the peninsula, refusing to be uprooted from their native land once more. In exchange for maintaining a tenuous grip on their property, they have been forced to accept the terms of Russian rule—to accept Russian passports and grapple with the dysfunction that has accompanied the new government.
Some Ukrainians may find the Tatars’ choice to remain in Crimea distasteful, and accuse them of collaborating with occupying forces. Indeed, the knowledge that, for the first time in the past ten years, the Tatar parliament has not begun its daily session with the Ukrainian national anthem leaves a poor taste in one’s mouth.
Ukrainian leaders left the Crimean Tatars with few choices. Ukraine could have made an exception to its ban on dual citizenship for Tatars, which would have made the practicalities of life much easier and would have signified that the Ukrainian state is sensitive toward them. We can celebrate the fact that on March 20, the Ukrainian parliament recognized the Crimean Tatars as the native people of Crimea, “guaranteeing protection and the realization of the inalienable right for self-definition within a sovereign and independent Ukrainian nation,” and recognizing the Mejlis as a legitimate representative organ of the Tatars. But that recognition came much too late, causing nothing but frustration and disappointment.
Our task is not to regret what has been lost, but to recognize that every crisis creates new opportunities. And I believe that today, we are closer than ever to resolving some of Ukraine’s long-standing problems.
I envision a skeptical chorus asking, “Do you seriously allow that Russian imperalist hawks will ever give Crimea back?” Yes, I do. In the twentieth century alone, my native region of Halychyna has been part of four empires (Austro-Hungarian, Russian, German, and Soviet), each of which convinced the world that it would remain forever.
Russia’s imperial ambitions stand on nothing but gas money and propaganda, and those ambitions are becoming increasingly anachronistic. Moreover, the guiding slogan of Euromaidan—that it was a battle for “our freedom and yours”—may turn out to be true for Russians themselves. Putin’s lawlessness has revealed the hidden evil of his rule, and may thus become his undoing. Russia may still be grasping for Ukraine, a source of ideological legitimacy for its empire, but its hour of empire is over.
So, hard as it may be to believe, Ukraine does have a chance at reclaiming Crimea. But first, it must become a successful democratic nation; that is the only path to preserving its independence and defending itself from Putin. Ukraine must also reclaim Crimea, but not for her own sake. The recent crisis confirms that the only true organizing force in Crimea is the Tatars. Protecting their political and cultural identity is key to the restoration of justice on the peninsula.
The Crimean Tatars are facing severe setbacks, but they may yet win the right to nationhood. Today’s Mejlis has proved that it is willing not only to protect the interests of its own people, but also to consider the rights of other ethnic groups and neighboring nations. In the event of a Ukrainian-Russian treaty, Crimea could be legally returned to a democratic Ukraine, but only as an autonomously governed region. How long such an autonomous region would last as part of Ukraine is hard to say. But if it were to enter, along with Ukraine, into the European Union—as unlikely as that may be—that question would become irrelevant. It would become part of one European homeland.
This all sounds rather utopian, of course, given the Russian troops now stationed at the Ukrainian border, given the pro-Russian “separatists” occupying government buildings in the east, and given that Putin’s governing elite—as evidenced by a recently overheard conversation between two Russian ambassadors—is still gripped by the heady conviction that Russia will rule the world.
That’s a delusion that Russian oligarchs will awaken from sooner or later. What we are witnessing today is the agony of a passing empire. Russia can still do a lot of harm by pulling the world into new military confrontations, but it cannot stop the advancement of civilization. Ukraine can exit the Crimean crisis a stronger nation, but that requires recognizing this opportunity—and fighting for it.