I’m nearly 50 years old now. When I was a younger man I was a sailor, an American sailor in the US Navy.
One could hardly have missed the news the last couple years of the increased risk of (and actual) confrontation between the United States and Russia, particularly in Ukraine, and Crimea.
One may have very little knowledge of the history of Russia and Ukraine, and Crimea. Or one may have quite a lot of knowledge, or, none whatsoever. Either way, there’s something fundamental at stake that’s not difficult to understand. Any sailor can understand this.
30 years ago I was stationed on ships out of Norfolk and San Diego. The idea that these are American Naval Bases, that they belong to America, that they are sort of fundamental to American-ness, was obviously never in question. If an idea were to be introduced (and it wouldn’t be) that these bases could be anything other than American Naval bases, such an idea would not rise even to the level of being ludicrous. That Norfolk or San Diego could be controlled as military bases belonging to any country other than the United States is an idea that’s less than absurd; it’s a non-idea.
No sane or rational actor in the world would entertain such an idea, let alone put military force behind it.
In the late 80s as an American sailor, we of course were aware of other navies, and, certainly well aware of the Soviet navy. Though we were each sort of designed to be targeting the other, still it was easy to understand that they, like us, had their home bases, that in their country, they had their bases, home to their fleets. That’s pretty simple. They exist; we exist; we’re armed; they’re armed.
Conflict would be massively deadly, but if necessary we’re ready. That fact of course did not invalidate, nor even bring into question, the idea that they had their home and we had our home. Let’s do a little thought experiment though, to understand recent events and to try to have some insight into the thinking of the other side. Let’s imagine, as a thought experiment, that history were inverted, that what happened to Russia instead happened to the United States.
Let’s say that in 1991 the United States removed all of its military installations from Western Europe, and that back home in the US at the same time, the US peacefully devolved some of its states into independent nations, as was actually the case when the Soviet Union and Ukraine agreed on the future of Ukraine as an independent nation.
In our thought experiment version of history, the Soviet Union remains intact while it is the United States instead that sheds some states. Let’s say one of them is Virginia. Virginia becomes an independent nation in 1991. Given the importance of Norfolk, Virginia, to the United States Navy, negotiation of the foundational agreement between the United States and what is to become the new nation of Virginia, includes a long-term 50 year lease of Norfolk and its environs, which, it is agreed, will continue to be operated as a United States Naval base, within Virginia, with the United States paying an annual leasing fee to the newly independent Virginia for this arrangement.
Fair enough so far, as this is a clear enough analogy to the actual situation, as the Ukraine took independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and among the terms of that arrangement the two countries negotiated a 50 year lease (through 2042) on the Russian Naval base at Sevastopol, Crimea, with Russia paying an annual leasing fee to Ukraine for this arrangement. It’s worth noting here that Russia has held this strategic position at Sevastopol since before the United States existed.
Our analogy so far is not completely satisfactory though because it does not well enough account for the special and profound significance of Crimea and Sevastopol to Russia, historically, culturally, mythologically, militarily, strategically. And as a simple sailor myself, I’m not well enough equipped with insight to do justice to these factors. But for anyone interested, the literature is certainly rich. Knowledge is ready at hand.
Let’s move to recent events, from 2014. I’ll describe this in the context of our made up analogy.
In February 2014, a decades-long 5 billion dollar Russian investment in the overthrow of the government of the independent nation of Virginia, results in a Russian coup d’état in Virginia. On the first day after the coup, the Russian-backed government in Virginia declares its intention to revoke the long term lease agreement for the United States Navy at Norfolk.
Let’s just end it there full stop.
What would be the American reaction to those Russian actions? How would the United States respond to the idea that the US would surrender to Russia, control of its Naval base at Norfolk, Virginia?
Think over for yourself the range of possible US responses, and ask yourself which response the US would most likely pursue. And while pursuing it, how would Americans characterize the actions of Russia, in the overthrow of the government of Virginia, and in Russia’s de-facto demand by proxy for handing over Norfolk, Virginia to Russia.
I think it’s pretty clear how we’d react, and how we’d characterize Russians, (correctly): insane. And we’d have to invent new words, because reckless doesn’t come close to covering it.
Now turn the tables back to the way things are really facing, and ask yourself why those words don’t apply to us.