Close to a quarter-century ago, a vast empire, one long degenerated into a brutal and highly militarized dictatorship, was dissolved more peaceably than has been just about any other empire in history.
This is what happened when the Soviet Union ceased to exist at the end of December 1991.
The Soviet Union, though, disappeared from the map and then re-emerged as the Russia of today at the cost of the deaths of only a few dozen of those of its citizens who had been struggling for years to gain independence.
By contrast, several far more advanced and democratic countries, the leaders among these being Britain and France, had earlier given up their empires but had done so only after having killed tens of thousands of their former subject peoples.
This doesn’t mean that today’s Russia is now or ever was while still the Soviet Union a more liberal and progressive political entity than those grand old imperialists Britain and France or other countries, such as the Netherlands and Portugal, that decolonized themselves after the end of the Second World War.
Instead, it means that some sense of balance is needed in assessing what’s happening in Ukraine, namely a clumsy and ultimately unquestionably futile attempt by Russia to preserve its power and presence in a region of the old Soviet Union.
The kind of balance, that’s to say, that recognizes that to several hundred million people around the world distinctions between the invasions of their countries by the United States backed by “coalitions of the willing” (Canada among them), and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dispatch of troops to Crimea are, to put it mildly, not easy to sell — not only to jihadist terrorists but to the great majority of ordinary, non-violent Muslims.
Specifically, the U.S. invasion of Iraq on the basis of totally fraudulent claims — that its leader, Saddam Hussein, was developing nuclear weapons — of which the consequence has been a horrendous, still rising number of deaths, was utterly indefensible.
Putin’s actions are similarly indefensible. But not entirely so. Crimea is at once part of Ukraine and part of Russia. A majority of its people are Russian. It only became part of what was then the state of Ukraine in 1954, and did so as a kind of gift of the then all-powerful Soviet government.
Even if Mikhail Gorbachev, who engineered the extraordinarily generous and peaceable dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, were still in power he would have to take account of the concerns of fellow-Russians who feel threatened by the changes, most of them, in fact, highly laudable, now taking place in Ukraine.
Most of the responses to Putin’s bullying that are now being suggested seem silly, such as evicting Russia from the G8 group, as proposed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. These amount to little more than western leaders wanting to claim to their publics that they are “doing something” to pressure Putin into behaving better.
Surely, only one solution has any hope of lasting success. This is the Canadian solution. Officially and legally, Quebec is only a province like all our others.
In reality, Quebec has achieved special status for itself.
Some similar kind of decentralization will have to be granted to Crimea and perhaps also to some parts of eastern Ukraine.
Indeed, this is what’s happening now to Scotland in Britain. And to Catalonia in Spain.
To return home, another example of applying this technique of finding a way to fit a round peg into a square hole is the increasing autonomy now being granted to native people in Canada.
Easy to say, hard to do. But it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternatives of political posturing or, far worse, of violence.
Richard Gwyn’s column appears every
other Thursday. email@example.com.