Fukushima and Crimea

Governments find it hard to do the right thing for their people – why?

There are those who say that the idiots running western and allied governments (the “civilized” countries) are pitching the world towards a pair disasters, the full realization of either of which, in its most extreme form, would likely change life on earth for the worse for most folks, whether it’s the continuing, unabated nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima or the continuing, unabated political meltdown over Ukraine that risks nuclear war. There are also those who don’t say that these leaders are idiots. We’ll see how things turn out.

As mid-March 2014 unfolds, neither Fukushima nor Crimea is yet at the brink of global catastrophe, apparently, but neither seems subject to safe and sane response from people in authority, either. That’s not to predict an end-of-the-world scenario for either disaster, just to remind people that, at the extreme end of these uncontrolled events, there are horrendous logical risks that our leaders are amiably accepting (or urging) on behalf of the rest of us. And they seem to expect our gratitude, for their efforts in Ukraine or their lack of efforts in Fukushima, more or less equally.

Even though it’s Japan’s third largest prefecture, Fukushima is a relatively small place, as those things go: 5,321 square miles, a little smaller than the state of Connecticut. With a population of about two million, Fukushima is comparable to New Mexico (Connecticut has 3.6 million people). Fukushima is unique in the world in having suffered the March 11, 2011, earthquake/tsunami/triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. This three-part event has so far killed some 20,000 people, with 2,600 more still missing, and it’s turned another 300,000 people into internal refugees with little or no hope of returning home (terrible numbers that pale in comparison to Syria, whose disaster started about the same time). The world’s response to Fukushima has, in all respects, been spotty and ineffective. Japan’s response to the needs of its own people has been spotty and ineffective, except for the robust insistence on re-starting all its nuclear reactors.

U.S. considered using radiation as a weapon in World War II

And of course the release of radioactive isotopes into the air and water around Fukushima continues, unevenly but without let up in its fourth year. In the run-up to the atomic bomb, physicist Robert Oppenheimer weighed the comparable effectiveness of just irradiating enemy populations, rather than obliterating them and their cities. There was little doubt that spreading plutonium on people would kill or injure them in effective numbers, but the dying might be too slow militarily and the ground would be poisoned against future occupation.

One might think the unceasing release of radioactive substances that potentially threaten the health and safety of people around the globe to a greater or lesser extent might get more attention (at least as a health concern if not as an event tantamount to an act of war), but then one would not be thinking like an international leader.

In terms of geopolitical significance, it matters more to those in charge that people are living under their politically preferred ideology than if they’re being exposed to excess radiation that will make them sick, give them cancers, or kill them. Fukushima is the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl (which just happens to be in Ukraine). The 1986 meltdown of just one nuclear reactor left a radioactively contaminated “dead zone” of more than 1,000 square miles from which evacuation was compulsory (although some 200, mostly elderly “samosely” are allowed to remain). Other danger zones, from which the government compels or assists resettlement, exist outside the “dead zone” and have yielded more than 100,000 nuclear refugees. [There is at least one other, 834 square mile “dead zone” in Belarus, which received an estimated 72% of the early heavy fallout from Chernobyl, contaminating 25% of the country. Additionally, more than two million people in Belarus still live in radioactively contaminated areas that have been made “safe” by the government’s arbitrarily raising radiation limits. The Belarus and French governments, together with the United Nations and nuclear industry interests (including the IAEA), run a program (secret before 2004) to resettle people into radioactive areas. Reportedly, the Japanese government, TEPCO, and U.N. agencies are considering resettling Fukushima the same way, by defining danger away.]

Crimea has NEVER been an integrated, satisfied part of Ukraine

Almost twice as big as Fukushima, Crimea is still a relatively small place, but with a character all its own. Crimea’s 10,404 square miles represent less than one-twentieth of Ukraine (233,000 square miles, bigger than California, smaller than Texas). Chernobyl, not that far from Kiev, has always been more or less part of Ukraine. By stark contrast, the history of Crimea’s integration with Ukraine is all but non-existent in history. In the mid-1400s, Crimea was a Tatar state founded by a descendant of Genghis Khan. In 1478, Crimea became a tributary of the Ottoman Empire until 1774, when it became an independent state, essentially liberated by Russia (until Russia annexed it in 1783). Crimea remained part of Russia until 1917, when it declared its independence again (which lasted about a year, before it was occupied by the Soviet Union, then the Germans, then the Soviet Union again).

In 1921, Crimea was granted “autonomy,” which was interrupted by the German occupation (1941-43), then stripped by the Soviet Union in 1945. Still part of the Soviet Union in 1954, Crimea was organizationally transferred to Ukraine, also part of the Soviet Union. In 1991, Crimea became the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, within the Soviet Union, followed by a power struggle with the Kiev government in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s break-up. In early 1992, the Crimean Parliament proclaimed its independence as the Republic of Crimea and adopted its first constitution (which it amended the same day to say Crimea was part of Ukraine); within weeks, Crimea dropped its proclamation of self-government in an apparent trade-off for greater autonomy from Kiev, but the dispute over the status of Crimea continued to feed political turmoil until Ukraine executed a constitutional coup. On March 17, 1995, the Kiev government scrapped the Crimean constitution, sacked the Crimean president and eventually established, with obvious irony, the “Autonomous Republic of Crimea” – which still had periodic anti-Kiev eruptions and now (as of March 16) has voted to join the Russian Federation.

Contrary to many media reports that the Crimean referendum offered no real choice, the actual ballot had two rather different and nuanced choices:

1. “Do you support rejoining Crimea with Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation?”

2. “Do you support restoration of the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Crimea and Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine?”

Stripped bare, the mainstream media typically say the referendum offers “no choice” because the media don’t like the actual choice offered: independence or join Russia. What the media don’t say is that they want Crimea to have a choice to remain under the thumb of Kiev with no greater “autonomy.” Of course that’s intellectually dishonest, but it does illuminate the absurdity of arguing about Ukraine’s “territorial integrity,” which has included Crimea for about twenty of the past 600 years. Most of that time Crimea seems to have been seeking independence from large countries that refused to leave it alone.

On March 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Crimea’s sovereign independence, and of course there are reasons to think that won’t last. According to the Associated Press, this declaration is “a bold challenge to Washington that escalates one of Europe’s worst security crises in years.” Well, no. It doesn’t –unless Washington wants it to, unless Washington demands that Crimea remain a vassal state to Ukraine, unless Washington wants another Crimean war. And that’s likely just what Washington wants as it exercises its usual mindless lack of creativity.

This is a crisis that has no useful purpose, a crisis that was manufactured in the west and lacks any easy definition (other than provoking Russia), a crisis that stands for no meaningful principle, a crisis in which the U.S. and Ukrainian neo-Nazis are on the same side, a crisis in which the U.S. has no vital interest (but Russia does), a crisis that is a stupid funhouse mirror of the Cuban missile crisis and has the same potential end point.

Washington needs to back off, for the sake of the world. Washington needs to save peace, not face. Pushing Russia on Crimea is perversely more likely to enable a Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine. That would hardly be an improvement. Ukraine has plenty to do to fix itself without worrying about Crimea, which isn’t that much bigger than the Chernobyl dead zone. Standing for the territorial independence of Crimea is something reasonable people could (but probably won’t, and who’s reasonable here anyway?) agree on.

The real stakes here are tiny. Crimea is the size of Vermont taking a deep breath.

Crimea is smaller than Haiti, Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Albania, or the Solomon Islands, and commands about the same geopolitical attention in the real world. Crimea is larger than Rwanda, Macedonia, Belize, El Salvador, or Israel.

Granted, the U.S. has gone irrational over El Salvador in the recent past, but that was a function of geography and Reaganism, and there was no serious opposition. On the other hand, the U.S. has treated Haiti worse and for longer than anyone has treated Crimea. So what on earth is making the U.S. react to Crimea as if it was Israel? That would be crazy, too, but at least it would be understandable in its way.

The good news, such as it is, is that if western leaders pursue their Crimean obsession to its worst conclusion, then the problems of Chernobyl and Fukushima won’t seem nearly so important any more.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.