Russian Gambit In Crimea: A Historical Perspective

When the now famous words “The ships are lost. Mindarus is dead. The men are starving. We wonder what is to be done.” Were recorded by Xenophon in his book Hellenica it was in reference to the fate of a Spartan naval detachment which had found itself stranded in Crimea, a place as cold and foreboding then as it is now. Fast forward to today and we see Vladimir Putin seemingly getting the upper hand, occupying the southern peninsular region of Crimea with sailors, and warships. The region which has been host to at first intense combat, 2011-2014, and now intermittent skirmishes seems like the ideal place for the Russians to enact their neo-imperial policy of dominating the near abroad. Indeed from the current American administrations viewpoint President Putin has done it again to the United States outfoxing the Americans, this time by forcibly claiming oil and Euxine territoriality, something not done by Russia since the end of the Cold War. History tells another story. The quote above from Xenophon has been attributed to Hippocrates. Hippocrates was an aide de camp to Admiral Mindaurus during the Peloponnesian War. In this wide ranging and consequential war during the 5th century B.C. the Spartans and Athenians were engaged in a contest of wills which would go on to decide the fate of greek city state life forever.

The battle in question, however involved Mindaurus a competent Spartan admiral who was sent to Crimea via the Bosphorus an order to prevent Athenian exploitation of resources. He was to in essence blockade Crimea and from there he was to return home. However in this battle Mindaurus on his way back from blockading Crimea was waylaid by an Athenian statesman by the name of Alcibiades. Alcibiades’ contribution is significant since it forced the Spartans to de camp in Crimea, an otherwise barren wasteland significant only because of its natural resources. In the battle Mindaurus is killed, and the ships and their provisions are either captured or destroyed by the Athenians. The Spartans were able to control the souther tip of Crimea, however the land was inhospitable with mountains to the North, Scythian’s further inland, and Athenians on the seas. It got so bad that the Spartans began to cannibalize each other unable to find food, or a viable water source.

The point that i’m making is this: It may seem as though Putin has the upper hand in Crimea, however he can’t go inland as the Ukrainians are waiting for him, the natural resources can’t yet be exploited, since theres no where to take them, the land is inhospitable as there is very little wildlife and since it’s an island walled off by mountains from the rest of Russia; the Russians are surely having a difficult time keeping their soldiers well fed and rested. The administration need only blockade the port and Russia will feel compelled to engage in naval warfare. So then if the incoming administration or the current administration feels the need to apply pressure on Russia they need only look at Crimea as the Achilles heel in Russia’s plans in region.

In the Athenian blockade the Spartans tried time and again to break it and get away from Crimea, however the blockade was only lifted when the Athenians ran out of supplies of food and water necessary to sustain it. So then Putin may have the upper hand but this is a tenuous situation at best.

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