In 2008 and 2009, I taught health economics and health policy at Crimea State Medical University in Simferopol, Crimea, on a Fulbright Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State.
During my stay my family was all but adopted by a Crimean family, who invited us to birthday parties and holiday dinners. I shared an office with three colleagues who regaled me for hours with stories about the Soviet era and the hardships of the 1990s. My children attended an international school where instruction was primarily in Russian. I had the opportunity to meet with the minister of health and the minister of economic development. I appeared on television.
I authored a white paper for the Verkovna Rada (Supreme Council) proposing taxes on vodka, cigarettes and sugar as a public health measure (for which I was both tolerated and lampooned). My host family showed me the cultural and historic landmarks of Crimea. I saw the Russian fleet in Sevastopol.
By the end of my stay I considered myself an adopted Crimean in almost every respect. In a touching ceremony, my faculty colleagues gave me an honorary degree and made me an honorary faculty member.
I learned Russian because everyone spoke Russian. Very few people spoke English. We watched television broadcast from Russia. I had the opportunity to watch the New Year’s Day call-in show on Russian television. Vladimir Putin fielded calls from Russian citizens. He appeared to be personable and fully in control. He was admired by many people I knew.
My host, Anatoli, was an avid soccer fan. When Russia played Ukraine, he rooted for Russia. He became a Pittsburgh Penguins devotee because Evgeny Malkin played for them. I listened to colleagues complain that the Ukrainian government in Kiev had mandated that instruction in public schools be in Ukrainian rather than Russian.
Academic papers were required to be published in both Ukrainian and Russian. I listened to everyone complain about rampant corruption. Rent prices and loans were quoted in U.S. dollars because no one trusted the currency, the Hryvna, which went from seven to the dollar when we arrived in August to more than 50 by Christmas.
I spent time in Kiev, some for meetings with State Department people, some with Fulbright program people. I had the opportunity to spend a week interviewing brilliant applicants for the Muskie Fellowship. During my time in Kiev it became clear to me that many people in Kiev, Americans and Ukrainians alike, did not understand Crimea at all.
Strangely enough, though, while most people I knew were Russian by birth, by language, by culture and by philosophy, I knew no one who ever expressed the desire for Crimea to be part of Russia. The Crimeans I knew wanted Crimea to be independent, to be left alone to educate their children and to be allowed to work and to socialize as Crimeans.
There was deep distrust of all politicians. There was resentment that Ukrainian politics favored Ukrainian speakers from western Ukraine. People were also clear that, with Russia on the doorstep, Crimea could not afford to have Russia as an enemy. The Crimeans I knew valued strength. They saw Mr. Putin as strong and Western politicians as weak.
I walked more than an hour every day. Spoke with shop keepers and strangers. I spent time with colleagues and students. My medical faculty colleagues were all doctors. They were not wealthy. Most of them held second jobs just to get by. Many of them could not afford a car. I got the sense that everyone, including my highly educated colleagues and friends, were barely getting by.
Unemployment was high. Public parks were packed with people of all ages drinking vodka ($1 per quart) and smoking cigarettes (15 cents per pack). Life span for men was 62 years.
There was a sense of collective depression and at times, outright fear. My driver told stories of armed robberies in broad daylight. Colleagues shared public health records that recorded stunning cancer rates. Police openly solicited bribes. Russia threatened to shut the flow of natural gas in the depth of winter. People could not afford price increases. Nothing worked. There were power outages. The water stopped. Heat came in November whether it was cold or not (that year it was cold in October) and went off in April even when the temperature hovered near freezing.
Crimea, like Ukraine, was in deep trouble economically. I think Crimea would have allied with any outside country that would promise to improve economic conditions. No one I spoke to believed that Crimea or Ukraine could do anything to help themselves economically. Some of the people I met asked whether the United States would help them. Since my stay coincided with the 2008 financial meltdown, I told them it would be unlikely. I asked if they believed that Russia would help. The answer was usually “no.”
Accordingly, it was with alarm but not surprise that I watched the events in Kiev unfold this winter. When Mr. Putin decided to annex Crimea I knew it to be a logical extension of Russian strategy. Weeks before I arrived in Crimea, Russia had moved into Georgia. I recall telling people in Kiev that I believed Russia was capable of doing the same thing in Crimea and that Crimeans would welcome them (Tatars aside), despite their preference for independence.
So what will happen now? Will Russia give Crimea the economic assistance that it really needs? Will Russia continue to use natural gas for leverage? Will European nations and the United States give Ukraine the economic help that it really needs? (Halfway measures might produce more harm than good, generating
resentment for the West among both Ukrainians and Russians).
Will the conflict between Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Ukrainian speakers continue? Will there be pressure on the United States and Europe to intervene? Will Russia try to annex more of eastern Ukraine, or all of Ukraine? What are the implications for the West if it does?
Having lived in Crimea, I can see one possibility, however slight, to defuse the tensions and produce a win for Crimea, for Russia, for Ukraine and for the West. That would be for all parties to pull back and allow Crimea and Ukraine to be independent neutral countries.
Ukraine and Crimea would, if healthy, provide a valuable buffer between Russia and Europe. Crimea could provide an outlet for Russian-leaning Ukrainians. Ukraine could be an outlet for Western-leaning Ukrainians.
Europe, the United States and Russia would need to develop an effective economic aid and development program to help Ukraine and Crimea develop their economies to the point they no longer would depend on outside help. Together, the large powers might be able to manage that.
Otherwise, continued confrontation in Ukraine with the West and Russia championing conflict is a losing proposition for all sides, with Crimeans and Ukrainians held hostage in their own land.
Stephen Foreman is an associate professor of health care administration at Robert Morris University.