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Editorial: See the threads in the Ukraine

The age-old building and subsequent collapse of empires are threads that span the European continent. Any diplomatic effort, especially for “New World” nations like the United States, has to acknowledge those threads.

The United States and others can talk about Russian aggression and Ukr ainian independence all they want, but without understanding the history of the region and recognizing that time does not alter how those threads have been spun, diplomacy won’t stand a chance.

Crimea has been an object of Russian interest and influence for centuries. The peninsula on the Black Sea has been the sought-after warm-water port since the reign of Catherine the Great — who took Crimea from the Turkish Ottoman Empire at the end of the 18th Century — but only over strong British and French objections.

Since then, it has been fought over, negotiated, declared independent and propped up under various flags. The Crimean War was fought in the 1850s, between Russia on one side and the British, French and Turks on the other, over just such issues.

In 1954, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev, a Ukrainian by birth, symbolically returned Crimea to the Ukrainian people, but both remained part of the USSR.

That didn’t end Russian influence there by any stretch of the imagination.

As it now stands, 60 percent of the Crimean population considers itself Russian, a fact that’s likely to influence a referendum scheduled for later this month on Crimea’s future. The rest of the Ukraine, too, has ties to Russia, including the number of Russian speakers living elsewhere in the country. Prominent, too, in all this intertwined business is Ukraine’s lease to Russia of the naval base and fleet stationed at Sevastopol.

Any diplomatic efforts, therefore, must recognize Russia’s legitimate stake in the area.

That’s not to excuse the decision by Vladimir Putin to flex his military muscles around and in the Ukraine. The former KGB officer uses his own form of thuggery and cult of personality to rule, and knows well that fear-based propaganda allows him entry.

But anyone trying to help find a peaceful solution must understand just how deep the Russian threads are in the Ukraine, and see how that provides the window on the reasoning behind Russia’s acts.

That knowledge should help set the tone for diplomacy involving the U.S. and others in the West.

But that’s not the only information that should shape how the West responds. Russia’s economy is in tough shape. So, too, is the Ukraine’s. Putting together financial packages and creating economic leverage can be both the carrot and the stick to de-escalate tension in the region.

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