The Ukraine situation, the 1918-19 Crimea campaign and the shadows of memory

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Four weeks ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, following his telephone discussion with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias reportedly said that Russia is well aware of the fact that Greece is a member of NATO and the EU but “[we] trust our Greek friends […] that with their wisdom they will make the choice that meets their beliefs”. This quote came close at the step of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s negative comments on the use of the Alexandroupolis base to get NATO equipment to Ukraine.

The Ukrainian crisis is now at its most dangerous turn; since then, FM Dendias has been in a flash visit to Ukraine, in the South-Eastern area of Marinpol and Sartana where one finds the core of the (120.000-strong) Greek communities. He spoke words of encouragement, also meeting with the OSCE Mission who monitors the situation trying to defuse it.

But the rapid deterioration of the situation over the Ukraine brings to the surface long-forgotten Greek reflexes and field experiences. One hundred and three years ago, Greece joined forces with European intervention/invasion force of the then-Entente Alliance in the wake of WWI, spearheaded by France.

The newly-established state entity of the Ukraine (following the 1918 Brest-Litovsk Treaty, imposed by Germany to the budding “Bolshevik Russia” under Lenin) was an irritant to the Entente forces in the Balkans. By late 1918/the first months of 1919, strong French forces had disembarked at Odessa partly to enforce claims over earlier loans made to (Tsarist) Russia and partly to undercut the establishment of the Communist regime in (earlier Entente member) Russia. Two French divisions crossing into the Ukraine from Romania and a Polish one were joined by two Greek divisions who crossed the Dardanelles from East Macedonia, along the anti-Bolshevik army of Denikin were active in the region. From the very first, this “Crimea campaign” was of dubious organizational quality; the long-standing Geek diaspora in the Crimea/Sebastopol area offered logistics support but the military actions undertaken soon proved unsuccessful . By end-March, the Bolshevik forces had the upper hand over the whole front and the Allied forces were retreating towards Odessα. Α cease-fire was negotiated; on April 28th, Greek forces were boarding a motley of ships and crossing over to Constanza, in Romania.

Traditional Greek communities were consequently displaced. the Allied forces that held Constantinople refused Greek refugees the right to land; mobs took over Greek houses and establishments in Odessa proper, Kiev and Nikolaev. (The positive stance of the new Russian regime towards Turkey may well have played a role in the expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor that ensued).

Such shadows of memory may well play a decisive role when Greek authorities determine the measure of their engagement in the current Ukraine situation.