Behind the Headline: California’s Record Drought

Lake Oroville as it appeared in 2011 - before the drought -  and in 2014. (2011 image by Paul Hames, 2014 image by Justin Sullican, both for Getty Images)

Lake Oroville as it appeared in 2011 – before the drought – and in 2014. (2011 image by Paul Hames, 2014 image by Justin Sullican, both for Getty Images)

Today it rained on California’s Central Coast. In San Luis Obispo, I was holed up in a library while there was a heavy downpour at about 10:00 in the morning. To us Californians, any rain of any kind is an answer to prayer right now, as our state is currently suffering from what is being called the worst drought in recorded history.

Already, Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered the state’s first ever mandatory cuts to water usage with the aim of reducing California’s water usage by 25%. The measures he enacted include:

  • Replacing water-hungry grass lawns with more drought-tolerant landscaping options across California, through local government programs encouraging residents to make the switch-over.
  • Requiring cut-backs on water use at colleges and universities, golf courses, cemeteries, and public roads. The little decorative grassy bits in the concrete meridians of some roads? Those will not get any more water at all.
  • Creating a rebate program for people to trade in old appliances for new, more water-efficient models.
  • Restricting water usage at newly-built residential neighborhoods, such as requiring the use of drip irrigation systems, and cracking down on anyone living in established residential areas who are in violation of rules regarding sinks, toilets, and landscaping.
  • Providing assistance for families that need to relocate from areas that have run out of water completely, such as might happen if an area dependent on well-water runs dry.

Further details of how the plan will work are to be announced by the State Water Resources Control Board at some point this week. Already, there are criticisms of the current water conservation plan. This editorial suggests that instead of laying down the hammer on water use, the state could make it more expensive to use too much water with higher taxes. Still others say the restrictions don’t go far enough, arguing that the state’s 26 million acres of farmland should be forced to restrict their water use, too.

Why is this happening? How is it going to affect you? It’s time once again to go Behind the Headline.

So, is this California’s worst drought ever?

California Drought Map by the United States government


This is the worst drought in California’s recorded history, and that’s an important caveat to keep in mind. Of all the indigenous civilizations that existed in California prior to European contact, none of them developed a system of writing, so the oldest historical records we have about the state were written by the Spanish in the 18th century.

Thanks to the hard work of archaeologists and paleontologists who have studied tree rings and other evidence, we now know that there have been far worse droughts in California’s history. They have learned that California has experienced a number of “megadroughts” that have lasted as long as 10-20 years. In 850 A.D., a drought began that lasted 240 years, and in 1140 A.D., another drought struck that lasted 180 years!

Even within recorded history, California has had worse droughts if all you are going by is annual rainfall. A 30-year drought, lasting roughly from 1910 to 1940, saw many years of very low rainfall, including the driest on record so far, 1924, when the entire state saw only 9.23 inches of precipitation.

What makes the current drought so bad isn’t the weather, it’s the people. When those ancient megadroughts hit the state, the only people in California were societies that survived on hunting and gathering. There were 2.3 million Californians in 1910, and there were 6.9 million in 1940. Today, there are nearly 39 million of us, according to the U.S. Census Bureau! That’s 12% of the entire population of the United States.

That’s 39 million people drawing on the same water supply, and that means when a drought hits, that water supply is depleted very quickly. Hence, we are seeing proposals for more desalinization plants that would extract drinkable water from the vast Pacific Ocean right off our coast. Desalinization is an expensive option, but if this drought lasts as long as some of the droughts in California’s history, it might end up as an option many coastal communities pursue.

So California just needs more rain?

Rain alone is not enough to break this drought. What California needs is SNOW.

You're... joking, right? Right?

You’re… joking, right? Right?

I know, California is known for year-round sunshine, beaches, and not having a true winter, but up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, feet of snow can accumulate. These mountains hold the national record for most snow in one month (390 inches, or 32.5 feet) and greatest snow depth recorded (451 inches, or 37.6 feet), as well as second-most snowfall in a single day (67 inches, or 5.6 feet). As winter turns to spring, all of that mountain snow will melt and feed the state’s rivers and lakes.

That’s why it’s so significant that California’s snowfall this year was only 6% of what we normally get. That is the biggest cause of the drought, and the biggest reason all of the state’s lakes and rivers are drying up.

Well, at least this is as bad as it gets, right?

I hate to be a pessimist, but this actually could get worse, at least according to this article from National Geographic. To quench California’s mighty thirst, the state is drawing more and more of its water from underground pockets of water called “aquifers” that emerge in gravelly and sandy soil. Aquifers close to the surface get replenished with runoff from lakes and streams, but the deeper you dig for water, the less likely that the water you pump going to be replaced. Some of the deepest aquifers can’t be refilled at all, so when that water runs out, it’s gone forever.

Yet, in response to the drought, groundwater from these aquifers now makes up 60% of the water Californians are consuming. There are almost no restrictions in California law on sucking up this water and selling it. Not only that, but as the water is used up, the ground above it sinks, since there is less mass supporting it. All of this has the potential to radically reshape California’s landscape, both in the figurative sense of people abandoning areas dependent on dried-up aquifers, and in the literal sense of sinking land.

I don’t live in California. Why should I care?

One word: Agriculture.

Tractor image by Thomas McSparron

Did you eat a salad today? Odds are pretty strong that the lettuce you ate came from California. The cheese on your pizza could easily have come from a California dairy. California olives, grapes, and citrus are eaten nationwide, and we produce 90% of all American wines. California is the second-largest rice-growing state in the U.S., and exports a third of its crop to Japan. Yes, you read that right, California supplies rice to Japan.

Agriculture is responsible for 80% of California’s water consumption. That means California’s water crisis could easily lead to higher prices on your groceries. As the water supply dwindles, it gets more expensive, and farmers have to raise their prices. Even worse, many farms will simply get so water-starved that they have to shut down, reducing the supply of many crops and making the remaining farms’ crops more expensive because global demand for food won’t have changed. Already, some California rice farms are closing. As the drought wears on, the price you pay at the grocery store for your food will get higher and higher.

What can I do about this?

If you live in California, you can visit this website with more than 100 tips and tricks to saving water. You can find even more tips here. The less water we all use, the longer the water supply we have will last us.

For those of you not in California, it couldn’t hurt to write your local representatives in Congress and ask what they plan to do about the water crisis. Even if all you do is keep us in your prayers, we would very much appreciate it.

Behind the Headline: Black Friday Comes Early

Mall picture by Skeezix1000

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day for celebrating one’s blessings and one’s family. Most Americans, myself included, will be working in the kitchen to make a turkey dinner, then sitting down to share the meal with loved ones, laughing in each other’s company. Some might also spend some time watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or maybe some football.

Yet thousands of employees at retail outlets across America will have to gobble down their turkey and then head straight to work. Best Buy, Big Lots, J.C. Penney, Kmart, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Sears, and Toys ‘R’ Us are just a few of the retail chains that will be opening Thanksgiving evening with Black Friday sales offered to their customers a day early. Many of those customers will be spending the holiday camped out in front of the store for hours on end, waiting for it to open so they can get their hands on those Black Friday bargains.

Over the years, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the “official” start of the Christmas shopping season, has gradually become a bigger and bigger event for retailers. People will line up for hours before the store opens, and then rush in as soon as the doors open to grab whatever they can find for their Christmas shopping list.

That sentence may have sounded like a metaphorical exaggeration, but as this video shows, it is quite literal. Every year, there are reports of violence at retailers during Black Friday sales as shoppers stampede into the stores and fight over products. According to the morbid, there have been 7 deaths and 90 injuries resulting from chaos in the aisles as of 2013. My grandmother and aunt went to a Black Friday sale once. They saw people running through the store just grabbing things without even looking at what they had grabbed. After a woman with a cane started beating people up over an Xbox, my grandmother and aunt both decided to stay away from the stores on that day from now on.

Yet Black Friday only continues to grow stronger. In the past three years, retailers in the United kingdom have taken up the practice, even though they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving there! Businesses have started up offering to hold your place in line for you as you wait for the store to open. This is all on top of the decision by many retailers to, as the San Francisco Chronicle put it, turn Thanksgiving into “Black Thursday”.

Many people are unhappy about this trend. Some have started a trend on social media sites calling for people to “Boycott Black Thursday”. Those retailers that will stay closed on Thanksgiving, such as Barnes & Noble, Costco, GameStop, and Nordstrom, are spinning this fact to showcase how they respect their employees and their families.

Where did Black Friday come from? Why are so many retailers supporting it and helping it grow? What will become of Thanksgiving? It’s time to go Behind the Headline.

How did Black Friday get its start?

Black Friday logo from Purple Slog

Very, very gradually. The tradition of giving gifts on Christmas inherently turns the holiday into a major boon for retailers, who can usually rely on the “Spirit of the Season” to boost sales. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, retailers began to sponsor parades in major cities (such as the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade), proclaiming that the “official” start of the Christmas shopping season began when the parade ended, usually with Santa Claus reaching a main square. There was a sort of unwritten gentleman’s agreement between these stores that they would wait until after Thanksgiving to begin advertising Christmas sales.

My mother used to work at Macy’s before I was born. She remembered that as the store prepared to close the night before Thanksgiving, a special crew would come in and start pulling out the Christmas decorations. The idea was that when shoppers came in the day after Thanksgiving, the store would be bright and shiny with trees, lights, and ornaments. To put out Christmas decorations any earlier would be seen as unthinkable and quite tacky.

However, the fact of the matter is that Christmas is so important to many retailers that confining it to a single month was bothersome. Plus, there are plenty of people (myself included) who like to start Christmas shopping a bit early. As early as 1939, retailers schemed with then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt to try to add a week to the holiday shopping season by moving Thanksgiving a week earlier. The public was not amused, and Thanksgiving was moved back in 1941. Still, in the mid-1970s the gentlemen’s agreement started to be broken, as more and more retailers started a practice known as “Christmas Creep”, putting up their Christmas decorations and advertising Christmas sales earlier and earlier, until today some businesses count the holiday season as starting on September 30!

The advantage of Christmas Creep to retailers is that it not only takes advantage of early-bird shoppers, it also allows them to start advertising their Day-After-Thanksgiving-Sales early. This means more people show up to buy gifts on that day. Stores encouraged this with so-called “Doorbuster” sales, a term coined in 1949 by J.C. Penney. These sales are classic “loss-leaders”, the store marks it down so low that it actually loses money on the sale, but once the customer is in the store he or she decides, “Well, while I’m here, let me get this other thing I need. Ooh! And this is a nifty item! My niece will love that! Hey, what’s this?”

Of course, the term “Doorbuster” was just meant as a clever marketing term, but in 2008 that’s literally what happened at a Wal-Mart in Vallet Stream, N.Y. Five minutes before opening, the massive crowd gathered at the front entrance smashed in the front door and stampeded into the store, trampling an employee to death.

So it’s called “Black Friday” because of the violence, then?

Nope. It’s because of traffic.

Traffic image by Gemma Longman

In the 1960s, Philadelphia police coined the term for the day after Thanksgiving because of all the traffic jams that held up the city on that day. There would be so many people on the road shopping for Christmas gifts and then going to see the Army-Navy football game that police would have to pull all-hands-on-deck overtime duty directing traffic. By 1975, the term was starting to spread outside the city. Retailers started putting a positive spin on it, thinking of the “Black” in Black Friday as referring to being “in the black”, i.e. making a profit.

As far as I can tell from my research, the violence and rioting associated with Black Friday is a very recent phenomena. As far as I can tell, the earliest reports I found in my research of Black Friday violence occurred in 2006, with a stampede at a mall in southern California that injured 10 people. Since then, it’s gotten so bad that the U.S. government has created guidelines for ensuring employee safety on the day.

If Black Friday is so dangerous, why don’t retailers abandon the practice?

It's all about the Benjamins, Baby!

It’s all about the Benjamins, Baby!

It turns out that while Black Friday is not the biggest source of revenue for stores in the year (that would be the week right before Christmas, because procrastination), it is the day of the year when they are most able to take advantage of their customers and squeeze the most out of them. Many of the “spectacular bargains” are actually being sold to you at the price the store normally sells it; they just raised the official full-ticket price to an unholy sum right before the sale. Besides, all those people who just race through and grab things without looking are sure to have snatched more than a few overpriced goods in their loot.

Having said that, this report from CNN reveals that pushing Black Friday up to Thanksgiving actually doesn’t give stores a sales boost at all. So why are they doing it? Because of their competition – “My rival is opening at 6 P.M. on Thanksgiving. If I don’t also do the same, all my Black Friday customers will go to his store instead.”

In other words, for many retailers, the risks of rioting and violence as well as the public backlash from opening on Thanksgiving might well be worth it.

Maybe not for long, though.

How do we stop this madness?

Two words: Stay home.

This year, many retailers are offering so-called “Black Friday” discounts and sales early if you shop online. Amazon, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Lowe’s, Toys ‘R’ Us and Overstock are just a few of the businesses offering their online shoppers Black Friday prices without having to visit the store. Plus, every year since 2005, retailers have also offered deals on “Cyber Monday”, the Monday after Thanksgiving. Last year, retailers offering Cyber Monday sales made more than $2 billion!

Businesses do what makes money. That is the nature of capitalism. If retailers see that online sales like these are making more money than their in-store bedlams, they will start to focus more of their attention on the online sales. So, you can choose to spend your Thanksgiving standing in line waiting for the doors to open, then pushing and shoving your way through a cramped sea of bodies to violently assault the store shelves and risk getting beat up over a Blu-ray player, or you can enjoy your Thanksgiving and buy those Christmas gifts online. I know which one I’ll be doing.

Behind the Headline: Who are Isis?

Militants from the radical Islamic group known as "Isis" have carved out a dominion for themselves in Syria and Iraq. Image from Reuters.

Militants from the radical Islamic group known as “Isis” have carved out a dominion for themselves in Syria and Iraq. Image from Reuters.

Fighters from a radical militant group known as “Isis” (short for “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”) claim to have overrun a large military base near Raqqa, Syria, though these reports could not be independently verified at press time. Meanwhile, a video has emerged showing Isis demolishing a sacred shrine in the Iraqi city of Mosul. For the past two months, this jihadist movement has refused to leave the headlines, appearing seemingly out of nowhere and seizing control of huge chunks of Syria and Iraq, setting up a government for these territories they now rule, kicking out Christians, and declaring their leader to be the new caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

Who are these people that the U.S. State Department is calling “worse than Al Qaeda”? Where did they come from, and why are they doing this? It’s time once again to go behind the headline.

Who are Isis, and where did they come from?

Map of the areas under ISIS control by Doug Mataconis

Map of the areas under ISIS control by Doug Mataconis

The story behind Isis begins with the U.S. invasion of Iraq back in 2003. In the chaotic period following Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Jordanian-born terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zaraqi moved in and began a campaign to oppose the U.S. military occupation. After al-Zaraqi swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, his terrorist network became known in Western media as “Al Qaeda in Iraq”. For years, their suicide bombings and other attacks killed hundreds and frustrated attempts to stabilize the country. However, they started suffering a number of major setbacks. Al-Zaraqi was killed by a U.S. bomb in 2006, and not long thereafter Sunni Muslim tribal leaders in those parts of Iraq where they were operating started to turn on them. By 2008, Al Qaeda in Iraq was struggling for survival.

They started to regain some of their strength as U.S, forces withdrew from Iraq, but the event that really got them back on their feet was the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. The movement’s new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, decided to get involved in the new conflict across the border, and announced the merger between his movement and the Al-Nusra Front, a jihadist movement fighting both the dictatorship of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and more moderate, pro-democracy, Western-backed rebels. It was at this time that the movement changed its name to “Isis”, reflecting that it was operating in Syria as well as Iraq.

The alliance with the Al-Nusra front was short-lived; the two groups parted ways in 2013 and started fighting each other. By then, however, Isis had already gained a foothold in Syria. They started imposing a strict interpretation of Sharia law in the towns they occupied, forcing men to wear beards and women to wear a full veil. They use threats of violence against people’s families to keep them in line. To ensure that their orders are enforced as strictly and dispassionately as possible, they intentionally put people in charge who are not from the village, or even the country, they are policing, so there will be no temptation to be lenient. They execute those who violate their rules in public, and have gone so far as to chop off the hands of people caught stealing.

Isis soon found itself in a power struggle with its parent terrorist network, and by February of 2014, Al Qaeda completely disavowed Isis. Far from disrupting Isis’s momentum, the split only gave Isis the freedom to launch a massive offensive in Iraq. On June 9, they captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city with about 1.8 million inhabitants. Twenty days later, Al-Baghdadi declared that the organization would change its name to “The Islamic State” and that he was assuming the long-extinct title of “caliph”, or leader of all Muslims worldwide, adopting the new name “Caliph Ibrahim”. On July 5, he released a video sermon in which he called on all Muslims around the world to support him. Since then, his ambitions have only grown, according to The Fiscal Times, who predict that he may soon try to expand his domain into even more Middle Eastern countries. The threat Isis presents has brought even the United States and Iran together in a mutual desire to stop them.

Wait, what is a Caliph, and why has Isis’s leader claimed that title?

When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 AD, the early leaders of the new religion of Islam met to decide who should lead the faithful. The caliph, whose title is Arabic for “successor”, was to be the supreme leader of all Muslims, sort of like how the pope is leader of all Roman Catholics. However, there was a major dispute among the early Muslim leadership over who should be the caliph, and these political divisions eventually led to the split of the Islamic faithful into two main sects: Sunnis and Shias. Sunnis supported the election of Abu Bakr, while the Shias supported Ali. The rivalry between the two led to a civil war, and over time these rival political factions started to adopt different religious teachings and practices as well.

Over the centuries, various dynasties of caliphs ruled over various parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, such as the Sunni Umayyads and Abbasids, or the Shia Fatmids. Each of these three dynasties could trace their ancestry to a relative of the Prophet Muhammad, but centuries later, as the Turkish Ottoman Empire conquered and dominated most of the Middle East, the Ottoman sultans started to claim the title of caliph, and they were powerful enough that nobody dared challenge that claim.

As far as most mainstream Muslims are concerned, there has been no caliph since the Ottomans were overthrown in the 1920s. The re-establishment of a caliphate has been a goal of jihadist and radical Islamic movements for decades, yet Al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate was ridiculed by Isis’s opponents as “delusional”. If Al-Baghdadi can claim that title with no real merit, this USA Today editorial points out, what’s to stop any old average Joe from declaring himself caliph? It’s a meaningless declaration.

So, Isis is just another terrorist group with a crazy leader, right?

Actually, in many ways it has become a country for all practical intents and purposes. Ruling an area the size of Pennsylvania, it has a fully-functioning government, collecting taxes, providing key services like police, hospitals, garbage collection and welfare for the poor, and according to the U.S. State Department, they have a “full-blown army”. They have a capital city and are able to maintain control of both their own forces and the people in the areas they have captured quite effectively. Not only that, but Isis has access to enough oil and water to be economically viable as an independent country. The fear is that Isis will use their new domain as a safe haven for terrorists, as the Taliban had done in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

How do they keep power over the people?

ISIS forces image from The Telegraph

Largely through fear. As mentioned earlier, they are extremely strict and extremely brutal. They videotape themselves executing captured prisoners of war or other perceived enemies and post those videos online for the world to see. Any Muslim who doesn’t accept their radical version of Sunni Islam is killed, and Christians are told they must either convert to Islam or pay a “jizya” – an ancient tax early Muslims imposed on Christians living in their lands for the right to keep their religion. Almost all Christians in Isis-held cities have chosen to leave instead.

Having said that, they do have some legitimate support in the areas they rule. In Syria, the civil war has wreaked so much havoc that many Syrians find the Isis-held areas to be a peaceful safe haven where they don’t have to live in constant fear of being blown up or shot. In Iraq, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has done such a poor job accommodating the country’s Sunni minority that many Sunni Arab tribes and former supporters of Saddam Hussein’s regime have turned to Isis as an alternative, striking deals with Isis in return for cash and protection.

However, it’s not entirely clear how long Isis will enjoy this support. Isis has started destroying anything that smacks of their broad definition of “idolatry”, destroying irreplaceable artifacts from ancient civilizations, statues, Christian churches, and Islamic mosques and sacred shrines that don’t match their ideas about Islam.

Because nothing wins you support in the Middle East like destroying mosques!

Because nothing wins you support in the Middle East like destroying mosques!

What are Isis’s goals here?

As far as I can tell, power.

Last year, they claimed to want to conquer every land once ruled by Muslims, as far west as Spain and as far east as China. Journalist Sarah Birke argued that the biggest difference between Isis and other jihadist groups that have come before them is that Isis “tends to be more focused on establishing its own rule in conquered territory”. This is an important distinction: Isis is not content with just being a terrorist group. They want to rule, and to conquer, as the ancient empires of old had done.

John Gray wrote a column for BBC News where he argued that all of Isis’s talk of Islamic purity is a thin disguise for what amounts to a very modern revolutionary movement that has more in common with the Nazis, the Soviet Union and the Khmer Rouge than with early Islam. They are a totalitarian dictatorship, he writes, who believe they can use “systematic violence” to remake society to fit their vision. An anonymous former Isis fighter who spoke to BBC News appears to have confirmed as such, describing their use of propaganda, brainwashing, and fear to get people to do what they want.

The only question left is what, exactly, can be done about them, and so far, answers to that question have proven elusive.

Behind the Headline: Crimea “votes to join Russia”, U.S. and EU impose sanctions

A Crimean woman casts her vote. Yesterday, Crimean authorities announced that voters had overwhelmingly chosen to leave Ukraine and join Russia. Image by Andrew Lubimov of the AP.

A Crimean woman casts her vote. Yesterday, Crimean authorities announced that voters had overwhelmingly chosen to leave Ukraine and join Russia. Image by Andrew Lubimov of the AP.

When we last left the events in the Ukraine, pro-Western revolutionaries had just taken control of the country, promising fresh elections in a few months. Just days after this startling turn of events, armed men in uniforms with no identifying insignia or markings started taking over the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Russia claimed these were merely Crimean militias, but several of these men identified themselves to reporters as Russian soldiers. Before long, Crimea’s government was replaced by one that was more pro-Russian, Russia’s military started carrying out drills near the Ukrainian border, and Russia’s parliament voted to authorize Russian president Vladimir Putin to send troops to the rest of Ukraine if he so chose. Russia’s media is calling the new government in Ukraine a “fascist coup”, and its government says they have the right to protect Russian speakers in the country from violence.

Now a new twist has been added to the crisis: a referendum in Crimea was held yesterday asking voters whether they wanted to stay a part of Ukraine or join Russia. According to the results announced last night, 96.7% of the votes cast were in favor of joining Russia, with a voter turnout of 83%. After the announcement, the Crimean government has declared the peninsula’s independence from the Ukraine and applied for annexation by Russia.

There are doubts over whether the official results are accurate, as many Crimeans had boycotted the vote. Even if the results are accurate, though, the Ukrainian government, the United States, and the European Union have all argued that the vote is illegal and violates Ukraine’s constitution. A U.S.-backed declaration condemning the vote was approved by 13 of the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council, with Russia the only country to vote against the declaration and China refusing to pick a side. Not only are the United States and European Union refusing to recognize the vote’s results, they have announced that they will freeze the assets of and ban travel by various key figures that they claim have escalated the crisis.

Ukrainians are now bracing for what Russia’s next move will be. Recent rhetoric by Vladimir Putin has blamed recent violence in eastern Ukraine on “fascist radical extremists” supported by the new government in Kiev, and some fear that this may be a pretext for a full invasion of the country. For its part, the authorities in Kiev and many outside observers claim that the violence is the fault of pro-Russian protesters and Russian ‘protest tourists’ who are being egged on by Moscow to provoke a violent response from the Ukrainian police.

It’s hard to make sense out of all of these developments, so to help understand what is going on and what is at stake, it’s time to once again go behind the headline.

Why is Crimea so important, all of a sudden?

A map of Crimea

A map of Crimea

First of all, Crimea has not suddenly become important; it has always been important. Perhaps you may remember hearing about the “Crimean War” in your history class?

Crimea has changed hands many, many times throughout its history, in large part because of its strategic location on the Black Sea. Whoever controls the peninsula’s ports is in prime position to dominate the Black Sea, and to have easy access to the Mediterranean. Crimea is also a popular tourist destination, thanks to its beautiful beaches, mountains, and historic sites.

Crimea was conquered by the Russian Empire in 1783. At the time, the majority of the population were Tatars, a Muslim ethnic group related to the Turks and Mongols. The peninsula also had centuries-old Greek, Armenian, and Bulgarian minorities. Centuries of Russian rule brought large numbers of Russians and Ukrainians to the peninsula, until eventually it was the Russians and Ukrainians who were the majority. When the Soviet Union was set up, Crimea was initially an “Autonomous Republic” within Russia.

That’s when Joseph Stalin entered the picture. Among the many, many horrific and evil acts Stalin committed during his brutal rule, he forcibly removed the entire Tatar, Greek, Bulgarian, and Armenian populations from their homes, accusing them of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II. Most of the exiles were resettled in Uzbekistan. After Stalin died, a few of these people were able to return, but the Soviet government offered them no compensation for their losses and no help with reclaiming their lost homes. Naturally, many Tatars in Crimea today have very negative opinions about Russia.

Meanwhile, after Stalin died Nikita Khrushchev took over the USSR, and in 1954 he gave Crimea to Ukraine. According to his granddaughter, Khrushchev loved Ukraine and Ukrainians, so this decision was something of a personal gesture. On the other hand, it also made a fair amount of practical sense. Ukraine is physically attached to Crimea by a small land bridge, while Russia is not. The only way to get from Russia to Crimea is over water. This means that electricity, roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure has to be built through Ukraine to reach Crimea. Besides, at the time, Russia and Ukraine were both a part of the Soviet Union, so the transfer wouldn’t have all that much of an impact on the day-to-day lives of Crimeans.

That is, until the Soviet Union broke up. When Ukraine gained its independence, it took Crimea with it. This was a huge problem for Russia, because the Soviet Navy (and Russian Imperial Navy before it) had always used Crimea as a key naval base. Eventually, an agreement was reached where Russia agreed to recognize Ukraine’s independence and its borders – including Ukrainian rule over Crimea – in return for the right to continue using Crimea as a military and naval base.

Of course, these recent events have turned all of that on its head.

Why is Russia doing this?

Vladimir Putin, president of Russia. Image from

Vladimir Putin, president of Russia. Image from

The majority of Crimea’s population is ethnically Russian, and most of those fear the new pro-Western government in Kiev. There are also many Crimeans who feel Khrushchev made a mistake when he gave Crimea to Ukraine. There is little doubt that many Crimeans genuinely support annexation by Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia may fear that the new government would revoke Russia’s rights to its Crimean naval bases. Originally, the agreement was due to expire in 2017, but that agreement was extended until 2042. However, that extension was signed by Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president who was ousted by the revolutionaries. It is possible that Russia feared the new government would demand a return to the old terms, leaving Russia without its most vital naval base in just a few years.

However, the United States and the European Union maintain that invading Crimea and holding the referendum under the watchful eye of men with guns is a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and of the most basic principles of democracy.

Are there Crimeans and Russians who oppose these developments?

Yes. As I said before, Crimea’s Tatar minority opposes Russian annexation, and fears the consequences of a return to Russian rule. Indeed, many Russian Crimeans oppose the annexation as well, including middle-class Russians and Jews. Already, many Crimeans are moving out, fleeing to other parts of the Ukraine so they can remain Ukrainian.

In Russia, too, there are people who oppose their government’s decisions. While the majority of Russians appear to support Putin in this crisis, there were enough dissenting Russians to stage a rally in Moscow that counted tens of thousands of protesters in its number. These voices of opposition not only face harassment by police for their views, they are often attacked by their neighbors and passers-by, who call them “fascists” and “traitors”.

Are we about to see World War III, or at least another Cold War?

Cold War cartoon from Talk Android

Right now, the West’s response to the crisis has been to prop up the Ukrainian government with bailout loans, talk with Russian leaders and diplomats almost daily, and propose a very limited set of diplomatic and economic sanctions that target only Russia’s leadership. There is extreme reluctance to impose more far-reaching measures like a wholesale economic embargo blocking all trade (as the United States has done with Cuba and Iran), because of the economic interdependence between Russia and Europe.

Having said that, nobody is sure what Russia intends to do for its next move. The threat of an invasion of the rest of Ukraine to “protect Russian-speakers” worries EU members such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all of whom have large Russian minorities. These nations are also U.S. allies, so any Russian move against them would be sure to provoke an American response.

Already, the media is full of speculation that this is the beginning of a new Cold War, with a recent CNN poll finding 69% of Americans feel Russia has become a threat to the United States. Having said that, some voices are calling such talk an overreaction. This article from ABC News argues that Russia and the West are too economically dependent on each other to let things escalate that far. The article also points out that the United States and its allies have ruled out a military response to the events in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the only person who is really in control of where this crisis goes is Vladimir Putin, and so far, he isn’t telling us what his intentions are.

Behind the Headline: Ukrainian protesters seize control of capital, Yulia Tymoshenko freed

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko waves to supporters after being released from prison. Image from the Associated Press.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko waves to supporters after being released from prison. Image from the Associated Press.

Months of street protests and numerous lives lost in police clashes have led to this: an abandoned presidential residence flooded with protesters dancing and shouting in jubilation. The man who normally lives there, Viktor Yanukovych, has fled the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, and as of press time, he was believed to be in the town of Kharkiv. However, he insisted in a public statement that he has not resigned his post and is still the president, calling the protesters’ seizure of the capital a “coup d’etat” and comparing their actions to the Nazi seizure of power in 1930’s Germany. In spite of his assertions, the Ukrainian parliament has sided with the protesters, declaring Yanukovych removed from office and freeing former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko had been serving time on charges of exceeding her constitutional powers during her term in office, charges that her supporters have always claimed to be completely baseless. As I write this, Tymoshenko is speaking to supporters in Kiev, while some eastern provincial governments have declared their support for Yanukovych and are refusing to obey the revolutionaries in the capital, calling them “fascists” and “gangs”.

The ongoing situation will likely change quite rapidly in the hours and days ahead, as the escalating protests and turmoil that have rocked the country since November finally reach their climax. All of this begs the question, what, exactly, sparked these events? What are Ukrainians so divided over? Why is this happening now? It’s time to go Behind the Headline.

What are all the protesters angry about?

Ukrainian protesters now control the streets of Kiev. Image from Jeff J Mitchell and Getty Images.

Ukrainian protesters now control the streets of Kiev. Image from Jeff J Mitchell and Getty Images.

On the surface, this is about a trade deal that wasn’t. Last year, Ukraine was preparing to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, opening Ukraine’s borders to allow German cars, French wines, British tech gadgets, and so on to reach Ukrainian consumers far more easily, while also removing barriers for EU-based businesses to invest in Ukraine. On November 21, the very day President Yanukovych was to sign the deal, he backed out and declared that Ukraine wouldn’t sign up after all. This shocking news sent thousands of Ukrainians into the streets, demanding Yanukovych sign the deal. Just a few days later, Ukraine got a $15 billion bailout from Russia to help pay down its national debt, leading many to believe Russian President Vladimir Putin had convinced Yanukovych to back out of the EU deal. This angered the pro-EU protesters even further, though it should be noted that there were also counter-protests supporting Yanukovych and his policies at the same time.

For months, these protests showed no signs of stopping. One of Ukraine’s most popular boxers, Vitali Klitschko, became a major figure in the protest movement, and more militant groups such as the ultraconservative Svoboda party joined in as well. The government has gone back and forth between trying to suppress the protests and trying to negotiate with the protesters, but things turned ugly when violence erupted last week. Both sides blame each other for starting the violence, videos emerged that appeared to show police snipers firing live rounds at the protesters, other police officers chose to switch sides and back the protesters instead of participating in the bloodshed, and within 48 hours, there were 77 people reported killed. Multiple truces were called and ignored, until this morning, when Yanukovych fled.

Surely events this dramatic aren’t just about trade, right?

The results of the 2010 Ukrainian presidential election. Image from the Washington Post.

The results of the 2010 Ukrainian presidential election. Image from the Washington Post.

No, they most certainly are not. In many cases, the real target of the protesters wasn’t trade at all, but corruption, a perennial problem in Ukrainian politics. Visitors to the now-abandoned presidential residence have been blown away by the life of luxury that Yanukovych seemed to be living off of taxpayer money. Transparency International, a corruption watchdog group, ranked Ukraine one of the most corrupt countries in Europe. Many Ukrainians report that they pay bribes just to receive basic services because it is “customary and expected”.

It goes even deeper than corruption, though. Ukraine is a country that is in a very strange place politically, culturally, and economically. I once had a college professor who was originally from the Ukraine, who explained that the western half of the country sees itself as culturally closer to western Europe, while the eastern half sees itself as culturally closer to Russia. This has an impact on the way Ukrainians vote – easterners tend to support pro-Russian politicians like Yanukovych, while westerners tend to vote for more pro-European figures like Tymoshenko or Klitschko. This division even extends to the most basic activity of everyday life: talking. Westerners speak Ukrainian, while easterners speak Russian.

This is why that EU trade deal was so important to the protesters. As Max Fisher wrote for the Washington Post, “supporting EU integration is a little like supporting ‘not Russia.'” This is also why those eastern provinces have sided with Yanukovych and refused to recognize the revolutionaries. This is also why this is the second time in the past decade that Ukraine has undergone political turmoil.

Wait, what? This has happened before?

Celebrations after the Orange Revolution in 2005. Image from AFP.

Celebrations after the Orange Revolution in 2005. Image from AFP.

Oh, yes. In 2004, a presidential election was held between Yanukovych and Viktor Yuschenko, and that election was marred by fraud and corruption. It also didn’t help matters that someone tried to poison Yuschenko. When accusations appeared that authorities in several districts had fixed the election results, people took to the streets in protest. This “Orange Revolution” saw massive strikes, investigations into the allegations of fraud, accusations that the investigators were corrupt, and an intervention by the Ukrainian Supreme Court. Yuschenko’s supporters mainly came from the Ukrainian-speaking, pro-Western camp, while Yanukovych’s supporters came from the Russian-speaking, pro-Russian camp. In the end, the election was re-run with much more careful monitoring, and Yuschenko won by a very narrow margin. In this case, Yanukovych chose to accept these results in order to keep things from turning violent.

So, how did Yanukovych become president? And who is Yulia Tymoshenko, and why is she important?

It turned out that many Ukrainians were disappointed with Yuschenko’s presidency. When he ran for re-election in 2010, he came in fifth place. This time, the top pro-Western candidate was then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who had taken office on the coattails of the Orange Revolution. Yanukovych decided to run again on the strength of his pro-Russian backers. Again the race was close, and again there were accusations of fraud, but this time when Yanukovych was deemed to have won by a very narrow margin, the Supreme Court didn’t intervene, effectively upholding the results.

Not long after Yanukovych took power, he had Tymoshenko arrested on charges of abuse of power and embezzlement based on her actions as Prime Minister. The case stemmed from a deal she brokered between Ukraine and Russia that allowed Russia to continue pumping inexpensive natural gas to Ukraine, after a contract dispute had halted gas deliveries for 13 days. Though Tymoshenko was convicted of all charges and sentenced to seven years in prison, both her supporters in Ukraine and many outside observers accused the government of trying to silence her and shut her out of Ukrainian politics. The fact that several prison guards were accused of beating her unconscious only made her case more sympathetic. The EU made her release and pardon a condition of their trade deal with the Ukraine, and many protesters had demanded her release throughout the recent crisis.

Why should I care about any of this?

It may very well impact your wallet, albeit indirectly.

If it seems like the past decade has seen Ukraine as a pawn in a big geopolitical game between the West and Russia, that’s because of just how important Ukraine is to the world economy by accident of geography. Russia is one of the world’s leading providers of oil and natural gas, and the biggest conduit they use to ship their fossil fuels out to the wider world. Most of Europe depends on Russian natural gas shipped through Ukraine for heat and electricity. If this gas is shut off, it would mean much higher utility bills throughout Europe.

This is a worrying prospect for the United States as it negotiates a free trade deal with the European Union. This deal, if passed, could boost the US economy by as much as $123 billion, something that our still-recovering economy could clearly use. If European customers don’t have the cash to pay for Made-in-USA goods because of higher bills, though, this economic boost could be in jeopardy. As stated earlier, though, the situation is still developing and could radically change in the near future. How this will all play out is yet to be seen.