Crimea, Russian Federation

by Jonah Shepp

Unrest in Ukraine

Russia annexed the peninsula this morning:

Last night, the Kremlin website posted an approval of Crimea’s draft independence bill, recognizing Crimea as a sovereign state. Today, Putin spoke for close to an hour about the history of Russia, Crimea, and the West, before overseeing the signing of document, citing the will of the Crimean people as justification and decrying the West’s attempt to stop the union.

In the speech, Putin made the expected point that there’s not that much the international community can do to prevent two willing, sovereign entities to merge. He made the case that Russia has acted in accordance with international law, and that thousands of Russian troops on the ground in Crimea had nothing to do with it.

John Cassidy parses Putin’s speech at the annexation ceremony, in which he said Russia had been “robbed” of Crimea in 1954:

At least as regards Crimea, and give or take a few rhetorical flourishes and judgments, this is a roughly accurate representation of what happened, or, at least, of what recent history felt like to many Russians. (It felt quite different to the Crimean Tatars.) Thus the strong public support for Putin’s actions. To some in the West, and to certain liberal Russians, such as Garry Kasparov, this looks eerily like Hitler’s grab of the Czech Sudetenland in 1938. Most Russians, and even Mikhail Gorbachev, beg to differ.

Crimea’s return to Russia “should be welcomed and not met with the announcement of sanctions,” the former Soviet leader said in a statement that was released on Monday. “If until now Crimea had been joined to Ukraine because of Soviet laws that were taken without asking the people, then now the people have decided to rectify this error.”

Putin’s defenders are skating over the fact that Russia has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty; stomped on international commitments it made during the nineties; destabilized the eastern part of Ukraine by shipping in agitators; and even, quite possibly, broken its own laws, which stipulate that new lands can join the Russian Federation only after the country to which they used to belong has made an agreement with Moscow. For all these reasons, sanctions are justified.

But there is still the strategic point. If Crimea’s status as part of Ukraine is regarded as an accident, or a blunder by Khrushchev, the sight of it rejoining Russia can be regarded as a tidying up of historical loose ends—a delayed but inevitable part of the redrawing of boundaries after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Timothy Garton Ash rallies the West to defend what remains of Ukraine:

Putin scored a few telling hits on US unilateralism and western double standards, but what he has done threatens the foundations of international order. He thanked China for its support, but does Beijing want the Tibetans to secede following a referendum? He recalled Soviet acceptance of German unification and appealed to Germans to back the unification of “the Russian world”, which apparently includes all Russian-speakers. With rhetoric more reminiscent of 1914 than 2014, Putin’s Russia is now a revanchist power in plain view.

Without the consent of all parts of the existing state (hence completely unlike Scotland), without due constitutional process, and without a free and fair vote, the territorial integrity of Ukraine, guaranteed 20 years ago by Russia, the US and Britain, has been destroyed. In practical terms, on the ground, that cannot be undone. What can still be rescued, however, is the political integrity of the rest of Ukraine.

Stewart M. Patrick fears the precedent that Crimea’s accession to Russia sets:

Hundreds of minority populations around the world might in principle insist on secession, throwing existing borders into chaos. Not for nothing did Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing bemoan that the principle of national self-determination advanced by his president was “loaded with dynamite.”

Moreover, Russia’s aspirations are not limited to Crimea, and its successful annexation could clear a path for the Kremlin to seek to regain de-facto sovereignty over territories in the former Soviet Union with large Russian minority populations, under the pretext of protecting “oppressed” compatriots. We have seen this movie before, most obviously in Georgia. In 2008, the Russian military intervened to assist two breakaway republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the aftermath of that intervention, Moscow pledged to remove its troops. They remain there today. Or consider Moldova, where Moscow has for more than two decades supported the statelet of Transdniester, allowing it to become a veritable Walmart of arms trafficking.

(Photo: Name plates on the walls of the Crimean parliament building are removed after the annexation of Crimea by Russia on March 18, 2014. By Bulent Doruk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)