Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

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Crimea: Stop Citing International Law and Start Condemning Russian Expansionism

by Stewart M. Patrick
March 17, 2014

Participants in a pro-Russian rally wave Russian flags in front of a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin in Simferopol March 17, 2014. Crimea formally applied to join Russia on Monday after its leaders declared a Soviet-style 97-percent result in favour of seceding from Ukraine in a referendum condemned as illegal by Kiev and the West that will trigger immediate sanctions (Sergei Karpukhin/Courtesy Reuters).


Yesterday, Russian president Vladimir Putin pulled off a rigged referendum in which an overwhelming majority of Crimean voters chose union with the Russian Federation. But his victory is far from complete. The West retains a powerful card to play: mobilizing international opposition to deny Russia the international legitimacy it seeks for this naked power play.  U.S. and European leaders have roundly condemned the referendum, citing international law. It would be wiser for the West to shift the terms of the debate away from the legal merits of Russian conduct, and to focus instead on the illegitimacy of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s clear aspirations to expand its territory.

To date, the global debate over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has been framed primarily in legal terms, but this is devolving into an exchange of accusations and messy interpretations of historical precedents. Indignant Western governments condemn Russian’s conduct and Crimea’s secession as a blatant “violation of international law.”  Moscow, meanwhile, claims that it is affording the inhabitants of Crimea with their inherent right to national self-determination “in full compliance with international law.” Russia has also accused the West of hypocrisy, invoking the precedent of Kosovo—which unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, to the fury of Belgrade and Moscow but the vigorous applause of the United States and many European countries. Moscow notes that the International Court of Justice in July 2010 subsequently judged that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was legal.

The West has returned fire, noting that the Crimea already enjoyed considerable autonomy in Ukraine, like several regions in Russia, but that Moscow had brutally repressed independence movements within its own territories, including in Chechnya and Ingushetia. Moreover, the West counters, the Kosovo referendum occurred in the context of a UN peace operation, eight years after a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing at the hands of Serbia. In the case of Ukraine, it is occurring in the presence of Russian military troops occupying Crimea, and with no evidence of any Ukrainian campaign of oppression against Crimea’s Russians.

This argument over the legality of Crimean secession has clearly proved a fruitless distraction. International law is flexible on the question of whether self-determination includes the right to secede. It is not a recognized “right,” but nor is it seen as necessarily “illegal.” Given the vulnerability of many states to secessionist movements, the general international preference has been to offer increased autonomy to ethnic minority enclaves, rather than independence. Secession, when it occurs, is expected to be a peaceful outcome of protracted negotiations both with the national government and the international community. In Crimea, of course, neither condition was satisfied. Farcically, the referendum was announced only ten days before it was to occur, and neither of the two options on the ballot included the status quo.

And though the vote patently violated Ukraine’s own constitution (article 73 of which requires a referendum of the entire country before its territory is altered) ), secessionists have rarely bothered to consult with the mother country before acting—further undercutting legal arguments. This is true both for successful secessions (e.g., the United States against Great Britain after 1776) and unsuccessful ones (e.g., the Biafran campaign against the state of Nigeria). The “velvet divorce” allowing the secession of Slovakia from Czechoslovakia in 1993 is the exception rather than the rule here.

Whatever the legality, Russia will find it even more difficult to sell the Crimean secession as legitimate. Despite attempts to liken it to Kosovo, (which 106 countries have recognized), the Crimean situation is more reminiscent of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, whose declaration of independence in 1983 has been recognized by only one nation: Turkey itself.

As noted in a previous blog, Crimea’s secession sets a terrible precedent. 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.

But in this case, the scale of Russian audacity is even more alarming. Dismembering portions of tiny Georgia (population 4.5 million) and Moldova (3.5 million) was outrageous but of limited geopolitical significance. Doing the same to Ukraine—population 46 million—is another thing. It suggests that Putin is determined to expand Moscow’s effective control, formal or informal, over as much of the Russian-speaking “near abroad” as he can. That this impulse may be driven less by overconfidence than desperation is of little comfort. Historically, the world has had as much to fear from anxious powers in decline than rising ones eager to sow their oats. Consider the role that miscalculations by Putin’s Romanov predecessors, along with the aging Hapsburg dynasty, played in the outbreak of the Great War one hundred years ago this coming August.

Putin’s actions are unlikely to trigger another great power war. The United States and the European Union are already treating the annexation of the Crimea—a territory of only 2.3 million and a strategically and historically important part of Russia—as a fait accompli, But unless the West can make Putin feel the pain of his audacity, his irredentist ambitions are likely to grow. The most obvious target is the large Russian-majority population in eastern Ukraine, including the cities of Luhansk,  and Kharkiv. The resulting dismemberment of Ukraine, if allowed to proceed, would enter the history books alongside the partition of Poland as a naked exercise in power politics.

But Ukraine is not the only country of concern. Commentators have expressed worries about the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, given their sizeable Russian minorities. In 2007, the mere act of dismantling a Soviet-era statue of Lenin in the center of Tallin led to a massive cyberattack, apparently orchestrated from Russia, on Estonian government ministries. At the same time, Moscow is likely to avoid any direct military confrontation with the Baltic states—each of which is a NATO member—to avoid triggering a third world war.

More realistic targets for incorporation into an expanded Russian Federation, beyond Ukraine, are Belarus and, potentially, portions of Kazakhstan. The former is already Moscow’s most reliable client state, suggesting there is no hurry to absorb it officially. The latter could become a target, depending on whether the government of Nursultan Nazarbayev toes a Russian line within Moscow’s Eurasian Union or adopts a more independent course, including overtures to China.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea—which holds only 4 percent of Ukraine’s population—will not by itself significantly alter the balance of power in Eurasia. But it does establish a worrisome precedent that other powers—great and not-so-great—may seek to emulate. Beyond depriving Putin of recognition of his spoils, the West needs to send a powerful message about the wages of “sin”–in this case, unilaterally challenging the sanctity of borders. Targeting a few senior Russian officials for sanction should be only the beginning. And the Obama administration and international allies should stop citing international law and instead adopt more aggressive rhetoric noting that Russian expansionist aspirations are illegitimate and threaten peace on the continent.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by peteybee0

    Interesting. Tortured logic (“stop citing international law and instead say it is illegitimate?” huh?). But I get what the author is saying.

    The opponents of our world order (the Russians and the Chinese) must NOT be allowed to awaken the scourge of national self-determination. If various nationalities seeking equal representation on the world stage come to the conclusion that they are being divided and conquered, and if they should make an attempt to unite or ally themselves with one of our opponents (e.g., Russians or Chinese), then we might face the necessity of using force to put them down, or else face the even more frightening possibility of having the our world order undermined by a system of universal law, which might push us from the “we-win-they-lose” mode of non-zero-sum game, into the less profitable (though ostensibly more just, from the point of view of foreign trash) “everybody-wins” mode of zero-sum game. This would be inconvenient so it must not be allowed.

  • Posted by Darrell Prince


    The referendum is obviously invalid without international observers.. The presence of the Russian troops makes it a shotgun referendum. 83% voting, with Tatars (20% of population abstaining) and 95% for joining Russia? You can’t get 95% agreement that humans breathe air.

    Disappearance of opposition leaders, if confirmed, is highly alarming to most politically conscious Americans.

    Overall, if NATO gains foothold in Ukraine, solid, it is still an overall victory-control over pipelines, and the guarantee of war with his money supply is going to put heavy pressure on Putin from oligarchs to keep things calm.

    The Tatar question is really the one that will draw international sympathy from the people.

    (While a region practicing self determination is a victory for democracy… it seems obvious that the indigenous tatars seems to have been deliberately left out. My opinion- international law seems to be state interest self serving in this regard.)

    Action Recommendations:

    Move to include Ukraine as a preliminary member of NATO

    Focus press releases on “Tatar Holocaust” in the first invasion by Russians, concentration camps and relocation and this being second invasion by Russians, as the best way to frame a very legitimate humanitarian angle

    Attack the credibility of the obviously faked referendum numbers this will demonstrate Putin to be a voter fraud faux democracy.

    Either move to fully sanction Russian business people, anywhere in the world where the US has reach, or threaten it as the next step, and message oligarchs privately- one owns the Nets, and losing control of American and foreign assets is going to be something that will cost Putin dearly

  • Posted by Richard Rubenstein

    Stewart Patrick’s plea to “condemn Russian expansionism” in the case of Crimea is utterly incoherent. International law on the subject of self-determination via secession is “flexible,” says he — translation: the Crimean referendum was not illegal. Very well, then; did the referendum not reflect the true wishes of the Crimean people? Patrick begins his post by calling the vote “rigged,” but what he means by this is anyone’s guess. Most observers not blinded by bias consider it a perfectly accurate reflection of Crimean public opinion. Then what’s wrong with it — or, for that matter, with another vote in which Crimea might decide to rejoin Russia? At this point, Patrick can only harrumph. He mutters about bad potential precedents (what if Russia required Belarus? Horrors!) and calls people names (“expansionist,” etc.) The real motivation for this strange performance seems to be some sort of primitive fear of a competing Great Power. But Russia does not maintain military bases in over 100 other nations, dominate the globe in weaponry, or pursue “regime change” as an international strategy. The answer to the current conflict involving Ukraine is not to impose sanctions on anyone. It is to enter into a process of peaceful conflict resolution.


    Correction — “required” on line 9 of my comment should read “reacquired”.

  • Posted by Egor

    “In 2007, the mere act of dismantling a Soviet-era statue of Lenin in the center of Tallin led to a massive cyberattack.”

    That is inaccurate: the monument in question was World War II memorial, the dismantlement of which rattled a sensitive issue concerning revision of history. It is well known Estonia celebrates SS veterans who fought alongside Nazi Germany, while denying citizenship and full lawful rights to a significant minority in clear discrimination of its so-called “non-citizens.”

  • Posted by Andrew Vitvitsky

    Is the Ukraine crisis about Russian expansionism ? Western pundits find it hard to understand that behind Crimean bluster Russians are digging in against the existential threat posed by the Ukrainian revolution to their very national survival. Americans and Europeans mistakenly expect that in the face of such peril sanctions and international opprobrium might be effective and that aggression may stop with Crimea.

    Wherein lies Russia’s danger? The great Harvard historian of Russia Richard Pipes defined Russian political culture as a historical autocracy sustained by a bureaucratic police state, the latter embodied by a ruling political class. Roots of this ethos are multifaceted and unfathomable to the Western mind. For millennia this polity has warded off internal disorder and external threats. Nonetheless, after losing multiple wars and barely surviving War War II Russian elites have fretted about competitiveness of their system. Although fall of USSR was evidence of Russia’s weakness its further decline during chaotic Yeltsin interregnum showed that without familiar forms of governance the country was marginally functional.

    Reinvention of an autocratic political class under Putin brought back stability, modest prosperity and security. As Westerners are judgmental about such forms of government they will not concede that a politically liberal orientation in Kiev would undermine Russia’s survival at a proximity too close for comfort. Thought leaders writing in leading Russian journals clearly have not been intimidated and even defiant at prospect of international isolation.

    Andrew Vitvitsky, Cambridge, MA

  • Posted by Richard

    I do not agree with Russia’s “annexation” of Crimea. Russia has legitmate interests in Ukraine (energy, defense, etc.). How can Putin justify annexing the territory of another country?

    Nevertheless, the US and NATO have been encroaching in Russia’s geopolitical territory with reckless abandon…In Georgia, Syria, Iran, Ukraine and others. That is why Putin is lashing out.

  • Posted by markjuliansmith

    The US determined after WWII if the US had only had the fortitude and military might the US should have moved against Japan when Japan invaded Manchuria.

    Hence the US realizing wishful thinking simply is not going to stop megalomaniac persons or Nation States from appearing and doing what they do so well the US decided not to go into its pre WWII shell and sought to develop the military power and the fortitude to take on tyrants at the beginning and not hopefully survive due to luck and circumstance after the enemy felt themselves powerful enough to strike first.

    Hence the “Carrier Strike Group Two” now in the Black Sea below the Crimea represents the required military might.

    Clearly the US (world) has not learnt from History – Putin (Russia) going into Georgia was the worlds Manchuria, Austria, Czechoslovakia, .. yet it did not act with the inevitable consequences.

    As in the last century we have the inevitable tag team European vs Asian spheres, last time Germany and Japan this time Russia and China.

    The US and its Western allies may not this time be so lucky to survive the first strike, a nuclear strike against the US China has actually described in great detail via its media.

    The required military might is there for a reason and it has to do with the millions who died last century and will die if Russia is not if necessary forced militarily out of the Crimea and Georgia. Where is the fortitude given history shows us what happens next?

    To claim the twenty-first century is no place to use military force when it is and will be with prejudice given time and space as Russia and China build capacity to impose their will, as Putin (Russia) is now beggars belief.

    Russia should be given 24 hours to get out of the Crimea and Georgia or be removed with force.

  • Posted by Cristi C

    @Darell Prince, “83% voting, with Tatars (20% of population abstaining) and 95% for joining Russia”

    Get your facts right. Tatars are 12% according to 2001 Census. Then get your war scenarios out of my place to your own nation. Start a war on your land not in my vecinity.

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