In America, much media coverage has occurred in regards to Russia’s actions in Crimea. Both parties, Democrats and Republicans, have been quick to condemn Russia’s actions. However, does this condemnation come from a rational argument or simply from fear of Russia or dislike of Putin? This article seeks to speculatively explore the issue of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in order to develop a holistic understanding of what is actually going on instead of getting caught up in the emotion promulgated by the media’s sensationalized headlines.
A short time ago, tensions in Ukraine overflowed with significant uprisings against the then incumbent President Yanukovych due to his pro-Russian stance. This was sparked because he had accepted aide from Russia and, in return, had chosen not to seek closer ties with the West. He was eventually ousted and was forced to flee to Russia. His ouster further divided the country of Ukraine because whereas western Ukraine wants to move closer to unity with Europe and the West, Eastern Ukraine does not. In fact, Eastern Ukraine has strong ties with Russia and has now begun to protest against Kiev’s government. This is interesting because the first protests were pro-westerners against the government and this has now changed to be pro-Russians versus the government. The news media has followed this, but has always had a decided slant in favor of pro-western government in Ukraine. This is not unexpected and it demonstrates the existent bias in the media’s supposedly impartial journalistic coverage.
For many weeks, the major focus of the news was the annexation of Crimea by Russia. This annexation received almost universal condemnation from the Western world especially from the U.S.1 As of March 27th, the U.N. General Assembly voted 100-11 (with 58 absentees) “affirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity and calling the referendum that led to Russia’s annexation of its Crimean Peninsula illegal.”2 President Obama implemented various sanctions against Russia’s leaders and Russia was dropped from the G-8. At least in rhetoric, these penalties are based upon the view that Russia’s actions were illegal according to International Law.
The primary purpose of this exposition is to explore whether or not Russia’s actions were truly illegal according to International Law. Since the entire issue is constantly evolving, the focus will be specifically on Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Other actions by Russia in Ukraine will only be considered if they elucidate hidden actions taken by Russia in Crimea. In other words, should Russia invade Ukraine outright, it still might be possible that the annexation of Crimea was itself legal even though the invasion was illegal. If however, future information concretely demonstrates that coercive force was used to set the outcome of other Eastern Ukrainian elections, then such information might shed light on the Crimea vote itself.
Historical, Cultural, and Geopolitical Relationship between Russia and Ukraine
The relationship between Russia and Ukraine goes far, far beyond the present situation. Known colloquially as “Little Russia,” Ukraine has been, in some shape or form, part of the larger Russian empire for “more than three centuries.”3 “Both countries are East Slavic and Orthodox in makeup, [and] trace their origins to Kievan Rus a thousand years ago.”4 As early as 879, Kiev (The current capital of Ukraine) was actually the capital of the Varangians or the “Russ.”5 It was still known “to the Russians as the ‘mother of cities,’ even after political power shifted to Moscow”6 and “Russians regard Kiev as the historic core of the Russian state.”7 Confirming this, a study in 2005 reported that “over 90 percent of Russians surveyed expressed the desire for political and economic unification between Russia and Ukraine.”8
Geopolitically and historically speaking, as a mainly landlocked empire and arguably in control of Mackinder’s “Heartland of the World Island of Eurasia,”9 Imperial Russia could “enlarge its position within Eurasia only at the expense of its continental neighbours.”10 Fighting a number of wars, Russia eventually gained “footholds on the shores of the Baltic, Caspian and Black Seas.”11 It further expanded east across Siberia and “by the eighteenth century the Russian empire stretched across 11 time zones.”12
Due to the “long and exposed flanks”13 that came with such a large empire, the expanding Russian empire needed to develop a protectorate system. It did so using “protectorates, spheres of influence and buffer zones or borderlands… in contiguous territories.”14 These areas provided protection for the Russian heartland and help determine the course of Russia’s geopolitical pursuits for years to come.
While Russia’s influence greatly expanded following WWII, it drastically retracted in size almost overnight with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Significantly, Russia lost much of its buffer zones and access to naval ports, which was replaced by a “flimsy framework of a Eurasian Commonwealth of Independent States.”15 Of these states, Ukraine was one of Russia’s foremost allies and is vitally necessary to Russia.
In regards to important economic activities and population density, the collapse of the Soviet Union took a great deal from Russia. To say the least, much of infrastructure that was put into Ukraine by Russia is still of vital importance to Russia. For example, gas lines running from Russia to Ukraine helps Russia transport gas to Europe providing Europe with close to one-third of its gas imports.16 During the Soviet Era, Ukraine “supplied 30 percent of total industrial production and one-quarter of the food.”17 Even today, a significant portion of Ukraine’s economic output comes from its eastern and southern regions, regions that are predominately ethnically Russian.18 “Western Ukraine remains heavily agricultural and poorer; the east produces the bulk of the country’s industrial goods, including steel, motor vehicles, and aircraft. Of Ukraine’s five largest cities, four are in the east.”19 Kiev is the only exception, but it still retains a Russian population of about 20 percent.20
In relation to Crimea, Crimea was, in fact, a gift from Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev to Ukraine in 1954.21 This actually marked the 300th anniversary of “Ukraine’s merger with the Russian empire.”22 At that time, “there were slightly more than three Russians in Crimea for each Ukrainian.”23 According to the 2001 Ukrainian Census, Crimea had an ethnic makeup of 58.5% Russian, 24.4% Ukrainian, 12.1% Crimean Tatar, and <2% each of other ethnicities.24 This means that Crimea still has almost two and a half Russians for each Ukrainian in Crimea. Ukraine, as a whole, has over 20 percent ethnic Russians with “the proportion in the east at nearly half.”25
In recent history, Ukraine has been constantly in a game of tug-of-war between the West and Russia. Prior to the Orange Revolution of 2004, pro-Russian’s led Ukraine’s government.26 Pro- Western Victor Yuschenko beat out the pro-Russian politician, Victor Yanukovich, in 2004, but Yanukovich still attained the office of Prime Minister two years later.27 In 2007, President Yuschenko dissolved the parliament, adding to the unrest.28 Yanukovich regained power when he later became President in 2010.29
This has lead to consistent strife not only for the general populace, but directly in the parliament. Recently, in 2014, Ukraine’s Parliament came to blows over the annexation of Crimea.30 This exchange, however, was not the first. One of the seemingly many violent Parliamentary exchanges took place in 2010 over a vote on extending Russia’s lease for the Crimean naval base. Not only were eggs thrown, but so too were fists and even smoke bombs.31 Fights again occurred in subsequent years.32
This unrest found in the Parliament, a governmental body of Ukraine, demonstrates a wider unrest throughout Ukraine; “it is a cleft country with two distinct cultures.”33 This split, as previously demonstrated, is consistently along the lines of western Ukraine and Eastern/Southern Ukraine. In fact, in the mid 1990’s, Samuel Huntington viewed the split of Ukraine as a somewhat likely possibility.34 Crimea had actually voted in 1992 to join Russia, but “under Ukrainian pressure, rescinded that vote.”35 Only two years later, the Crimean parliament “voted to restore the 1992 constitution which made it virtually independent of Ukraine.”36 This effort was stymied, but again shows the inclinations of Crimea to join Russia. As of the 2011, Crimea “has significant local governing autonomy according to a local constitution, but is ultimately subject to the Ukrainian constitution and law.”37 This is, however, arguable since Crimea’s Parliament could again seek to vote in a constitution that creates real independence for the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Crimea’s full and proper name. This is effectively what occurred when Crimea recently pushed to be annexed by Russia.
Implications of Western Interference in Ukraine
Were Ukraine to join NATO and join the West, most of Russia’s important cities would be extremely exposed38 and would be without a geographical buffer. Russians still remember “the wartime vulnerability of the line from Leningrad (St. Petersburg) to Moscow to Tula to Stalingrad (Volgograd) to the northeastern shore of the Black Sea at Rostov and Novorossiisk.”39 Were Russia to lose Ukraine, it is likely that Russia would lose its ability to “project power toward the Caucasus.”40 This would prove devastating to Russia and it could continue to defragment until “it returned to its medieval frontiers.”41 While this would be beneficial to the West and the U.S., Russia, for obvious reasons, has “every reason to block it.”42 For this reason, Friedman predicted, seemingly correctly, that “there will be friction…with the United States and other countries in the region as Russia reasserts itself”43 into, at the very least, a regional power.
This is important to understand because it shows the stake that Russia has in Ukraine and its near neighbors. Arguably, maintaining a buffer zone of allied states like that of Ukraine is vital to the survival of Russia. Much of Eastern Europe, once controlled by Russia, has been lost and it is in Russia’s best interests to stop that trend.
This brings us to International Law. It has been demonstrated that Russia has close ties with Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Further, it has been shown that Russia’s prosperity and defense actually hinge upon these areas as well. While one can now understand why Crimea sought annexation by Russia and why Russia gladly complied, was it legal according to International Law? If it was not, what can the International community do?
The Charter of the United Nations demonstrates that its primary purpose is that of maintaining international peace.44 Secondly, it seeks to develop “relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”45 This term, self-determination, was again introduced in the 1966 ICCCPR, yet it’s meaning is far from clear.46 It is worth considering that the principle of self-determination could extend to a particular group within a country thereby granting that group the lawful right to secede. For example, many U.S. states retain in their constitutions the right to do this very thing. There is no objective rule that can be unilaterally applied to separatist movements within states; some gain UN approval, some do not.
Specifically in regards to the Crimea, the U.N. General Assembly has, as noted previously, voted to state the annexation of Crimea to be illegal.47 The General Assembly itself “may make recommendations with regard to [the maintenance of international peace and security].”48 The active powers granted to the General Assembly consist with recommending “measures for the peaceful adjustment of any situation,”49 but, as a result, have very little real effect. Though the U.N. General Assembly as determined that Crimea’s referendum was illegal, this can only be taken as a recommendation as the General Assembly does not have the power to enforce or even enact International Law. Enforcement is left to the Security Council as “in order to ensure prompt and effective action by the United Nations, its Members [those in the General Assembly] confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and agree that in carrying out its duties under this responsibility the Security Council acts on their behalf.”50
The U.N. Security Council is the part of the U.N. that has teeth, the part that can act against Russia in Crimea. For example, if the Security Council were to vote in the affirmative, the Security Council could push the issue of Crimea’s annexation into the International Court of Justice; the Security Council speaks for the entire U.N. in action. However, as Russia is one of the Security Council’s permanent members, it will be difficult for the Security Council to act on this issue. If it does, it is yet to be seen if Russia would even adhere to such a verdict by the Security Council. It is unlikely to be effective since Russia has seemed undisturbed by losing its position in the G-8 and, in general, the imposed sanctions have been largely shrugged off.
The Crimea Situation
This brings us to the Crimea situation itself. The known facts of the situation are as follows. First, civil unrest is common in Ukraine and has, for many years, demonstrated the stratified populous; Western Ukraine wants to join the West, Eastern Ukraine wishes to remain tied to Russia. The recent uprisings are, unfortunately, nothing new in Ukraine. Even Crimea’s move to join Russia is not new; the 1992 Constitution sought to act similarly.
Second, Russia did put troops in the Crimea. On this point, Russia already had troops in the area as it had a land lease for the Black Sea Fleet’s naval base. Russia did deploy troops in a broader fashion than this, however. Yet, Russia’s claim in doing so was to protect ethnic Russians from violent discrimination and abuse by pro-western Ukrainians. Under the UN Charter, regions can deal “with such matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security.”51 Protecting citizens from genocide is very much in line with the U.N.’s Charter; Russia argues that this was its purpose for troop placement.
Third, the U.S., like Russia, acted without the U.N.’s approval in the recent Iraqi War against Saddam Hussein and the remaining insurgency after his regime was removed from power. The argument for such action was to defend the greater good as Saddam was committing genocidal actions and, presumably, held weapons capable of inflicting catastrophic damage to Saddam’s enemies, especially non-combatants. Russia’s actions were less aggressive than America’s were in this regard. It is arguable that Russia’s forces have actually allowed democracy to occur and have reduced bloodshed. Were Russia’s troops not in place, what kind of ethnically based deaths would have, could have occurred?
Fourth, Russia is extremely tied to Ukraine, especially Eastern Ukraine. Crimea is an important cultural and geopolitical asset to Russia. Losing all of Ukraine to the West would prove devastating to Russia and could undermine Russia’s role as a regional power. As such, Russia has incredible interest in the area whereas the U.S. and the West, do not. If it comes down to a hard line, Russia will be willing to do what it takes to secure at least Eastern Ukraine as their ally; what does the West have at stake?
This is important, because though idealists would like to think otherwise, having skin in the game dictates how much someone is willing to fight. It is easy for the West to say, Russia is out of line and grabbing at power. However, would the U.S. react any differently if Canada sought to join a military alliance with Russia, or China, or anyone? When the fight is in a nation’s backyard, they will fight tooth and nail to maintain security interests and strategic defensive positions. This demonstrates that if the U.N. seeks to act against Russia, it will most likely involve more bloodshed than there exists at present. If that occurs, would the U.N. be creating less peace or more?
The U.N. General Assembly has dictated that the referendum held was illegal; however, what does the mean in action? Before answering that, it is important to note that positive law has overtaken natural law as the predominate view of international law today. Whereas natural law hinged on a higher morality in law, positive law is extremely relativistic and means that “international law [is] no more than what states [are] willing to accept as obligations.”52 Therefore, positive law implies that had the General Assembly not found the action illegal, it would have been legal. Their belief of the situation makes it illegal or legal, there is not higher moral authority guiding the whims of the assembly. Further, positive law inherently implies that if Russia chooses not to bound by International Law, it does not have to as positivism allows it to choose not to accept this as an obligation.
This fact alone points out a lack of substance in the U.N.’s condemnation. Throwing away a proper understanding of natural law has undermined any moral high ground that the West could have taken in this area. Without a higher moral authority on which to make decisions and that provides objective answers to issues, current International Law arguably has no substance and becomes mob rule, relativistic in nature, and is, therefore, not a valid form of law. The further fact that the General Assembly has no effective power on the issue, makes it extremely easy for Russia to disregard any U.N. deliberations on the subject.
To bring this point home, consider the following. The elections of Crimea were democratic elections; the people of Crimea voted to peacefully leave Ukraine. Isn’t it arbitrary for nations like the U.S. and the U.N.’s General Assembly to, on one hand, promote democracy as the most ideal form of government and then, on the other hand, deem that a democratic election, the demonstration of the Crimean people’s will, is illegal and void? This brings up the important question of democracy’s role in government, but that is a question for another time.
After fully exploring the issue, one could reasonably determine that Russia’s actions were out of line and I am not leaving out this possibility. What I do want to stress is that understanding the cultural, economic, and defensive importance of Ukraine to Russia is paramount to addressing this issue. For geopolitical reasons alone, Russia could arguably be justified in annexing Crimea. This all begs the question, is more or less violence occurring due to the recent annexation? If the people of Eastern Ukraine wish to be separated from Western Ukraine, is forcibly keeping them together a sound plan especially if the goal is peace?
The answer could be yes. However, throughout the world, one can easily see many nations in turmoil predominately because the nation contains a cultural split, a violent break between citizens. Disintegration can be beneficial to peace and allowing a nation to separate democratically is far better than watching it fall apart through violent, civil warfare. As long as Russia’s role leads to less violence, America should think twice before chastising Russia especially since Russia is doing nothing more than what America would do were she in a similar situation.
1“Ukraine crisis: Violent brawl at Kiev Parliament.” BBC. 2014. Accessed May 7, 2014.
2“UN General Assembly approves referendum calling Russia annexation of Crimea illegal.” FoxNews.com. 2014. Accessed May 7, 2014.
3Aslund, Anders. “Crimea and punishment.” Foreign Policy. 2010. (Accessed April 13, 2014).
5Cohen, Saul Bernard. Geopolitics: The Geography of International Relations. 2009. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
9Berryman, John. “Geopolitics and Russian foreign policy.” International Politics, suppl. Special Issue: Russia in the New International Order. 2012. Accessed April 13, 2014.
16Cohen, Saul Bernard. Geopolitics: The Geography of International Relations. 2009. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
21Calamur, Krishnadev. “Crimea: A Gift to Ukraine Becomes a Political Flash Point.” NPR.org. 2014. Accessed May 7, 2014.
24“About number and composition population of Autonomous Republic of Crimea.” All-Ukrainian Population Census ‘2001. Accessed May 7, 2014.
25Cohen, Saul Bernard. Geopolitics: The Geography of International Relations. 2009. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
28Haran, Olexiy. “Ukraine: Pluralism by Default, Revolution, Thermidor.” Russian Social Science Review, 54, no.3, May-June 2013, p. 68-89. Accessed April 13, 2014.
30“Ukraine crisis: Violent brawl at Kiev Parliament.” BBC. 2014. Accessed May 7, 2014.
31Harding, Luke. “Ukraine parliamentary vote on Black Sea fleet erupts into fistfight.” The Guardian. 2010. Accessed May 7, 2014.
32Bennett-Smith, Meredith. “Ukrainian Politicians Fight in Violent Brawl on Parliament Floor.” The Huffington Post. 2012. Accessed May 7, 2014.
33Huntington, Samuel. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. 1996. New York: Simon & Schuster.
37Varettoni, William. 2011. “Crimea’s Overlooked Instability.” Washington Quarterly 34, no.3:87-99. Military & Government Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed April 13, 2014).
38Cohen, Saul Bernard. Geopolitics: The Geography of International Relations. 2009. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
40Friedman, George. The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. 2009. New York: Random House, Inc.
44The Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice. 1945.
46Henderson, Conway. Understanding International Law. 2010. UK: John Wiley & Sons.
47“UN General Assembly approves referendum calling Russia annexation of Crimea illegal.” FoxNews.com. 2014. Accessed May 7, 2014.
48The Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice. 1945.
52Henderson, Conway. Understanding International Law. 2010. UK: John Wiley & Sons.