Tuesday, April 28, 2015

It Was Mine!

I got into a twitter conversation with someone who largely holds Russia blameless.  While there was much stuff we can discuss, I want to focus on one: that Crimea was Russian/Soviet until 1954, so Russia taking it back is just fine.

This is, of course, one of the seven rules of ethnic politics (see Stuart Kaufman's Modern Hatreds or this summary).  What was mine should be mine.  What was yours?  Meh.

The big problem with this argument is that we have had enough history of boundary changes that relying on past ownership clarifies nothing and legitimates everything.  While the status quo bias in international relations is over-rated, both because countries do support secession and perhaps because some boundary changes should be made, there is something to it. 

If Russia's old ownership of Crimea allows it to annex that territory, then why not India grabbing all of Pakistan, Turkey claiming not just a heap of the Mideast but also much of the Balkans, French/Spain claiming much of Western US, and on and on and on. 

Of course, the other problem with this is that Russia went further, not just taking back that which belonged to the Russian federal unit of the USSR in 1953 but also a hunk of Eastern Ukraine.  The response, of course, is that this is just a separatist movement threatened by the regime change in Kiev.  Sure.  The reality is that Russia has invaded Ukraine and is at war with it.  Saying otherwise means one has little credibility. 

While I have pooh-poohed Russian irredentism (I thought Putin would stop after Crimea), the recourse to historical claims for Russia means not just Crimea and not just Eastern Ukraine but pretty much all of the former Soviet Union.  Since three hunks of the former Soviet Union are now members of NATO--Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, letting history be one's guide to expansion is really problematic.

As I noted yesterday, Russia's moves in Crimea and Ukraine violate a key agreement and then some.  If Russia didn't want to be the bad guy in all of this, there were other ways.  The Russians could have asked the OSCE to monitor the treatment of Russians in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in the aftermath of the regime change, and pushed for international mediation to direct Ukraine to develop a federal system with assurances for ethnic minorities.  Russia could have pushed for a real referendum (not the sham they created), which would have probably would have led to annexation.  As much as I tease the Europeans about process, the course of action taken by Russia is the problem here.  A peaceful yet assertive approach would have gotten Russia much of what it wanted. 

Instead, we have violence, threats, and nuclear threats.  So, we cannot just accept what Russia has done.  It has altered the security environment in Europe (and beyond), making it clear that Russia is not a partner.


Anonymous said...

Crimea was Russian until 1954. It was Soviet until 1991. This is an important distinction, because while Crimea has been part of Ukraine for 61 years, it's only been in a different country from Russia for 24 years, leaving many Crimeans well able to compare Moscow with Kiev.

I suspect if a free and fair referendum took place now, Crimea would vote to join Russia. The Donbass is a mess and there's been plenty of migration --- Ukrainians have left Crimea, ethnic Russians escaping the Donbass have moved in. Further, Ukraine is a bankrupt kleptocracy and Russia isn't bankrupt, despite Putin's best efforts.

What would be your take on holding a binding referendum in the future? (Assuming it free and fair and well-monitored, etc)

Steve Saideman said...

I think Russia would have won last year had it had a free and fair referendum--just by a smaller margin.

One can argue all one wants about what was mine when, but using force to change boundaries has consequences including reducing the legitimacy of one's claims.

In the future? Whatever. The reality is that Crimea is gone and Donbass is destroyed. Putin wins but it may end up being pyrrhic victory.