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The Ukraine Crisis Raises Uncomfortable Questions About Territorial Legitimacy

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This month, the political situation of the Balkans apparently travelled back in time by 50 years. The rejection of a pro-Russian government in a former satellite state was followed by swift military action on the part of the Russians in order to re-assert dominance in the region, accompanied by a good deal of international outcry but little in the way of concrete action. The United Kingdom and the United States protested in the strongest possible terms, but neither state was able to do much without opening themselves up to charges of hypocrisy because of recent foreign policy misadventures. Depending on which year you consider, this is either Hungary in 1956 or Ukraine in 2014. To many Western observers, the incredibly simplistic account that I have just given of Russian foreign policy is an accurate description of the current crisis (at least it is to those who can even find Ukraine on a map), and the latest development is just a reflection of an innate Russian tendency towards belligerence. Morally, we have every right to intervene, with military force if necessary, to prevent the Russian military from hindering the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination. This is perhaps an understandable assumption, but it is a deeply misguided one.

We have to bear in mind that, rather than full-scale annexation, Putin has only moved troops into an area (Crimea) that by all accounts had a strong Russian military presence long before the disputes we see today. If Putin goes on to invade eastern Ukraine, then that would constitute grounds on which to seriously consider military action; not least because such a move would almost certainly be met with resistance by the population there. However, it is telling that seemingly no complaint has come from any major Crimean political authority. Reporters dispatched to the region have found a lot of civilians entirely happy with the move. Some might think that this is a further example of Russian domination and intimidation in the region, but that would not be a fair view of the situation. Until 1954, Crimea was indeed part of Russia until Khrushchev controversially transferred it to Ukrainian control (the Ukraine then being a constituent part of the USSR). To this day it is both ethnically and culturally Russian, and whilst even in the more pro-Russian eastern regions of Ukraine the first language of most of the population is overwhelmingly Ukrainian, in Crimea Russian is indisputably the first language in nearly every single region. This partially explains why the "invasion" has gone ahead, as Putin claims, without a single bullet fired. Though there is opposition to reuniting with Russia from many ethnic groups such as the Tartars, who apparently abstained from the recent ballots, it is still not surprising that Crimea voted to reunite with Russia. For many Crimeans, it feels like returning home.
I do not think that Putin had any right to roll the tanks in. Had he simply had words behind the scenes with Crimean authorities, and promised to respect the results of any referendum that had occurred, there would not be any issues with legitimacy. I also think that if Putin attempts to expand further into areas of Ukraine that are not ethnically Russian without consent of those who live there, then there is certainly cause for tough international action to stop this. However, considering the historical context of Crimea, we can at least reasonably assume that the referendum result, even without Russian presence and the abstention of certain ethnic groups, would be broadly in favour of Russian integration.

This is a real headache for the West. So far the opposition to the referendum has come in the form of criticising perceived Russian interference in the poll (in all likelihood, not likely to be that great). This is something which, if true and significant, I would completely accept. Ideally, the poll should be re-called with a UN coalition force on the ground, to ensure that intimidation cannot take place on the part of any individual. I doubt this would make a significant difference to the result, which is where the second Western criticism comes in. On the view of certain analysts, the Crimean referendum is illegitimate because it was not done with the consent of the Ukrainian government and therefore violates its "territorial integrity". It is this criticism that I believe is the most hypocritical, and why the behaviour of Russia and Russian sympathisers in Crimea has inadvertently played into the hands of Western narrative. Had the poll been held without these influences, Crimea would have voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. Most, if not all, of NATO knows this, and would rather for geopolitical reasons (i.e. strengthening Russia) that it did not happen. Yet there is no way to protest against the right of the Crimean people to self-determination without opening oneself up to the charge of gross hypocrisy. Take Kosovo, for example, a case where a section of a state with a different ethnic composition to the rest of the country voted by a strong majority to go it alone. Here the West was all too keen to be supportive, because it did not threaten their interests. However, when South Ossetia tried to do the same in 1990, it was met with condemnation and the West patently ignored Georgia's attempt to capture the recalcitrant territory by force. Similarly, the United States is fine with supporting the right of Israeli citizens to self-determination, but was one of only nine countries in the world to vote against the motion for the PLO to acquire the position of non-member observer status in a UN vote in 2012. At this point I wish to reaffirm my commitment to a two-state solution recognising both states of Palestine and Israel, but it is possible to do so whilst still accepting that the United States has been less than even handed about it.

The criticism that the Crimean referendum is an affront to the territorial integrity of Ukraine is not a valid one. Even in the absence of consent by the Ukrainian parliament, the Crimean right to self-determination exists. If we accept the particular formulation of the principle of territorial integrity that has been used to attack the right of Crimeans to decide their own future, then we have to allow that a persecuted minority can never break away from a highly oppressive minority. The right of self-determination is one that we hold to be perhaps the most fundamental liberty; the right to choose who you want to be and who you want to associate with. We have to recognise the appeal to "territorial integrity" for what it really is; an attempt to disguise our own political interests as a solid theoretical argument. There is a conversation that is long overdue in our political culture, and that is this: do we want to uphold universal values such as self-determination even when this is harmful to our own national interest, or do we want to be totally honest with ourselves and openly state that pragmatism is above lofty idealism?