The peaceful invasion of Crimea by Russian forces has been roundly condemned by western leaders in a series of rhetorical flourishes which berate Russia's 'brazen act of aggression'. Foreign Secretary William Hague has protested that Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity has been violated and joined the chorus of western leaders seeking to apply penalties for Russia's transgression. Such reactions are entirely predictable as the US and the EU seek to hold the moral high ground in a crisis that owes much to their interference in the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states around the world, not least of which is Ukraine itself.
Since the end of the Cold War the United States and its allies have breached the sovereignty and territorial integrity of numerous nations including the Former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. They have encouraged the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, East Timor from Indonesia and South Sudan from Sudan. The US breaches Yemeni, Somali, and Pakistani sovereignty each time it fires one of its missile into a sovereign country from a drone. If sovereignty and territorial integrity are concepts worth defending then they must be consistently rather than selectively applied or admit that the concepts only have resonance when western interests are at stake.
Russia's invasion of Crimea follows a similar pattern to western justifications of intervening in the internal affairs of another country in order to protect citizens who are at risk from their own government. The ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have every reason to be fearful of a government in Kiev which seized power on the back of antidemocratic protests by pro-EU and far right forces, encouraged by the West. The Yanukovych presidency was corrupt and brutal, especially in its dealings with the demonstrators, and yet it was democratically elected and the norm in democracies is that the opposition seeks to remove incumbents through the ballot box rather than through violence. And yet the West's support for democracy is trumped by its desire to have pro-western governments in power.
The EU and United States have waged a sustained campaign since 1991 to bring Ukraine into its sphere of influence irrespective of the wishes of the electorate in the eastern half of the country. The lure of EU and potentially NATO membership has proved attractive to pro-European Ukrainians but inevitably causes legitimate concern in Moscow. The broken promises made by President George H Bush to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastwards, leaves Moscow with little confidence in western promises. The unelected de facto government of Arseniy Yatsenyuk holds out little in the way of guarantees that a pro-western Ukrainian government would safeguard the Russian fleet in Crimea or the well being of pro-Russian citizens.
In such circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that Russia has decided to take matters in to its own hands and follow the example of America's ally Israel and seek to establish facts on the ground. There seems little doubt that Russia's intervention in Crimea is welcomed by the population on the peninsula as will become clear when they have the opportunity to vote in a referendum on 30 March about staying in Ukraine as an autonomous republic, becoming independent or joining Russia. The international community and Ukraine should accept the results of that referendum.
Crimea has only been part of Ukraine since 1954, a technical decision by Khrushchev, which made little practical difference as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was an integral part of the Soviet Union. If it should wish to re-join Russia then so be it. Similarly eastern provinces in Ukraine should be granted a similar referendum as part of the general elections called on 25 May. The division of Ukraine might be counter to western interests but as with the separation of Czechoslovakia may provide a long term solution to the intractability of a polarised country.