Notes From the Margins…

The Crimea Votes for Russia

  • March 19, 2014
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The US and the EU have huffed and puffed and waxed indignant, but the population of the Crimea has voted massively in favor of union with Russia.     According to the referendum statistics, 95.5 percent of the population voted for secession in a referendum with an 83 percent turnout.

These figures may have been exaggerated, but even Simon Tisdall of the Guardian  has written 

independent reporting of enthusiastic celebrations suggested the overall outcome genuinely reflected popular wishes — and was crudely democratic’, and that the pro-union vote includes not just Russians, and Russian-speaking Ukrainians and some Tatars.

Tisdall is no admirer of Putin, who he regards as a ‘strutting menace’, but he was right to accept that this vote – regardless of its illegitimacy within the Ukrainian constitution – is a genuine expression of the popular will in the Crimea.  Because, despite US/EU condemnations of the referendum as a ‘sham’, Crimea has as much right to secede as Kosovo, South Sudan, Croatia and East Timor – all of whose claims were recognized by western governments.

These claims stem first of all from its Russian majority, and then to the Crimea’s historical ties to Russia and its tenuous and still somewhat mysterious incorporation into Ukraine by Khruschev in 1954.

Regardless of Russia’s role in helping to set up the referendum,  the Crimea also has as much right to determine its own future as the inhabitants of Catalonia, the Basque Country or Scotland.

My personal reservations about self-determination are generally based on whether the practical costs of secession and/or independence outweigh the principle of self-determination per se.  

My support for Catalan independence, for example,  has been less than whole-hearted, and I tend to favour some kind of compromise, such as greater regional autonomy, in the event that independence could not be mutually agreed.   My reservations are essentially pragmatic: I fear that a unilateral declaration of independence would bring about military action from a  centralist Spanish state with a long history of such interventions.

At first I hoped that the Crimean crisis might be resolved through negotiation, and that some kind of agreement could be found that would allow Crimea to remain within Ukraine, while still satisfying Russia’s legitimate geostrategic concerns regarding the Black Sea fleet.

That would have required, for example, a clear and unequivocal rejection of NATO membership by a Ukrainian government whose legitimacy has yet to be confirmed, and real assurances to the majority Russian population of the Crimea that they would not be marginalized within the new political dispensation.

But the intransigence and sheer bloody-mindedness of the Ukrainian government and the US and the EU have meant that this outcome was impossible.

I’ve been reading Putin’s speech on the referendum and even though I have no fondness for the butcher of Chechnya,   there is really very little in it to disagree with.   Take his comparisons between the Crimea referendum and Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, which the US and the EU accepted:

We keep hearing from the United States and Western Europe that Kosovo is some special case. What makes it so special in the eyes of our colleagues? It turns out that it is the fact that the conflict in Kosovo resulted in so many human casualties.   Is this a legal argument? The ruling of the International Court says nothing about this. This is not even double standards; this is amazing, primitive, blunt cynicism. One should not try so crudely to make everything suit their interests, calling the same thing white today and black tomorrow.

Well, he’s not wrong.       And what about this?

Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

Um, quite.   Yet Putin’s observations are rarely recognized at all by the western politicians and journalists who are now blowharding against the ‘Russian bully.’    I have yet to see a single critique of the concept of ‘full spectrum dominance’ which began to appear so often in US military documents from the mid-1990s onwards.

This doctrine reserves for the US military the exclusive right to dominate every potential theater of war on land, on sea, in air and even in space across the entire planet.   It also contains an explicit strategic objective that no regional competitors can be allowed to challenge the US and its allies anywhere in the world.

It isn’t difficult to imagine how the western media would react if Russian or Chinese foreign policy proposals expressed such megalomaniac ambitions.

Imagine what would happen if Russia decided upon a ‘Mediterranean pivot’ or decided to extend its ‘missile shield’ to Cuba, Nicaragua or Mexico.   Well we already know what would happen, because Kennedy nearly started World War III to stop Russian missile deployments there, and the Reagan administration once launched a covert war against the Sandinistas because they were too friendly to the Soviets.

Almost no one ever questions the right of the US military to adopt an ‘Asia Pivot’ in order to ‘contain’ China, or push the boundaries of NATO eastwards in order to ‘contain’ Russia.     No one asks why the Pentagon can have an Africom, Southcom and all the other regional command centres and airforce and military installations that it has established across the world, or why it can send special forces off to intervene in more than 80 countries.

Few people even bother to question where the Pentagon acquired the ‘right’ to extend its military dominance even to outer space or spend billions developing ‘global strike’ missiles that can hit any country or target in the world.

To point this out doesn’t mean that Russia, China or any other country has the right to do project the same global military might.   But when it comes to ‘bullying’, military aggression, violations of national sovereignty,   invasions and occupations, arbitrary disregard for international law and institutions – the actions of the United States and its allies have set a very high benchmark that other less powerful countries cannot even hope to match.

What the Crimean referendum demonstrates however, is that the US is increasingly unable to use its vast global military and financial power to achieve its aims, and that once again set itself objectives that it isn’t willing or able to pursue through military force.   Putin has clearly taken something of a gamble, based on the belief that Russia can withstand sanctions and that neither Ukraine nor the West will go to war over this, and will eventually accept secession.

We better hope he’s right, because a war over Crimea would open up an explosion of ethnic violence that would tear Ukraine apart and unleash some very dark political forces across Central Europe.

That’s the last thing that Ukraine, Russia or anyone else needs.


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  1. Nigel Hunt

    19th Mar 2014 - 5:50 pm

    Prior to this I did think that perhaps I should vote in the referendum for Scottish independence, as it affected the status of the UK. The Crimean situation has made me realise I shouldn’t. The Ukrainian constitution suggests that all Ukrainians should be able to vote on the secession of one component of the country; if that were the case throughout the world then there would be no self-determination.

  2. Nigel Baldwin

    19th Mar 2014 - 6:13 pm

    Does Mr Cameron agree with the right of the majority of ULster’s inhabitants to be British? I though not. So, what’s wrong with the majority of Eastern Ukraine’s wanting to be Russian?

  3. Carrie

    19th Mar 2014 - 8:37 pm

    Exactly so – well said!

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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