The comments on my bleg yesterday were swift and excellent. I haven’t had a chance to read all the articles and links that people sent, but here’s a roundup of some of the interesting and persuasive points on all sides. Plus my amateur reflections.
From Steve Saideman:
It is really hard to ignore the process. That is, the way this thing was conducted taints it entirely–sham referendum, held as a pop quiz, at gun point, with much fraud.
Putting that aside, the general argument that I follow is that secession is something that is a last resort… Massive political change has lots of consequences so we should save it for when other solutions have been ruled out.
From commenter Basia:
In terms of your statement about whether it would be the same outcome if it were to be a democratic process, I find it surprising that anybody would argue this. We do not support occupation, intimidation, and illegitimate process anywhere and accept the result as ‘close enough’.
Procedural concerns are completely legitimate. Of course. But you have to ask (and answer) the question: was a slower, more legitimate process possible, let alone likely likely? The signals the West was sending made it sound fairly unlikely to me.
Another way of putting it: When you corner a rat, it attacks.
An interesting point from commenter Steve:
If rules and process are paramount, then isn’t Yanukovych still the legitimate President? Not clear.
Even though two wrongs don’t make a right, I am curious to the answer. I suspect people divide along partisan lines, solely by coincidence.
In any case, I find the procedural argument powerful but not on its own sufficient.
Commenter ASI makes an additional good point:
The problem is that the way this was done — through a unilateral landgrab — is pretty unprecedented for a great power since 1945.
What troubles people then are the potential implications. If the US and the international community simply acquiesce to this, then what prevents other countries from doing the same? There are lots of disputed territories in the world, and lots of places where national boundaries don’t quite conform to ethnic lines.
Saideman also says:
Part of this is because if Crimea gets to change its boundaries, what about groups within Crimea?
We should be careful of the slippery slope argument. Often slopes are less slippery than we think.
My hunch: Russia saw an historic, temporary opportunity to seize a territory very special to it (a major military and naval base) and took it. If China were presented with the same opportunity in a neighbor it would probably take it, irrespective of what happens in Crimea. The stakes are that high.
To me the slippery slope is the best argument for economic sanctions. To make it painful for future places considering this move. I don’t know if the pain could ever outweigh the strategic advantages to Russia, but I don’t really know.
At the same time, to me sanctions are a little like herpes: once you have them, they’re hard to get rid of. At least given this US Congress. I hope we’re aware of that when advocating them.
On the illegitimate parallels to Kosovo, there is Dan Drezner:
in Kosovo, the US was supporting a region that had declared independence a decade after suffering systematic abuse and painstaking negotiations for autonomy. Right now, Moscow and Washington are arguing over what is very much the jerry-rigging of a referendum on independence – despite no evidence of abuse, no opportunity for peacefully negotiating change, all in direct contradiction of international law.
I completely accept that Kosovo is a more clear cut case of secession. South Sudan too. Both places suffered interminable abuses. In no way is Crimea so clear cut. At the same time, to me it’s not a clear cut case in the other direction for the reasons I mentioned yesterday. that’s my basic point: these waters are muddy and anyone who can confidently side with one side has my suspicions.
Also, I’m a little worried about saying that we need 20 years of violent oppression before secession becomes an option. A high bar is needed, but that’s a bar too far for me.
So far, I lean in the direction of “this was an illegal but not unsurprising or completely unjustified action, a crime most nations would commit given the chance.”
Related to this, a point from commenter Steve:
Russia had vital strategic interests at stake. Faced with a crisis and uncertainty, Putin moved to secure them and strengthen his position, knowing full well the West wouldn’t intervene… He could have gone about it much differently, but he’s not playing by our rules.
Now it’s time for me to do “Bad International Relations”. Saideman and Drezner will soon slap me around for this.
My thought is: when a nation–the US, France, Russia or China–has a major, long term, strategic interest in a neighboring territory, they are going to act in their self-interest. I don’t have to like this. But in comparison to, say, invading Iraq, it’s not the most egregious international move I can imagine. (And I say this as someone who was, and to a very limited extent still am, cautiously optimistic about the Iraq invasion.)
I’d want to discuss how to soundly discourage un-procedural annexation from happening any more. A big part of the answer is revising the international institutions that govern secession or intervention, so that illegal actions are not the only or best option. (A raise of hands for the (impossible?) goal of eliminating the UN Security Council veto, anyone?)
Also, keep in mind: it’s easy for us to ask Russia to play by the post-1945 rules, since we already got the regional security we wanted before 1945. The US and Europe pacified and brought into line its neighbors long ago. The US nearly went to nuclear war over the exceptions (Cuban missile crisis), and merely toppled unfriendly regimes by covert rather than overt means through the 1980s. The handful that are left–Venezuela, for instance–the US can afford to topple by more overt means because it is small and distant. If a Chavez or a Chinese puppet government appeared in Mexico, I can guess what tune Congress and most commenters would be singing.
If I understand correctly, Russia has their Monroe doctrine too, and the US and Europe have been pissing on it for a couple of decades. Based on my pitiful knowledge, what’s surprising to me is that there hasn’t been more trouble on the Russian front.
If sanctions will make the future slope less slippery, perhaps that’s worth the diplomatic and economic fallout. I worry it won’t make a huge difference to a future Chinese or Russian opportunity, and we’re destroying some of the political capital and cooperation we’ll need for a truly major international crisis. But absent clear and accessible procedures for a change in borders, I think we can expect illegal action today and in future.