Chris Blattman

Bleg: Someone please explain to me why I should accept that the annexation of Crimea is a terrible thing

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I’m ignorant of many facts, and am completely willing to be persuaded. But here’s my train of thought and source of skepticism:

  • I supported the independence movements in South Sudan and Kosovo. I think that there are cases where self-determination (which could include voluntary annexation) is a reasonable option. Especially if it can be decided through the most democratic and due process possible under the circumstances.
  • If I understand correctly, Crimea was historically a part of Russia, and an autocrat transferred Crimea to Ukraine a half century ago, and so the people who live there have some basis to protest being part of Ukraine today, if they do so.
  • The referendum was a farce, of course. But the world was so quick to condemn Russia’s moves and a process for self-determination that it’s hard to believe a transparent, democratic referendum with due process and a real choice between staying and going would have been possible. Some people undoubtedly proposed such a process, but it would it seem like a credible pledge if you are Crimea or Russia?
  • Also, is it the case that, if there were a democratic and due process, many people would predict roughly the same outcome?
  • So right away this looks to me like a complicated issue that people who supported Kosovo and South Sudan ought to be conflicted about. Or anyone who lives in the US, who annexed Texas long ago.
  • Lo and behold, the vast majority of articles and op-eds appear confident, indignant, and untroubled. They know who is right and who is wrong. This should always make you suspicious.
  • I can’t escape the feeling that, if Crimea were part of Russia, and a democratic Ukraine just gave Crimea its independence, most of the people denouncing Russia now would be celebrating Ukraine for the same actions.
  • In sum: if you are friendly to Russia you like the move, and if you are not you dislike it. It looks to me more like a simple case of us versus them rather than the tricky path to the least bad answer. At the end of the day, we trumpet international law when others break it but not when we or our allies break it.

I wonder if the tepid response by the Obama administration is testament to the fact that they, unlike the pundits, are likewise conflicted about whether this is so bad it’s worth an economic and diplomatic battle.

Let my education commence?

76 Responses

  1. Don’t know how many people posting here have ever been to Ukraine or heard anything about this issue from any other source than western news reports, but here is a little info from inside Crimea and Ukraine. I was born in Ukraine and ALL my relatives live in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. ALL of them want to go with Russia and not European Union. Those who live in Crimea have dreamt of becoming a part of Russia since Ukraine has gained independence after the break up of USSR. They all went to referendum and voted for annexation to Russia. So, I wouldn’t call it a farce.
    Now regarding what’s happening now in Eastern Ukraine. Confrontation between Western and Eastern Ukraine has ALWAYS been there! It just has never been so strong because none of the sides has ever done any actions on it. However, now, when the current government started discussing laws on prohibitting Russian language etc. (and East of Ukraine is predominantly Russian) people have had enough and went to the streets. ALL my relatives are there, protecting their rights. There are no Russian troops or people contracted by Russia there. There is no need for them – there are enough locals who want their voices heard as well. It’s a pity that US and Europe choose not to hear them just cause they are afraid of Russia. Or is it the revenge from US side for Russia being so strongly against plans of US invasion to Libya?

  2. Exactly my thinking. Borders change all the time. Upholding the mantra of “territorial sovereignty” is distracting from the real issue, which is the lives and the future of the people living in Crimea, Ukraine and Russia.

    The real problem is not a line on the map, but the existence of a large authoritarian country in Europe.

    My thoughts in more detail and with some historic comparisons:

  3. Why so terrible indeed. I don’t buy the Omigod, precedent! argument. What is China doing in Tibet and Uighur and Inner Mongolia, then? Why was it okay for the US to invade the last however-many countries they found excuses to go into? That’s for me maybe the most offputting aspect to the standard US attitudes: at least acknowledge that you yourself have not behaved according to your own supposed rules. Acknowledge that you’ve suddenly come over all moral and want Putin to do as you say, not as you do.

    As an earlier commenter said, it’s only about supporting your own team and dumping on the other. Pathetic.

  4. The annexation took part after occupation by armed forces, a lot of bullying and violence, including kidnappings and the torturing to death of at least of one Tartar activist:
    (link to Ukraininan TV report, in Ukrainian and Russian)
    Ethnic cleansing has already started, peope who do not claim Russian nationality will lose their homes and property. Speaking Ukrainian on the streets may result in a beating or worse. Many people have already left, others prepare to leave.
    That bad enough?

  5. To Nils: Procedural correctness is one component of legitimacy, but certainly not the only component. The principal of self-determination, in messy cases like this, should be taken to override procedural correctness. It legitimizes Yanukovych’s ouster and Crimea’s secession in the same breath. Again, this is not to say that procedures and rules do not matter, but I think anyone can see that legitimacy is a fuzzy concept in some times and places.

    Putin would not have intervened if Crimea were not strategically important to Russia’s interests. But perhaps he would also not have intervened if the vast majority of Crimeans themselves were not amenable to Russian hegemony. The referendum was deeply flawed; perhaps the outcome should have been 75% in favor rather than 95%. The minority opposition has been coerced into changing nationalities — strongest argument for illegitimacy in my view. But is it completely illegitimate for Russia to defend its strategic interest in Sevastopol? In my opinion you can disagree over how legitimate the annexation is; my point is that it’s not clear-cut villainy. I hate Putin in general, but in this case I think he has at least a decent argument.

    To the larger question of a return to Cold War politics, Putin’s actions obviously run contrary to the rules and norms of international order from perspective of the West. Also obviously, not every power in the world recognizes those rules and norms. Are they just plain wrong? Is everything so simple? Realpolitik is cynical, requires perhaps too much comfort with moral ambiguity, but more legalistic perspectives have their flaws too. Most notably, they may leave adherents surprised, angry, embarrassed, and without good options when the real world doesn’t behave the way they think it should. That’s pretty much what happened here in my view.

  6. I’m a complete amateur at international politics, and only a lurker on most websites to this topic, but there are a few things about Crimea that do bother me. I will admit, candidly, that I’m suspicious of Russia at the offset, so even though I likewise support both South Sudan and Kosovo, take my opinions with a grain of salt.

    1) It was done without oversight: There are a lot of questions about the referendum that have to be answered. While I agree that it was very difficult to get international oversight for a Crimean referendum, accepting it lends support to the idea that any election, under any controlled or contrived circumstance, can be used to legitimize annexation. This is troubling for a number of reasons, but is difficult for me to accept given the next point which is:

    2) It happened too fast. Normally there are extensive transition periods in changing the way countries are governed. This allows for at least some easy handling of the questions, but more importantly gives people a chance to understand what they’re getting into. This transition took place within a matter of weeks, after which the die was cast. This wouldn’t be such a problem for me either if it were not for:

    3) There’s no reversal process. I’m not an expert in Russian politics but from the situation in Chechnya I would expect that they are like the US – once a state, always a state. In practice it seems to mean that any region that is dissatisfied with its home country can be annexed by a neighbor with superior military might. Crimea may decide that it does not want to be part of a relatively distant Russia, but there’s no way for them to back out without either a war or the direct intervention of a superior military power. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the idea of allowing military force to play a role in the annexation of countries. While I’m fully aware that a referendum in Crimea might have led to the same outcome without direct Russian intervention, it bothers me that this was only executed so swiftly and so completely because of deployment of military strength. I have issues that are difficult to explain with encouraging the expansion of territory through your ability to intervene militarily in neighboring countries.

    4) It’s hypocritical of Russia: This may only bother me, but it does really annoy me that a country like Russia, which touts non-interventionism, has engaged in interventionism. It also bothers me that a country that is steadfastly against applying self-determination in its own country will attempt to apply it in others. I don’t like it with other countries do it, and I’m not likely to be happy when Russia does it.

    5) It rewards militarism: I’ve hit this already in 3) but I keep coming back to it. There are plenty of places in the world where the borders are uncertain and people on one side might want to be on the other side. This is a difficult problem, but the way that Crimea has handled the issue brings up a solution I don’t like to accept, which is that if one country has the force to get away with it, they can annex parts of the other country, but not vice-versa. While it may or may not benefit the people in the annexed region, it creates a definite reason to have an arms race, and raises the benefits gained by military adventurism remarkably.

    6) It breaks the system: The core of the system since the Cold War (and the 50s really) is that countries only get larger through resolution of minor territorial disputes, whereas they often get smaller. Moreover, borders stay fixed. This is why, despite all the proxy wars fought over the Third World, there have not been that many wars of outright invasion that have happened. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of legitimizing the annexation of territory through a referendum carried out post-occupation. It does encourage a lot more attempted occupations, I dislike the idea that the US, or Russia, or China, or France, or Rwanda, or anyone can simply seize territory where people might want to be temporarily part of their country and then keep it forever. If you swap referendums with the immediate needs of native rulers, isn’t this sort of how imperialism worked in the first place?

    None of these reasons mean that what is happening in the Crimean is bad per se, or will turn out badly for Ukraine, the West, Russia, or everyone. It is simply me being very uncomfortable with legitimizing this particular model of territorial expansion. Even if the people of Crimea wanted it this way, it’s the legitimization of the means that is bothering me.

  7. On its own, Crimea being owned by Russia is not that big a deal, and I suspect that if Russia makes no further irredentist moves, the world will eventually accept it.

    The problem is that the way this was done — through a unilateral landgrab — is pretty unprecedented for a great power since 1945. Yes, this sort of thing was once common historically. The US, after all, took half of Mexico, and Russia for its part expanded throughout the Caucusus and Siberia.

    But after WWII, the rules changed. Armed conflicts over territory had led to two major world wars. So while many boundaries were arbitrary or non-ideal, there was a collective decision to deny international recognition to armed territorial changes. By and large that standard has held, with a few exceptions, usually associated with decolonization or its aftermath — Israel, Morocco and Western Sahara, N. Vietnam absorbing S. Vietnam, etc. What’s unique in this case is that this is the first time a great power has attempted this kind of thing since WWII.

    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. Could China try to expand into border regions with India, Burma, or Mongolia, for example? And what makes people especially nervous in this case is that Putin’s rationale for the annexation could equally apply to much of the rest of the former Soviet Union. If that happens, then you get something like the Yugoslav-era wars, only on a much larger scale. And while it’s probably unlikely to get that bad, it isn’t unrealistic to expect Putin to try and grab more of Ukraine, for example.

    The difficult thing in responding to this is that we want to try and discourage future landgrabs, either by Russia or others, so there’s a need to sanction Russia in some way. But at the same time, Crimea *is* seen as a special case by a lot of Russians, including many liberals, so responding too strongly risks validating Russian suspicions about the the West being out to get Russia and strengthening Putin domestically.

  8. Maybe you are right in that it would not be completey wrong in principle that after some fair, reasonable, mildly legitimate, democratic process Crimea became part of Russia. Now you seem to accept that what we witnessed wasn’t in any way a fair, reasonable, mildly legitimate, democratic process, but seem to completely ignore this type of information when it comes to judging whether the annexation of Crimea was a fair move or not. And I do not get at all how your arguments should convince me that these procedural questions are irrelevant in making this judgement.

  9. If rules and process are paramount, then isn’t Yanukovych still the legitimate President? Not clear. A lot of rules have been bent recently. There are no clear-cut heroes or villains here, just winners and losers.

    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. (You could argue he helped create the crisis by allegedly allowing Russian snipers to be deployed on the protesters but that’s one event in a long chain of events.) Seems “sensible” to me. He could have gone about it much differently, but he’s not playing by our rules. We can always “do business” with someone who acts predictably in defense of their interests. Whether we want to or need to, all things considered, is separate question.

    Part of Ukraine tossed Viktor out of office (for many excellent reasons) and wishes to align more with Europe. Part of Ukraine including Crimea prefers to stay aligned with Russia. That split was not created by Russia or Europe; it was baked in at independence. The history of Crimea going back centuries is important but less relevant than the reality now. The majority of people living in Crimea today are Russian by language, culture, history, identification, in every meaningful sense except by law. Certainly the referendum’s outcome was aided by the propaganda campaign, boycotting, probably some election rigging. But if a perfectly free and fair referendum were held, at this moment, a majority would vote to secede.

    Putin won the moment he forced the issue, by seizing de facto control with troops. It’s bad for the rest of Ukraine. Probably bad for Europe and America. Good for Russia. Possibly bad for Crimeans in the long run, but it’s what they want.

    Also let’s not split hairs. Putin’s an autocrat and Khrushchev was too.

  10. Rules matter because that’s the most likely way toward progress- if progress is possible at all. This is the most brazen violation of the rules of the international order since Iraq invaded then annexed Kuwait. The other examples you’ve cited were within the rules-the rules you see are flexible to the point of being designed by a contortionist. However, you did have in those cases the key elements of multilateralism and international institutions present.

  11. Comparisons to Kosovo and South Sudan are misleading. There was no independence movement in Crimea. This had nothing to do with self-determination. Your second point is only partially correct: Crimea was only historically part of Russia for a time. It was not an ‘autocrat’ that conducted the transfer – it was Nikita Khrushchev.
    It is not only that the referendum took place under occupation that makes it illegitimate. There were two questions, and neither allowed for remaining with Ukraine. There were 500,000 excess ballots printed, and many voting who were not Ukrainian or Crimean citizens. There are many other reports of falsification, and without observation of the elections it is impossible for any verification on the level of legitimacy or corruption of the resuls. Also, Crimean Tatars, who reject the Russian occupation, refused to participate in the referendum. They make up about 13% of the population, and in Soviet times were deported from the region and later many returned.
    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’.
    In terms of Texas, this happened in quite different times, where international law, recognition of international boundaries, and multi-lateral agreements did not exist in the forms they do now.
    If the certaintly of articles does not leave enough shades of grey for your tastes, it is likely only from habituation. It is unusual for a situation to be so clear-cut: this one is. It speaks to the brazen nature of Putin.
    Your example of a reversal of this situation is difficult, because there is no realistic way to imagine this – if only for the reason that Ukraine would not have the military strength to do this.
    It really is not a tricky path, and attempts at soft moralism quite miss the point.
    And lastly, the comment about a tepid response from Obama is more about national politics in the US than anything happening internationally. No president, Republican or Democrat, would or should use the most extreme options as first steps. That would be irresponsible and ineffective. If you empty every stick in your sack at step one, it leaves you without arms later on – when they may be even more necessary.

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