Chris Blattman

Responses to “Someone please explain to me why I should accept that the annexation of Crimea is a terrible thing”

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.

44 Responses

  1. The annexation of Crimea is a bad thing because it makes it more difficult for Ukraine to move away from their authoritarian history and become a more democratic, less corrupt and more economically productive state. This is clearly what a majority of Ukrainians want. It would also (probably) have positive benefits for Europe and perhaps the rest of the world: less emigration from Ukraine, larger export markets, low-cost manufacturing possibilities, more stable energy supplies, fewer regional security concerns, less illicit money flowing into the banking system, etc. It also appears to contribute to Russia’s belief that it can more aggressively intervene to protect its business or ethnic interests in other places, which especially concerns countries in the former Soviet Union, the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. And a more aggressive Russian foreign policy will likely be accompanied by more aggressive domestic policy, which means more power and control to oligarchs, more money being sucked out of the global economy into the sinkhole of Russian corruption, more political repression and more declines in Russia’s health and social welfare. The general rule is that we (that is the US, Europe and “the West”) support independence movements that appear to move their regions in a democratic, market-based direction; the ones we oppose push towards authoritarian rule, controlled markets and regional insecurity. The objective arguments of history, international law, referendums, etc are rhetorical justifications that can be used by either side. This case is a little unusual since the main impact is not on the region trying to secede but on the rest of the state, but the same principles apply. The bottom line is that the annexation of Crimea is terrible because it will have a negative impact on Ukraine, with repercussions for Europe and, more faintly, the rest of the world.

  2. Chris,

    Here’s a comment I was meaning to post yesterday—many points have already been touched upon by others, but maybe it’ll offer some entertainment or amusement:

    While I was less-than-enthusiastic about South Sudan and Kosovo (especially Kosovo, with its post-1999 history of attacks on the Serbian minority), I still think that the differences are rather major. The big one has been already mentioned in previous comments: no history of ethnic cleansing or systemic discrimination (if anything, those were non-Russians that had been historically discriminated against).

    What’s else:

    – “Crimea was historically a part of Russia”. So was Finland. The 19th century Russian Empire, though expanding overland, not overseas, had all the qualities of a proper colonial power, so that argument is just as valid as “India/Pakistan was historically a part of the UK”. Most of the population before Stalin’s deportations did not self-identify as Russian. Having said so, I very much dislike arguments from history; those can be cherry-picked to support even the most absurd of claims (Volga Germans and Koryo-saram, anyone?).

    – “It’s hard to believe a transparent, democratic referendum with due process and a real choice between staying and going would have been possible”. There is a playbook for that—interim UN administration and internationally supervised referendum, East Timor-style. “If there were a democratic and due process, many people would predict roughly the same outcome?”—so why couldn’t Russia and the Crimean government wait a bit and take care of the proper decorum?

    – Of course, the problem is that the outcome would probably not be all that certain; see this ( or this ( The only party that openly advocated joining Russia had just 3% of the seats in the regional parliament. The support for annexation looks like an instant and slightly knee-jerk reaction to the regime change in Kiev. It could have sustained, but it could as well have been an outlier. We’ll never know.

    – Anyway, I don’t know why Kosovo is the “default” comparison (poor, faraway lands can only be compared to other poor, faraway lands?). What I see there is rather some parallel universe history of Canada: imagine that in 1968, instead of Trudeau, the country gets an Anglophone, mildly anti-French PM, who decides to trash the Official Languages Act. Now, de Gaulle flies in, and in addition to crying “Vive le Québec libre!”, he brings along the Foreign Legion (this time, like many other times, without any French insignia) to occupy Montreal. A referendum follows within the week. Guess the result?

    (Another thing I like about the Crimea/Quebec parallel is that I’m sure that the Crimean everyman telling the Guardian “I mean, I am all for the superiority of the white race, and all that stuff, but I don’t like fascists” would get along beautifully with the Charter of Values supporters).

    – It’s sad that the current Ukrainian government had nothing of Trudeau and made moves that stupidly antagonised quite a chunk of the population, like not following any constitutional rules while impeaching Yanukovych or the repeal of the language law. But there were also more sensible responses from the same camp (see, e.g., this: I think that chances are high that some compromise for a greater autonomy within Ukraine could have been forged in the absence of Russian tanks.

    – On the ‘rules matter” angle, I think that the issue of “Budapest Memorandum” is a real problem ( Ukrainian right-wingers already said that giving up nuclear weapons was a mistake. Not that any Western/Russian guarantees to Iran or NK would’ve been necessarily trusted otherwise, but this makes already difficult negotiations even more complicated.

    – I would not agree that the annexation is bad for mainland Ukraine, though. Crimea to me looks like the Portuguese colonial empire—kept for sentiment and some vague sense of prestige, while more important problems have to be solved at home. Letting it go will free the energy and resources that can used elsewhere.

    What’s slightly troubling for me is the tone here: “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.” I’m not sure what are you referring to, Chris, but if it is the enlargement of Nato and the European Union (and the perspective of moving further eastward), it’s slightly condescending towards the societies of the former Eastern Bloc. You can google the exact numbers, but support for Nato membership in countries like Estonia, Poland etc. has rarely ever dropped below 60%, while the EU’s ratings often hovered around 80%—much, much higher than in most of the countries west of the Iron Curtain. Of course, those developments could be described as favourable to the US, and could have even be supported by CIA/NSA/whatnot, and fellow commentators like Bob illustrate, I’m afraid, a bad case of cum hoc ergo propter hoc. The US government is up to many nasty things, but attributing to it some absolute might could, indeed, be only based on conspiracy theories. “Orchestrating coups” without any alignment with the local sentiment results in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. I have only anectada on that—mainly my conversations with Ukrainians from the East and the West alike—but I would suspect that the experiences of visiting Poland or the Baltic states, as students, tourists or migrant workers, and observing the differences in living standards helped much more than any real or imagined covert operation (right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian GDP measured at PPP was higher than Poland’s; now the figure for Ukraine is a mere third of the Polish one).

    I don’t say those sentiments (anti-Russian or pro-Western) cannot be criticised. But, as I said, I find depriving people and societies of their agency rather condescending. If it’s so easy to “instigate” the Maidan-style protests (or, ages ago, something like this:, why did the US ever have to bother to organise, fund, and proceed with some *actual* coups (you know, with the tanks and the whole shebang…) to have its way? Let alone invade a country?

    Finally, while I enjoy how the posts above use “we” to refer to the United States and its allies (“we already got the regional security we wanted before 1945”), being an equal opportunity Russia/US hater, I consider the language exclusionary :-)

  3. I should add too that pretty much all boundaries are arbitrary, throughout the world. Most borders were drawn by war and by colonial powers and outside powers. That isn’t just true in Africa — it’s certainly true throughout Asia and the Middle East, throughout the Americas, and even in Europe, where the current boundaries in many cases do not conform to old ethnic lines. In postwar Europe, rationalizing these boundaries actually meant sanctioning what we now call ethnic cleansing. That’s why territories that were 90%+ German before the war now constitute half of Poland, for example. Or why there are few Turks in Greece and few Greeks in Turkey, even though the present boundaries between them have no basis in history.

  4. @Jason Kerwin — Here’s the issue: it would be great in theory if there could be some mutual rationalization of African boundaries. The problem is that, in practice, several problems arise:

    (1) What constitutes “rational boundaries”? There are bound to be disagreements over this, and its highly unlikely that any negotiated agreement will resolve all outstanding issues. As in any negotiated settlement, there will be tradeoffs and compromises that create new winners and losers. And the difficulty of reaching these agreements means that war is much likelier than a negotiated solution. Given that war is much more destructive than any civil conflict, it’s not clear to me that frozen boundaries are a worse alternative.

    (2) How do you avoid creating new conflicts? Boundaries may be arbitrary, but they’ve also existed now for decades. In some cases, for over a century. As a result migration patterns and economic ties have formed, which means that rectifying these claims means that in many cases you end up replicating the original problem. Now you simply have a new restless minority within the new boundaries, and new irredentist claims from the old authorities. And the process, especially in ethnically-mixed territories, does tend to have a domino effect, as the breakup of Yugoslavia shows.

    I agree that the global processes for resolving these issues are far from ideal. But I don’t see how unilateral actions, even in a case like Africa, are really a good solution. Unilateral military actions — even when justifiable — will just lead to more war and conflict, and are likely to prove even more destructive.

  5. I think a lot of these objections come down to deeply-held beliefs in the legitimacy of status-quo borders. People seem to think that the way countries are currently drawn on a map constitutes some sort of natural order, and changes to it are inherently offensive. The AU’s take on this is the most flagrant example I know of – they are committed to defending national borders that were made up by Europeans and that are clearly fairly silly and sometimes harmful.

  6. In the comment you highlighted, I noted that this is the first time this a great power has attempted an old school annexation since 1945, and that this really hasn’t happened much at all since that time (exceptions include Israel, Morocco and Western Sahara, Indonesia and East Timor, India and Goa, Turkey and N. Cyprus (sort of)). Interestingly, the last time unilateral landgrabs were permitted was, ironically, with the Soviet Union, who was allowed to grab and keep Stalin’s conquests in what used to be East Prussia (Kaliningrad), Eastern Poland (now Western Belarus and Ukraine) and Japan (Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands).

    Re: slipper slope arguments: I actually agree that the slippery slope arguments are a little limited, and that it’s unlikely China will just decide to invade all its neighbors if Russia were to get away with this. The truth about international law is that is that without strong enforcement mechanisms, great powers can mostly get away with doing what they want. That said they generally try to stay within the rules because it’s within their interests. It’s generally a good thing not to alienate one’s neighbors and clients, and diplomatic and soft power matter a great deal.

    China, for example, isn’t likely to press its historic claims to Mongolia, Central Asia, the Russian far east, India’s Arunachal Pradesh, and N. Burma because it’s generally in China’s interest to avoid outright war with its neighbors. Nor do they want to jeopardize their trading relations, and they’re aware that their own neighbors and some of their own domestic constituencies have claims against China as well, such as Tibet, Manchuria (Russia), etc.

    That said, it isn’t crazy to think that if Russia were to get away with this without costs, it might make it somewhat more likely that Chinese hardliners at some point push to resolve various disputes with Japan or the Taiwan issue through preemptive military takeovers.

    And again, the more proximate worry is with Russia itself. Given how provocatively Russian agents have been acting throughout Eastern and Southern Ukraine, it is far from crazy to think that Putin might well attempt the same maneuvers in those regions. For that matter, he could try to do the same in Belarus, Kazakhstan, or, if he’s really being bold, parts of Estonia and Latvia.

    You might say Putin isn’t likely to do anything this risky. But what makes people nervous about the Crimea thing is that even the Crimea takeover doesn’t actually fit in with a rational analysis of Russia’s interests. The reason the international community is reacting so harshly is that this really does seem like a much more blatant violation of norms than the war with Georgia, for example. In that case, the Georgian army shot first, Russian troops had been in the territories as peacekeepers since Georgia’s initial civil war in the early 1990s, and Russia didn’t move to outright annex the territories involved. Yes, it was a little heavy-handed, and Russia was probably in the wrong, but most world powers recognized that there was some symmetry between Russian actions there and other actions by Nato and the US.

    Here, Putin, without any actual military provocation but exaggerated potential threats, seized control of Crimea; conducted a referendum so farcical it was like he wasn’t even trying to make it look legitimate; and then outright annexed the territory. I really doubt most major powers would do this, even if yes, they’re often quick to bend the rules.

    And again, what makes the international community so concerned is that very people would view this as a rational response. Yes, Putin was upset by Yanukovich’s toppling. And yes, seizing Crimea was popular domestically. But doing so would inevitably strengthen anti-Russian forces in Ukraine; it would reinforce their neighbors fears of becoming Russian satellites; it would almost certainly provoke some kind of diplomatic response from the rest of the world; and it would saddle Russia with big economic costs trying to support the region. Hence, you had quite a few pieces just days before saying, no, Putin wouldn’t go into Crimea. (See Dmitri Trenin’s NYT piece from late February.)

    Putin did all this anyway. The costs to Russia have been entirely predictable, with countries like Sweden now talking about Nato membership and even Belarus looking to strengthen ties to the EU. That Putin was willing to endure these costs makes it very hard to say he wouldn’t do something more blatant like further landgrabs.

    Re: sanctions — IF Putin doesn’t make any more incursions and limits himself to Crimea then eventually he’s likely to get away with it. Nobody will recognize it internationally and Crimea will still appear Ukrainian on most western world maps. But as tensions subside, the EU and the US will gradually restore economic ties to Russia, especially as other global issues arise that require cooperation with Russia’s leadership.

    Given that the sanctions target Putin’s inner circle then if, at some point, Putin’s regime is replaced by a more democratic leadership, many of the sanctions will be moot. Any broader ones will likely be lifted, even if no future Russian leader will be able to cede Crimea. And at some point (meaning decades away) there might eventually be some kind of deal between Russia and Ukraine which formally cedes Crimea to Russia in exchange for something like a N. Ireland-style power-sharing deal.

    So I don’t think the sanctions will be anything permanent. Cuba’s an unusual case, what with the exile lobby. The world’s fears are mostly about the contagion effect. If that fear subsides, so will the pressing need for sanctions.

  7. @Sasha You say “Sorry, but to say that “the EU and the US arranged and managed for a coup in Ukraine” is just ignorant nonsense, bordering on a conspiracy theory”

    I suspect you are guilty of the kinds of double standards Chris has been discussing. There is lots of historical evidence of the US instigating such coups (even recently, remember Venezuela?). Furthermore, many ‘conspiracy theories’ have been flighted about the Russian role in Ukraine violence with no evidence but you would probably believe those. Finally, some conspiracy theories – like the idea of the NSA collecting telephone calls made in other countries – turn out to be true.

    You may also want to revisit the leaked statements by Nuland outlining the planned post-Yanukovych government..

  8. 1. Crimea is not historically Russian. Crimea was annexed by Catherine in 1783 but for the preceding 300+ years it was the Crimean Khanate a vassal state of Ottoman Empire. Further, Crimean Tatars support independent Ukraine and boycotted the sham referendum.
    2. Crimea had no substantive independence movement before Putin invaded and put his cronies at the head of Crimean parliament.
    3. Other than sanctions what recourse does the US have (disregarding invasion)?
    4. Imagine if Putin follows this tactic to mainland Ukraine, we will use the same logic? Putin’s an autocrat, but Ukraine is just little Russia, right?

  9. Saideman is correct making the distinction between secession and irredentism. However both have consequences for the people living in the rump state and that too is important- I think he would agree on that point.Alberta leaving Canada has different consequences than Quebec leaving – our focus would be on how immigrants and the aboriginal peoples are affected in either place, because what happens in the territory seceding is the story. Nevertheless it would alter the basic political framework that the rest of Canada finds itself in. Self-determination tends to ignore that populations like individuals are in fact integrated into relationships with real material and political import, Their decisions have consequences for others and it’s not clear we can speak about just outcomes without taking that into account. Arguably the Ukrainian nationalists may benefit most from the loss of Crimea for better or worse.

  10. Sorry, but to say that “the EU and the US arranged and managed for a coup in Ukraine” is just ignorant nonsense, bordering on a conspiracy theory. As for NATO allegedly encroaching on Russia – the reason that NATO expanded in Eastern Europe in the past decade is quity simply due to Eastern European countries’ deep suspicion of Russia and Russian intentions. Russia could have done something about, by for example trying to amend for the wrongs committed in the past and by trying to build partnerships.

  11. Outstanding! All the comments and interactions are well read. However, it is sad to see that not one single statement has been said here that the US and the EU arranged and managed (mostly the US) for a coup in Ukraine. What was Putin supposed to do with the possibility of NATO at its doorstep to the fleet of the Black Sea. Another thing, Crimea may have been Ukranian, but the Ukraine was by no means independent of Russia. So, if you look back on history when Khrushchev, who was practically born on the current Ukraine-Russian border, gave Crimea to the Ukraine and still part of the USSR it was really done as a gesture. Crimea has been Russian influenced for decades since. The annexation was improper yes, but one also protects oneself when the enemy comes knocking and breaking international law, first.

  12. One more thing… I am not a huge fan of slippery slope arguments myself, but the key here is this: when one changes the boundaries, the groups within the new territory gain/lose power/rights/etc, so sub-groups will have increased incentives to push for their own secession/irredentism. This is not slippery slope–this is political change creating incentives to generate more political change. My point is not a concern about precedents, norms and imitation but actual politics.

  13. Lots of stuff could be said about this, but I have already spent too much on non-work this morning. All I will ask is for you to stop calling this secession. It is irredentism. Related but not identical. That is a key difference between Kosovo/South Sudan and this. Anyhow , you are right to ask these questions.

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