Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Ukraine: The Plot Thickens

Steven E. Meyer


By Steven E. Meyer

March 21, 2014 

On Sunday, March 16, an overwhelming majority of voters in Crimea passed a referendum to secede from Ukraine and join with Russia. On Tuesday, Crimean and Russian leaders signed a treaty to formally join Crimea with the Russian Federation. The crisis that has enveloped Ukraine for more than a month has provided an opportunity for Russia to press its interests in Ukraine, which dovetail with the interests of Russians living in Crimea who have chafed under Ukrainian rule.  

The issue is a lot more complicated than the “good versus evil” scenario that defines American foreign policy in this and most other cases. Crimea was part of Russia until 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine. About two thirds of the population is Russian and many of them still resent Khrushchev’s action. The heavy Russian presence has assured Crimea a special place in Ukraine—it is the only region given the title and rights of an “autonomous” republic. Moreover, the Russians have maintained a naval base at Sevastopol and several other military installations throughout Crimea in an agreement with Kiev that does not expire until 2042.  But the Russian military presence had become increasingly difficult to accept by many Ukrainian politicians who were looking for a way out.

Here are three major considerations:  sovereignty, secession, and sanctions.

Has Ukrainian sovereignty been violated and, if so, is this a breach of international law?  Certainly—despite Moscow’s denials. But Russia is playing a game that has been played since the dawn of the modern era. International law is the product of a long historical evolution designed to regulate the relationships among states, especially in the areas of war and commerce, and state sovereignty is the bedrock of international law. But most states have a long history of violating the sovereignty of other states and this tenet of international law, like so many others, often falls prey to power politics. 

Washington’s condemnation of Russia’s flouting of international law contains more than a little hypocrisy. Our country has never been shy about violating the sovereignty of other states in seeking power, wealth, and empire. In 1953, the United States, along with the UK, overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran; in 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized the United States to move against any country in Southeast Asia; in 1973, we were complicit in the overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile; in 1983 the United States invaded Grenada; in 1989, we invaded Panama; and in 1999, the UN declared the US attack on Iraq a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.  Certainly, as all of Eastern Europe can attest, the same charge can be leveled at the former Soviet Union.

Until the end of the Cold War, secession had been seen as a “normal”, albeit often violent, part of the international political process. It was accepted as a result of changes in political circumstances—usually revolution, collapse of a state, or losing a war. In this case, Russia has seen the near collapse of the Ukrainian state as an opportunity to push Crimea toward secession. The United States has often has been involved in fomenting and even demanding secession of a portion of a state without the consent of that state. We instigated and applauded the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the formation of successor states in Eastern Europe. During the 1990s, the collapse of Yugoslavia and the construction of successor states became the single most important issue in American foreign policy.   

The United States and other Western countries have begun sanctions against Russia. This is a sign of weakness and not of strength because they will have little impact. The sanctions provide exactly the attention Russia craves because they demonstrate that Russia is once again a major power that has recovered from the humiliation of losing the Cold War. Military action is out of the question between two nuclear armed countries, leaving economic and diplomatic sanctions as the only tools available. But sanctions could be counterproductive because virtually no consideration has been given to Russian retaliation. For example, among other strategies, Russia could easily shut off gas to Europe and sell American debt at a discounted rate, a move that would unsettle the dollar.  

This is a game of power politics, and Russia has the upper hand; it is not a game of legalities and political correctness. It is almost certain that Crimea never again will be part of Ukraine. The only question left is whether Russia and its allies in Ukraine will move to take the entire eastern part of the country.

- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”