There is a tragi-comic contest going on between Western powers and Russia over the Crimea and the future of the Ukraine. It is tragic because people are getting killed and more will get killed before this contest is over, if ever. It is comical because both sides champion in this contest principles that they rejected in other contests.
Every power favors international law — when it is on its side. And when it’s not, then it looks for other, alternative, more suitable principles. Over the Crimea, Russia favors self-determination whereas the USA favors international law as embodied in various agreements and the territorial integrity of states. Yes, the UN charter does defend the territorial integrity of states [see Article 2:4]:
All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations [Art. 2:4]
On closer scrutiny, it seems that the territorial integrity of a state can be challenged or contested by peaceful, non-forceful, non-threatening means, maybe like a referendum. But like many other UN Purposes, this one too has been challenged, indeed violated, over and over in Israel’s case, in the 1950s and 1960s by Arab League member states, like Nasser’s Egypt, and lately by the Islamic Republic of Iran which has repeatedly threatened to destroy Israel. Nasser and Khomeini and his successors have employed “the threat or use of force” to destroy or try to destroy Israel. Another one of those dead letters in the UN’s cornucopia of principles and promises.
Now the principle of self-determination appears in the UN Charter too.
The Purposes of the United Nations are . . . 2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples; and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace. [Art. 1:2]
So we see that the UN Charter approves both principles. And powers choose which principle suits them in the circumstances that they find themselves. Russia has been supporting the principle of self-determination in the struggle over the Crimea, even encouraging the holding of a referendum by its local supporters there. The population of Crimea has a solid ethnic Russian majority.
Moreover, within Ukraine, Crimea was recognized as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea starting in1995. And this autonomous government with its own legislature carried out the referendum (albeit the question was not fairly posed) for the independence of Crimea from Ukraine, which most of the population had never wanted to be part of in any event. After all, why would those in southeastern Ukraine want to be part of what is essentially a failed state? That reason is in addition to their own ethnic Russian nationalism or pride or chauvinism or whatever you would like to call it. But we are getting away from the point.
The same Russian government, the administration of Putin and Medvedev, took a different attitude in 2008. In that year Kossovo, that is, the Albanian Muslims of Kossovo, declared independence although Kossovo was part of Serbia as an autonomous province. Serbia did not agree to Kossovo separatism, to Kossovo independence.
Now this basically unilateral declaration of independence had the eager support of Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state of Pres. George Bush 2. In the case of Kossovo, the US government acted on behalf of the lofty principle of self-determination. Russia, meanwhile, acted in the name of the territorial integrity of states and international law.
Bear in mind, that in the case of the Crimea, the same two great powers are again on opposite sides. But each has switched the basic principle that it acts on behalf of. Now, over Crimea and southeastern Ukraine, the Americans and the ever (never?) principled EU speak in the name of territorial integrity while Russia deploys the self-determination of the Crimean and southeastern Ukrainian populations.
It is important to stress that by 2008 the population of Kossovo was almost entirely Albanian Muslim, although in 1899, Austro-Hungarian statistics showed that the Serbs were 43.7% of the population, whereas the ethnic Albanians were 47.88%. That is, neither Serbs nor Albanians were more than 50%. Yet by 2008, almost all Serbs had been “ethnically cleansed” from Kossovo, their medieval churches and monasteries in ruins. If the Serbs and other non-Albanians had still been in Kossovo in anywhere near the same proportions as in 1899, self-determination for the province might have looked much different.
Indeed, Serbs sometimes claim that after the Communist Yugoslav government of Marshal Tito put Albanians in charge of Kossovo in 1976 [some say 1966], Albanian chauvinists in Communist garb– got the power to dispossess Serbs of their jobs in the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kossovo. And this led to Serbian migration from the province. Let’s forget for the sake of symmetry, the WW2 Albanian Muslim SS division, named after Skanderbeg, an Albanian hero who fought the Turkish Muslim conquerors in the 15th century — as a Christian. But it is clear that in supporting the Albanian Muslim uprising of the Kossovo Liberation Army against Serbia, and later supporting unilateral Kossovo independence, the US was heedless of potential harm that might be done to the human and civil rights of Serbs in that province. Now the Albanians are an uncontested majority in Kossovo.
On the other hand, over the Ukraine and Crimea, international law and territorial integrity of states are the watchwords. So what is the background, legal and historical, of the Ukrainian claim to Crimea?
The peninsula never had a mainly Ukrainian population. Indeed, the Tartars, a remnant of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde who had invaded and conquered Crimea (up till then called Tauris) in the 13th century were Islamized and were the overwhelming majority when Russia conquered circa 1773. Russia brought in other groups under the tsars and the Soviet Union brought in Jews to settle the land in parts of Crimea in the 1920s, as a substitute apparently for the Jews’ Zionist longings which the Communists loathed. Think of the Yiddish song Hey Zhankoye which deals with that episode.
In 1954, the Communist government led by Khrushchov reassigned Crimea to the Ukraine which did not mean much at the time since all major decisions were made in Moscow anyhow for all of the USSR. This means that the United States is now supporting a Ukrainian claim to a place that never had a Ukrainian majority in the name of Ukrainian possession that derives from a Soviet Communist administrative decision.
The question now is what position the USA would take if Arabs in some of the larger villages in northern Israel would get together and declare themselves independent of Israel. In such a case, would the USA support self-determination for a handful of villages OR would the USA back up Israel’s territorial integrity??