It’s been all over the news the past two days that a referendum has been held in Crimea, and the results are overwhelmingly in favor of leaving Ukraine to join Russia. It’s also been all over the news that not only have the United States and the European Union refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the referendum, but they have also imposed economic sanctions on Crimea in response. But why? The bare bones of the story here is that the population of Crimea is mostly Russian by ethnicity and culture—therefore, why shouldn’t they be permitted to pursue their interests? The reality, however, is much more complicated than just a national group that sees itself as disenfranchised. When all is said and done, the Crimean referendum is illegitimate, and the Crimean people have no right to secede and join Russia. Here, I hope to give an overview of the arguments as to why. I have not taken into account several factors, such as the legality of the Russian occupation, the UN’s ability to enforce international law, and the ability of Crimea’s annexation to be recognized by countries other than Russia, as they are not immediately important to the question of the referendum’s legitimacy.
The first and foremost consideration is of the respective constitutions of Ukraine and Russia. The Ukrainian constitution states that such a referendum would have to be held among all Ukrainians, whereas this one was held only among residents of Crimea. It is abundantly clear that the referendum is unconstitutional in this regard. And it does not fare much better in Russia. The favored option among Crimeans is to join Russia and become a new political region within Russia; however, Russian law states that this can only happen to annexed territory with explicit consent from the territory’s previous owner. The odds that Ukraine will allow Russia to annex Crimea are nil. There is a proposed resolution in Russia that would allow for annexation in a referendum such as this. Such a resolution would legally grant legitimacy to this referendum in the eyes of the Russian law. However, the referendum would still be violating Ukrainian law and, perhaps more importantly, international law.
There are two central principles of international law at stake here: the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the self-determination of the Crimean people. Supporters of the referendum have referenced the latter as adequate justification for the referendum and, by extension, for the Russian occupation of the territory. They have also cited previous referenda in locales such as Kosovo and South Sudan. However, in terms of both international law and historical precedence, this argument does not hold up. According to John Bellinger, an expert on national security law, a people has no right to secession unless this self-determination has been seriously compromised by the government. In this case, there is little to no evidence that such a crime has been committed by the Ukrainian government. In addition, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin has claimed that the recent change of power within Ukraine was violent coup d’etat, but this is almost certainly false—Yanukovych was ousted by his Parliament, not by angry protesters. As for historical examples of nations achieving independence on the basis of self-determination, the vast majority (read: Timor-Leste and South Sudan) have been the results of referenda supervised by the UN and have had the consent of the existing country involved. In the case of Kosovo, the ethnically Albanian people who constituted the majority in the region were undergoing mass suppression and killing at the hands of the Serbian government—a much clearer example of self-determination being compromised—and because of Serbia’s territorial integrity Kosovo still has yet to garner the recognition of almost half the countries in the world.
Territorial integrity is, after all, perhaps the principle that most clearly holds our international system together. There is plenty of historical precedence of this principle being put into action, such the quelling of the secessionist movement among Turks in Northern Cyprus. Though this group declared independence, the United Nations Security Council denounced the declaration as illegal and to this day the country is only recognized by Turkey. The issue now is that Russia is a permanent member of the UNSC, and can therefore veto any resolution enacted against its actions in Crimea. If this referendum is legitimized, it will set a grave precedent in international affairs. It will legitimize not only the Crimeans’ right to secede from Ukraine, but the Catalans’ right to secede from Spain, the Kurds’ right to secede from Iraq, and ironically, the Chechens’ right to secede from Russia. It will lead to the recognition of other secessionist movements, many in former Soviet republics, such as Abkhazia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova. Any people that sees itself as in any way oppressed, regardless of the bases of these allegations, will be able to declare itself independent. This will lead to an international anarchy that will be desirable to no one in the long run.
Finally, the referendum is illegitimate simply because the election itself cannot be trusted. There are, after all, thousands of soldiers currently occupying Crimea, and it is well-known that they have been put there by Putin. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is also currently stationed in Crimea, though officially it is not intervening in any way. However, this much of a presence of Russian military force is likely to have intimidated the Crimeans to have voted one way or another. In addition, 40% of the region is not ethnically Russian; it is unlikely that 93% of people would have voted to become part of Russia simply on their own volition. However, regardless of its results, the Crimean referendum is in direct contradiction of an obscene number of laws. To recognize it would do a great disservice to Ukraine and the wider world alike. Luckily, it seems that the United States and the European Union have recognized this and will be doing whatever they can to ensure that the Crimean annexation achieves no legitimacy.