Only Western governments can decide which governments are legitimate and which are not. In Russian eyes that seems to be the guiding principle of Western policy in international relations, apart from  spouting idealist platitudes and paying lip service to national sovereignty, international law, the importance of collective action, and democracy. The crisis in Crimea has shown that after twenty years of Western double standards Russia has learnt the rules of the game. Might is right.

 

In Crimea it seems that this might has been well received. Crimea is historically Russian having been signed over to Ukraine in 1954 in a largely administrative change. Russians make up 60% of the population along with Ukrainians and Tatars who account for 24% and 10% respectively. Since the beginning of the crisis the Crimean Parliament and population have called for Russian intervention. This has now been formalised by the referendum with 97% of respondents calling for reunification with Russia after minority groups boycotted the vote.

 

The pro-Russian population of Crimea are terrified of what they consider to be a regime put in place by violent thugs that is vehemently anti Russian. Some of these fears were immediately justified after the new government removed Russian as a state language and included the ultra right wing Svoboda party in the cabinet[1]. Although the Svoboda holds six positions in the new government, including deputy prime minister, general prosecutor and defence minister. This party has long sought to remove Crimea’s autonomous status and is notorious for it’s aggressive stance on minorities in Ukraine.[2] Understandably the Parliament of Crimea opposes this government. One has to wonder how the Parliaments and Assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would react had the 2011 riots in London led to the government being forcibly deposed and six BNP ministers taking office. Would the EU and the US recognise such a government?

 

It is quite clear the Russia had to do something to protect Russians in Crimea. But could Russia have made an attempt at securing it’s interests without direct intervention in Crimea? Would the international community have been open to Russia’s concerns about the revolution in Ukraine? It has been argued that Russia had a positive international profile after the Olympics that would have given them some clout in negotiations over Ukraine. Professor Anthony G. Picciano of the City University of New York has argued that ‘whatever good will was gained during the Olympics in Sochi – Vladimir Putin has lost with the Russian invasion of Ukraine’[3].

 

However it became obvious that whatever public profile Russia established wasn’t mirrored in the political world. Western leaders boycotted the Olympics and publicly condemned Russia over the anti gay propaganda law. Even so it did appear that a compromise had been reached between Russia and the West with regard to Ukraine. On the 21st of February President Yanukovych signed an agreement binding him to early elections, amnesty for protestors, and constitutional reform[4]. The next day he was forcibly deposed and a new government put in place. The government was immediately recognised by the West. That decision was a clear sign to the Kremlin that Western co-operation on Ukraine was finished. In their eyes the West had picked a side.

 

The NATO intervention in Kosovo and its eventual independence were highlighted as setting a dangerous precedent for intervention and self determination. This was most stridently argued by Russia who at the time had major difficulties in Chechnya and feared it would encourage further instability in Russia. However in 2008 it seemed that this precedent would favour Russian interests. Georgia’s artillery attacks on Russian citizens and peacekeepers in South Ossetia was unwarranted and motivated by a desire to reassert territorial control to qualify for NATO membership. Despite being the victim of aggression it was ultimately Russia that was condemned by the international community. Furthermore the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were not recognised as independent states. It certainly seemed to Russia that there was one rule for Western intervention and self determination and another rule for everyone else. These suspicions were confirmed as the trend continued in Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

 

There has been a lot of chest beating in the West about the need to support the integrity of Ukraine as a sovereign state. However it can be argued that government in Ukraine isn’t actually sovereign. If a state has an opposition movement that is in control of territory then there are grounds for its recognition and even intervention to support it. The West took this approach to Libya in 2011 when it was seen that the opposition provided a sufficiently cohesive alternative to Gaddafi. In Ukraine there is an illegal government in Kiev, a government in exile, and a local government in Crimea that doesn’t recognise the new leadership. There are numerous alternatives to the current government. The West is wilfully denying this.

 

In short the Russian decision to act alone can be explained by two things. Firstly the West is supporting an illegal anti Russian government in a country full of Russians. Despite this the West continues to berate Russia on legal and moral grounds. The referendum in Crimea may be unconstitutional but so is rioting and forcing a government from power. The means justify the ends for the West. Secondly the Russian decision was influenced by the precedents established in the last fifteen years. Inconsistencies in the international communities response to Kosovo, Iraq, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Libya and Syria have undermined Russian faith in the system.

 

Ultimately it was absurd to expect Russia to rely on the international community and it’s faux approval to secure its interests. History has proven to Russian policy makers that the systems of the international community serve to enable Western powers in some cases (Kosovo, Libya) without having the power to restrain them in others (Iraq, Syria). Furthermore it can be used to condemn comparable actions by other states (South Ossetia, Abkhazia). From a Russian perspective ‘international approval’ is a complete facade. Why would Russia risk Ukraine, its greatest foreign interest, and its own people to placate Western powers who form an anti Russian alliance in NATO and a protectionist economic bloc in the EU? A lack of objectivity from the West and a desire to proceed in stark principled terms is killing progress in Crimea.

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References:

[1] http://www.mfa.bg/en/events/6/1/1311/index.html Retrieved 17/03/14

[2] http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Publications/Detail/?lng=en&id=137051 Retrieved 17/03/14

[3] http://apicciano.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2014/03/01 Retrieved 17/03/14

[4] Full Text of 21st February Agreement https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/prospector/urkaine-agreement-full-text/#.Uyf1Ffl_uP0 Retrieved 17/03/14

[5] http://www.aa.com.tr/en/politics/302263–experts-crimea-isnt-comparable-to-kosovo Retrieved 17/03/14

[6] Straughan, Dania. “Negotiating on the Brink: The domestic side of two-level games that brought the world to the edge of WWIII.” (2011).