Crimea: Settlement and the problem with historical context in questions of sovereignty

One of the most frequent issues arising from questions of sovereignty is that of historical context vis-a-vis self-determination. When Woodrow Wilson put forward his Fourteen Points at the deliberations in 1918, his support for self-determination (if not consistently applied personally) appeared to many to be a powerful and decisive recognition of the ideal of the nation as ‘sovereign state', as fought for in 19th century literature and revolutions. The idea that a people, united by a common culture, language, or custom, should be able to govern themselves, is an important expression of liberty and its ideal. Stability is of course important, but the freedom of decision making, of self governance, is the very reason for stability in the first place — not the other way around.

What I argue is that the notion of self-determination has been applied inconsistently. Rather than respect the will of a people, commentators and governments often decline to accept self-determination when it conflicts with their own political pragmatic ends, even though this constitutes an inconsistent application of their own ideals.

Take Crimea, for example. Putin’s paramilitary sponsored invasion of Crimea can be seen as a gross violation of international law and a terrifying expression of thuggish, expansionist tendencies reminiscent of the 1930s. Amidst all the condemnation of Putin’s actions, and bewildering support of maverick sympathizers, what was lost was self-determination. Obama said in a 2014 press conference that the “United States supports [the Prime Minister of Ukraine’s] government’s efforts and stands for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic future of Ukraine.” The issue of ‘territorial integrity’ if referring to safety from invasion is absolutely essential. Yet the ambiguity of the term ‘territorial integrity’ is reflective of popular attitudes towards the Ukraine and Crimea – that’s to say that this is black and white: either you sympathize with Russian annexation, or you support Crimea being a part of Ukraine in absolution regardless of consequences. Given controlled and comfortable conditions, it seems right to say that the people of Crimea should be allowed to have a democratic, monitored plebiscite on their sovereignty.

Of course the difficulty with a plebiscite is that status-quo in Crimea has been severely challenged and altered – people have left, fears have been raised, and others have migrated to the region. Principally, fears of Russian intervention or pressure from other powers would undoubtedly affect the outcome of any democratic vote. In that sense, perhaps any democratic vote on Crimean sovereignty, whether to be Ukrainian or Russian, is a flawed venture. With the passing of time perhaps a vote is more conceivable, but equally integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation may simply increase Russification in the region.

Alternatively, perhaps Crimea can serve as an important historical example – a warning of the dangers of rejecting tensions of sovereignty and regional identity, if we take it that that Crimean uncertainty over being part of Ukraine is a factor prior to Euromaidan. The 'possibility' of Crimeans feeling like they should be part of Russia rather Ukraine should be acknowledged and treated seriously, rather than written off as a far-fetched oddity. People all too often forget that Crimea was part of the Russian SFSR until 1954, but also that the Crimea was up to 50% ethnically Tartar in the 1920s – until Stalin’s policy of forced-deportation and violence decimated the population. Foreign policy should not be about suiting the interests of a particular nation, but should serve to peacefully and democratically enable the freedoms of groups of people – particularly when it comes to questions of self-determination.

Russia and the Power of Social Media


Half a century is a long time in international politics. In 1959, when Khrushchev visited the American National Exhibition in Moscow, he was shown a model American kitchen and told by his counterpart, then Vice-President Richard Nixon, of the wonders of capitalism in easing the domestic burden of the Western housewife. His scathing reply was that this backwards attitude towards women “does not occur under Communism”. This was not an isolated incident, but part of a wider pattern of cultural conflict: viewing marriage as a bourgeois institution, the Soviet regime made divorce so easy that the Palace of Marital Union in Kiev was viewed as a laughing stock; meanwhile, a key plank of McCarthy’s Red Scare was the paranoid persecution of homosexuals as a threat to the American family.

Fast-forward to today and Russia and the West are again increasingly at loggerheads, but this time the cultural battleground is reversed. Russian lawmakers extol the virtues of conservative Christian social attitudes whilst the West, increasingly tending towards a more socially progressive outlook, lambasts the country’s repressive treatment of sexual minorities. When the US Supreme Court declared bans on same sex marriage unconstitutional and Facebook erupted into a sea of rainbow colours, the suggestion by legislator Vitaly Molonov that Russia ban the website for breaking its law against “gay propaganda” was met with outrage and disgust. 

The argument made by Molonov concerning Facebook, that the website ought to be banned for breaching Russian laws against the “promotion” of homosexuality in a manner visible to children, ties in to wider Russian critiques of a hegemonic western media promoting a socially liberal agenda at the expense of nations’ rights to determine moral questions for themselves. A glance at the responses to the Supreme Court ruling from most large, mainstream western media organisations tells us that this is not without substance. Western elites tend to support policies like same sex marriage out of proportion to the views of their consumers, who are much more divided in their views.

The case of Facebook is particularly interesting. When logging into Facebook, a Russian uses a means of communication whose structure, down to the smallest detail, is continually designed and re-designed by Americans. And the structure of a communications system can powerfully influence the content it produces. Facebook and Twitter are inherently about self-promotion, about asserting individual preferences and tastes in a sphere where community structures, if represented at all, are dissolvable at click of a button. Small wonder that just as community-minded commentators in the Anglosphere used to rail against the ills of television, so too social conservatives in Russia are suspicious of social media. 

Neither is the choice to use social media one made in isolation. The whole business model of the dominant platforms is that of achieving a critical mass of members, at which point a cost, in isolation, is imposed on those slow to take them up. In a globalising world, this increasingly looks to the Russian right like a cost imposed by liberal minded Californians on God-fearing Russian families against their will and consent. For people like Molonov, the decision to use a platform that promotes individualism and self-regard is one that ought to have been taken collectively, not through formally free global markets that allow liberal America to impose its values abroad. 

If this all sounds disturbingly authoritarian, on one level, of course, it is. But there is no point in getting carried away in our outrage. Not so long ago, here in the UK, similar arguments were widely accepted for the banning of pirate radio stations in the days of the BBC’s broadcasting monopoly in order to safeguard cultural standards. Of course, it is far easier, and thus a more significant restriction if one is prevented from doing so, to sign up on Facebook than to create a radio broadcasting station. And actually banning foreign broadcasting was a step few liberal democracies ever had the stomach to take. 

Whether the idea is as egregious a violation of human rights as our media suggest, however, is far from clear. Certainly it is illiberal and dangerous, and speaks to a wider culture of censorship in Russia. In any case this is not a defence of the idea, or of Russian cultural and media policy generally, just a plea that our governments might make better choices if we took the time to understand it, and to understand the fact that Russian conservatives are often more than just simple bigots.