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.