Assessing the Ethics of Secession: Crimea

| March 2014
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As the ballots are being tallied in Crimea, how should the ethical policymaker assess the results of the referendum?

As with other recent political events in Ukraine, we immediately have the clash between adherence to proper, constitutional procedure and the claim of the right to self-determination. The Ukrainian constitution does not provide for Crimea, even given its existing status as an “autonomous” republic of Ukraine, to determine whether it can separate from the rest of Ukraine. This is certainly the basis for the U.S. refusal to accept the results of the ballot (along with, as noted below, the effective separation of Crimea from the control of the central government in Kyiv by Russian military support of so-called Crimean self-defense units.)

Some in Crimea, in turn, have argued the equivalent of two wrongs making a right–that the extra-legal deposition of the president of Ukraine (Viktor Yanukovych), who won an overwhelming majority of Crimea’s votes in the 2010 election and whose party also picked up most of Crimea’s votes in the 2012 parliamentary election, gives Crimea the right to determine whether to remain a part of Ukraine or not.

The Kosovo precedent has been cited–another autonomous region which eventually declared independence. For some, however, the Kosovo precedent would be valid only if the Ukrainian government had revoked Crimea’s autonomy and then used force to repress the Crimean residents or to forcibly alter the composition of the population–events which did not happen. Russia, of course, claims that its intervention in Crimea was designed to prevent this from occurring.

The Russian role also raises real questions as to whether the referendum which took place on Sunday should be considered free and fair, an expression of popular sovereignty. Moscow claims its intervention created conditions for the Crimeans to be able to freely express their will; others, starting with the government in Ukraine, backed by most governments around the world including the United States, argue that the referendum being held under current conditions is illegitimate and cannot be taken as an authentic expression of the people’s will for self-determination.

Finally, of course, we have the question of the rights of the “indigenous nationality”–the Crimean Tatars, who demographically form only a minority of the peninsula’s residents, and are a minority because of a steady outmigration of Tatars to Turkey after Crimea was joined to the Russian Empire in 1783 and because of the wholescale deportation of the Tatar community by Josef Stalin in 1944 for alleged collusion with the Nazi invader. Most Tatars would prefer to remain part of Ukraine. Under a “one man, one vote” rule, they are outvoted; but should their wishes carry an extra burden on governmental action? In Abkhazia, the separatist region which broke away from Georgia (and which declared independence that only Russia and a few other states recognize), the ethnic Abkhaz were a minority but claimed the right to self-determination from Georgia (and then backed that up by ethnic cleansing) on the grounds of having no other homeland.

We appear to have three different responses to the referendum going forward:

1) Moscow’s response: the referendum was legal and proper and reflects the will of the Crimean population

2) What may end up being the European response: the referendum was not legal and irregular but the vote reflects the will of what most Crimean residents want and should be taken into consideration in a dialogue process to resolve the status of the peninsula and the Russia-Ukraine dispute

3) The Ukrainian government argues that the referendum was illegal and nonbinding and some also argue that under current conditions it cannot reflect the will of the Crimean people. This may end up being the position of the U.S. as well.

In the days moving forward, we are likely to hear arguments in support of all three positions.

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  1. Don Thieme says:

    Wilson’s (unintended) Legacy.

    Well articulated analysis that succinctly captures the current ‘horns of the dilemma’ in which all of the interested parties find themselves. If, however, Mao and Napoleon are correct about the sources of power, Nick is correct to ‘assess forward’ and see what the realpolitik options are. The real challenge is to try and determine first just what Russia’s (Putin’s) appetite is; and two, what are the possible fissures inside the Kremlin that can be exploited to ‘frack’ Putin’s power base? Following on to that, what are the ethics of ‘meddling’ in Russia’s internal political affairs if it is to address the issue of the invasion of Crimea – and can outside actors measure their effect (or lack thereof) in trying to affect change? Is it unethical to place at risk Russian cooperation in limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons’ program and eliminating Syria’s chemical munitions capability, for an unclear risk-benefit approach on Ukraine and Crimea?

    The art of strategy and policy is littered with well-intentioned decisions that ended quite poorly; the key here may be a Kissinger-esque acceptance of a less salubrious ‘satisficing’ solution for Ukraine, Crimea, the Tartars (the Kurds come instantly to mind) Russia and the ‘rest.’ How this is resolved will inform other strategic dialogues on myriad issues, and should be thought through as a ‘whole of strategic interests’ puzzle. That may not be perfect for Ukraine and Crimea, but it may portend a more effective ‘rough peace’ between Russia and US/Europe elsewhere.