Obama Is Right, Mostly About A Crimea Referendum

From the NYT:

Obama Says Referendum in Crimea Would Violate Law 

By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN and ALAN COWELL   MARCH 6, 2014

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — The pro-Russian authorities in Crimea pressed ahead on Thursday with measures to break away from Ukraine and become part of Russia, ignoring new steps toward Western sanctions and a warning by President Obama that their plans for a referendum would “violate the Ukrainian Constitution and violate international law.” 

Sending a further message, Russia’s military began what it described as regularly scheduled air-defense drills on Thursday at its testing range of Kapustin Yar in the Western Military District, less than 300 miles from the eastern border of Ukraine, Russia news services reported. The drills, to last for a month, were described by a military spokesman, Col. Oleg Kochetkov, as the largest ever in that part of Russia, the Ria Novosti news agency said. 

The developments came as the United States and the European Union moved to provide new support for the national government in Kiev and sought ways to press President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine. The United States announced a framework for imposing new sanctions, while the European Union suspended talks with Russia on a variety of issues including visa liberalization. 

Mr. Obama said in Washington: “Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine. We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratically elected leaders.”

He could have left off the “democratically elected” hypocrisy. “Democratically elected” is increasingly a synonym for “on our side.” The change in government in Kiev two weeks ago didn`t involve an election. It was more like how the Communist secret policeman taunts the dissident Prague actors he`s arresting in Tom Stoppard`s Cahoot`s Macbeth:

You get your lads together and we get our lads together and when it`s all over, one of us is in power and you`re in gaol.

Except the freelancers drove out the salaried goon squad.

If I rewrite Obama`s statement less tendentiously:

“We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of internationally recognized governments.”

That`s not bad.

The world has gotten more peaceful under the post-WWII system that is:

  • Mildly averse to redrawing borders (e.g., African countries complain about their legacy borders, but African rulers are very reluctant to allow them to be redrawn: splitting Sudan along sensible racial lines took decades)
  • Highly averse to right of conquest (which is why Israel has to engage in all sorts of legal subterfuges to settle the West Bank, rather than just annex it)
  • Highly averse to big countries getting bigger (The postwar world is particularly averse to Sudetenland-style annexations where the annexing country grows in military potential. There are exceptions, of course: China absorbing, although not wholly until 2046, Hong Kong, but the Chinese see that as part of the decolonization process, like India annexing Goa in 1962.)

Russian annexation of Crimea following military operations, even if by referendum (but only in Crimea, not in Ukraine) violates all three.

Of course, in Russian eyes, the huge exception to the last point about the big not getting bigger is West Germany absorbing East Germany, and then NATO proceeding to ignore oral promises made by Kohl and Baker to Gorbachev to not extend NATO eastward in return for the Soviet Union withdrawing 380,000 troops from East Germany.

(German re-unification was not wholly noncontroversial in the West, either. A decade afterwards, I watched from four feet away as Mrs. Thatcher and General Odom argue intensely for ten minutes like an umpire and a baseball manager over Thatcher`s opposition to German re-unification in 1989-90.)

If Russia wants to annex Crimea, it should offer to buy it from Ukraine (like the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia), with the deal needing to be ratified by a majority of voters in both Ukraine (minus Crimea) and Crimea.