The Crimean crisis: justified secession, Russian aggression or both?

The current standoff in the Crimea raises a number of philosophical problems.  The first is whether regions within countries have a right to secede and if so under what conditions.  In their condemnation of the deployment of Russian troops, Western politicians have been keen to stress the importance of Ukrainian territorial integrity.  But why should we judge Ukrainian territorial integrity so important?  Most people seem to think that if the majority within a defined region wish to secede, that region has a right to secede, perhaps especially if has a history of independence and if the majority of its inhabitants are of a distinct ethnic or national group.  Thus most people seem to think that David Cameron was not only right, but also obligated, to sign the Edinburgh Agreement that paved the way for the Scottish independence referendum.  In their view, Scotland has a right to secede.  As I indicated in a previous article, I am far from convinced, but if we assume the truth of this pro-secessionist sentiment, the implication seems to be that Crimea also has a right to secede.  After all, Crimea is a well-defined region.  It has not always been part of Ukraine: in fact it only became part of Ukraine when Khrushchev decided to redraw boundaries of the then constituent republic of the Soviet Union in 1954.  There is clearly a popular secessionist movement in Crimea.  Many Crimeans (roughly 60%) regard themselves as ethnically Russian rather than Ukrainian.  The now de facto Crimean government has called for an independence referendum to be held later this year.  The Ukrainian Central Election Commission has rejected this flat out.  Where should the rest of the world stand?  Should it support the idea of a referendum in Crimea and put its energies into trying to ensure that referendum is free and fair, rather than repeating the mantra that Ukrainian territorial integrity must be respected?

One argument against a referendum in Crimea is that it could trigger further secessionist attempts elsewhere in the country.  There have already been a number of large pro-Russian demonstrations in eastern Ukraine by people who clearly do not feel a part of the new Ukraine ushered in by the Maidan revolution.  (The fact that the first move of the post-revolution government was to try to revoke a law making Russian an official language did not help matters).  Secession in the east of Ukraine is more troubling than in Crimea for there is no clearly defined border marking out which territory would secede and who would be awarded a vote in an independence referendum.  Uncertainties such as this make violence more likely.  As we saw in the Balkans in the 1990s, when there are no crisp and determinate lines separating communities, and yet strong secessionist drive, armed groups will seek to create those lines themselves using brutality and ethnic cleansing.

If Crimea does have a right to secede, could this justify Russian intervention?  One could imagine a counter-factual situation in which Russian intervention could perhaps be justified.  Suppose that Crimean government had, with popular support, already gained de facto independence and Ukrainian forces had launched an all out assault on the region in an attempt to retake it.  That was the series of events that prompted the Russian-Georgian war over South Ossetia in 2008 (at least according to the EU’s own report on the incident) – the last time Western politicians decried Russia for violating the territorial integrity of a neighbouring state.  This time, however, the series of events is entirely different.  Russia has got its intervention in early.  There is little evidence supporting Russian claims of impending attacks upon Crimean civilians.  (Much of the evidence that Russia has provided has turned out to be spurious).  Without such evidence, there is no case for Russian intervention.

If Russian intervention in Crimea is unjustified, what can be done about it?  Not much it seems.  The EU is reluctant to impose sanctions, let alone take military action.  Ukraine has threatened military action, but against one the world’s largest militaries it is likely to fare as poorly as Georgia did.  But it is worth asking nonetheless, would Ukraine have the right to take military action?  Legally speaking, it seems so.  Under international law the right of national self-defence is paramount.  States are permitted to defend themselves from all forms of aggression.  Morally speaking, the issue is much less certain.  For Russian intervention in Crimea could be characterised as an example of what just war theorist Jeff McMahan refers to as “lesser aggression”.  Lesser aggressors do not set out to kill their opponents but rather appropriate resources or pusue some political end.  They will kill only if they are resisted.  Lesser aggressors are the international equivalent of the armed robber who offers you a choice between money and your life. They contrast with “major aggressors” who offer you no such choice.  Major aggressors will kill even if they are not resisted.  Clearly resisting major aggressors could prove proportionate.  Someone who aims to kill others can be liable to attack.  But this is far from clear in the case of lesser aggressors.  In the robber example, it seems that you are not permitted to kill when you could part with your money instead.  If we apply the same principle to the international case, victim states should acquiesce to lesser aggressors rather than resist.

Some just war theorists, such as David Rodin, accept this train of reasoning and conclude that wars of national self-defence against lesser aggressors are unjust.  Others find it counter-intuitive and search for a way of justifying the traditional view that states are always entitled to defend themselves.  One way the traditional view might be defended is by emphasising the importance of the idea of national self-determination.  If it is so crucial that nations are allowed to determine their own affairs, then clearly lesser aggressors should not automatically be yielded to.  But this argument from national self-determination cannot be easily applied in Ukraine given its ethnic diversity.  Were Ukraine to use force, whose national self-determination would be it be defending?

Another tack might be to stress the importance of international law.  The importance of international law and Russia’s violation of it has been another refrain of Western politicians in recent days.  But, in truth, is current international law of such profound moral significance that every violation of it can justify violence?  Recent violations of international law by Western powers, in Iraq and elsewhere, indicates that Western politicians do not in fact regard international law as of such crucial importance they now seem to pretend.  Arguably, one defect of our international law is that it places so much weight on state sovereignty.  There seems little reason to regard states as morally foundational, when the policies that states pursue so often depart from the interests of those they govern.  A morally superior form of international law would presumably be one that gave pre-eminence to the interests of human beings; states would only be awarded a derivative moral status.  It is doubtful that the current international law, flawed as it is, is of such moral value that it is worth killing people merely to uphold it.

Perhaps a stronger argument for the legitimacy of any possible Ukrainian resistance would be to deter further Russian intervention elsewhere.  Here we encounter the third refrain from the West: the idea that Ukraine is part of a wider ambition that Putin harbours to rebuild the Soviet Union.  The prospect of Russian intervention elsewhere in Europe, especially in countries that have NATO membership, is a frightening prospect indeed.  But to justify a war on deterrence grounds, one needs to do more than make gueses regarding Putin’s long-term game plan.  Rather, one needs to show that, first, Ukrainian resistance has a reasonable chance of success (and therefore a reasonable chance of deterring) and, second, that Russian intervention elsewhere is really on the cards.  An alternative explanation of what Russia is engaging in is sheer opportunism.  It saw an opportunity in Crimea to flex its muscles and it has taken it.  If Crimea is a one-off case, the deterrence argument falls flat.

This article has made only tentative arguments but from it we might draw three tentative conclusions: (1) there may be a case for Crieman secession but (2) this does not justify Russian intervention but (3) Ukraine may have no right to resist that intervention as long as the Russians are not actually shooting anyone.  What we should hope for is the best solution that can be reasonably expected for the people that are caught up in this conflict.  That will almost certainly be a peace of some sort, but perhaps not a peace that is faithful to the publically avowed (yet routinely violated) principles of territorial integrity, state sovereignty and adherence to international law.



2 thoughts on “The Crimean crisis: justified secession, Russian aggression or both?

  1. Margaret Moore

    This is a very good piece. I agree with everything you say – except that I would add that in cases where might might think there are reasons to think that Crimea could be justifiably part of Russia(historical, attachment, etc.) with protection for Ukrainian and Tatar minorities, or justifiably be part of Ukraine (with similar protections for Russian and Tatar minorities), a precautionary principle should prevail that we should go with the status quo. And this is a little bit different from rejecting military intervention as a vehicle of change (which I also do).


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