Finally, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama can both agree on something: they are both studiously following international law. President Obama claims that Crimea’s referendum to split off from Ukraine is a violation of international law while President Putin claims that his annexation of Crimea conforms to international law and precedent. Obvious question thus arise. Does international law even exist? Are they referring to UN statutes? Or the Geneva Convention? It seems that the phrase “international law” is as malleable as Ukraine’s border (or Serbia’s border, when it included Kosovo).
I believe the West, especially the United States, must hold itself to a higher standard than Putin, who has chosen to engage in inconsistent and simplistic justifications for complex phenomena that are deeply rooted in history. There are no simple or conventional answers to this crisis. Therefore, as much as Mr. Putin’s aggression or Crimea’s sham referendum rightfully deserve scrutiny and condemnation, it would be remiss not to extend our critical gaze to the West’s confused, inconsistent and Cold War-like response to the Ukraine-Crimea-Russian crisis as well.
The West’s inconsistency in its response to the crisis is best exemplified by Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion that, “You just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” From late-night comedy to afternoon news, this cringe-worthy statement was (predictably) widely ridiculed by the media (“Invading countries on trumped up pretexts is our thing, Russia!”, and so on). Naïve and tragically-comical speeches like Kerry’s are not unusual among America’s politicians, and give credence to the dangerous notion that the US need not follow the same rules that bind the rest of the international community.
This notion is not hard to imagine: as it was criticizing Russia for violating international law, the United States uneven international stance was on full display when the Obama administration rejected that the UN-sponsored global human rights treaty applied to US military missions abroad. Further, in 2007, when Kosovo tried to split from an unwilling Serbia (allied with Russia), the United States and NATO were strongly supportive of the Kosovars, declaring that their right to non-intervention from Serbian domination should be respected, and citing our old friend international law as justification for Kosovo’s succession. NATO, with US support, even took the further step of recognizing the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, ignoring the opposition of Russia and Serbia. While the situation in Crimea today is not identical to that of Kosovo in 2007, the American stance in this situation has nonetheless flipped completely; now it is Putin who touts international law and champions the rights of sovereignty, self-determination, and freedom from intervention, at least for citizens of Crimea. Inconsistent statements and viewpoints such as these provide fodder for Putin’s anti-West speeches and hurt United States’ credibility in its foreign policy.
Self-determination and sovereignty are tricky issues, and the West needs to refrain from viewing them as simplistically as they have so far in the case of Crimea—one needs only to look to the West Bank or the Kashmir region to understand why this is so. The wounds of history bleed through the Middle East, Kashmir, and crucially, Crimea, which has been fought over and swapped between the British, French, Russian, and Ottoman Empires for the past two centuries. And like political leaders in the former regions, Putin, in a rousing, tear-jerking speech to the Duma, utilized this complex history to justify his recent actions as those of righting past wrongs: “After a long, hard and exhaustive journey at sea, Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their home harbor, to their native shores, to their home port—to Russia!” he yelled to the cheers of his countrymen.
I want to emphasize the point that by mentioning the historical complexities of the Crimean issue, I am not pardoning Putin’s actions in any way, shape, or form. While Putin certainly felt that he was, “returning [Crimea] to their home harbor,” his actions were aggressive and unwarranted. However, in condemning Putin’s brazen defiance of international law, it is critical that the West’s foreign policy towards Russia and Ukraine evolves from “Big Bad Vlad Stealing”, which is little more than a return to Cold War-politics, to a response that reflects the nuances and complexities of the Crimean situation.
Beyond a better understanding of Ukraine, Crimea and Russia’s complicated pasts, the concrete actions of the West and the United States could use some rethinking as well, for Cold War mentalities have apparently seeped into the decision-making sphere, to little success. The sanctions (embargoes), recently imposed on the area by the West are likely to be ineffective (the Russian parliament, emboldened by the crisis, openly mocked the small-scale sanctions that the US levied). Arming and supporting the Ukrainian patriots, as Senator John McCain suggested in his Op-Ed in March 14th’s New York Times, also seems to be an unwise idea for the moment, as the new Ukrainian government is still trying to rebuild and create a viable country. As you may recall, the riots which paved the way for the new Ukraine became increasingly violent, with reports of anarchist groups growing in number at the time. Arming such a fledgling country, then, would not only cause more chaos within Ukraine but might also aggravate the situation further.
Many, like Senator McCain, would claim that our unwillingness to provoke Russia is a sign of weakness and that we must act now by supporting Ukraine and throwing Russia out of the G8 group permanently. However, I would argue that non-action is too a non-weakness. After all, since the end of the Cold War, the West’s foreign policy—in Russia’s perception, at least—can be considered provocative; not inviting Russia to NATO, or, until 2012, to the WTO, all while supporting the former republics and satellite states of the erstwhile Soviet Union in their respective bids to join these groups.
Instead of attempting to show off its power, I think the West’s actions should be measured and meaningful, such as by working politically with Ukraine and Russia to create autonomous governing structures that allow for the protection of minorities. Instead of seeking to militarily corner Russia (as the Russians believe the West has done), the West can try to change Russian perceptions and to create greater economic links between it and the EU, such as more joint economic and environmental programs, similar to the now-decaying joint space exploration and MIR space station activities.
I am aware that most of my solutions—protection of minorities in autonomous governments and more extensive economic ties—are long-term and unlikely to ease the current crisis. However, the West certainly needs to look past its previous unevenness in its 20th century-driven foreign policy. Who knows? Perhaps a current solution lies in international law.