Already under the occupation of as many as 30,000 Russian troops, Crimea — a Russian-majority peninsula that juts into the Black Sea — saw its regional parliament vote unanimously in favor of rejoining the Russian Federation on Thursday after 60 years spent under Ukrainian control. Flouting the Ukrainian constitution, the autonomous republic of Crimea has its sights set on becoming the first breakaway region to be willingly annexed by another country since the dawn of international law.
Met with condemnation by the new government in Kiev and the international community as a whole, the odds are stacked against Crimea. But with a public referendum on the matter slated for March 16, it is pushing forwards nonetheless — and wading into murky waters.
“We genuinely don’t know what would happen,” said Richard Gowan, a political analyst with NYU’s Center on International Cooperation. “Generally, a transfer of territory cannot be based simply on a unilateral declaration by the inhabitants of that territory. I can’t think of an example of a contested absorption by one state of another’s territory that has ever come to a vote before the U.N.”
In most cases of successful secession where the new state was universally recognized, the split was mutually — if reluctantly — agreed upon. That was the case in South Sudan, where an elaborate U.N.-mediated negotiation process ultimately convinced the central government in Khartoum to sign off on a referendum in favor of establishing the world’s newest nation in 2011.
Khartoum's agreement to the deal cleared the way for the U.N. Security Council, and then the General Assembly, to formally approve of South Sudan's bid for membership at the U.N. South Sudan's flag now waves outside the New York headquarters. While Kosovo has never applied for U.N. membership, with Serbia still refusing to recognize Kosovar independence and ally Russia holding veto-power on any resolution on the issue in the Security Council, it is doubtful it would receive it if it tried anytime soon.
It seems, then, that Kiev’s approval is the only chance Crimea has at acquiring recognition. With the backing of the 1992 constitution, which declares autonomous Crimea an “integral” part of Ukraine, and substantial international support, Kiev is not inclined to budge.
The country’s interim prime minister, Arseny Yatsenyuk, said Friday that no one in the civilized world would recognize the referendum in Crimea – he excludes Russia from the “civilized world,” of course – and he is probably right. Apart from an offhand comment in support of Russian annexation by war-torn Syria’s authoritarian, Kremlin-backed leader, Bashar al-Assad, no other country has indicated it could stand behind Crimean secession. The U.S. and its allies have already declared the move and the Russian occupation to be clear violations of both international and domestic law.
In reality, international law is fuzzy on this. There is no such concept as the right to secede from a sovereign state — at least none established by the International Court of Justice or the U.N. — except in the case of decolonization. But Crimea wasn’t colonized by Ukraine, it was gifted by then Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev in 1954. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and Ukraine became a self-ruling state, his symbolic gift between two members of the USSR became a permanent one.
Despite the unprecedented nature of Crimea's request, most analysts agree that Russia’s rationale for supporting it — that ethnic cleansing of Russians could arise if Crimea is left under the control of the new, anti-Russian government in Kiev — doesn’t hold water. “Some have argued that the world community should be more accepting of secession when there’s an issue of long-term, severe, oppression — but only when there are facts to support that finding,” said Christopher Borgen, an international law expert at St. John’s University School of Law who has written extensively on the separatist crisis in Moldova. “As a matter of law, that is highly controversial. As a matter of politics, Russia would need to persuade the world there had been long-term oppression in Crimea and that secession is the only viable option.”
Even in the case of flagrant human rights violations, the law of self-determination says that the first response must be to try to improve the human rights situation within that country. “Even granting Russia its current version of the facts, the answer under international law is not to slice off Crimea,” Borgen said.
Beneath all the rhetoric about the legality of secession in Crimea’s case lies a fundamental mistrust of Russian intentions in the peninsula. The international community is skeptical as to whether Russian occupation of Crimea is out of genuine interest in seeing the ethnic Russian population there split from the mainland, or if the threatened invasion of Ukrainian territory is merely a gambit in a greater purpose – to demonstrate the Motherland’s military might in the post-Soviet space and reassert Russian influence in Ukraine.
If so, that mission has more or less been accomplished. Russia will undoubtedly seek assurances that its strategic Black Sea fleet, based in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, will never be threatened with eviction. But it is unclear if the Kremlin wants to be invested in what would inevitably become a drawn-out, uphill battle for international recognition, or if it will abandon its sponsorship of Crimea for other ends.
Whatever course of action – or inaction, as the case may be – that Russia chooses, Crimea seems headed towards the status of a "frozen conflict," as in Transnistria or the Moscow-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Lacking international recognition or the economic and military clout to revert its course, Crimea could become just another of the world's breakaway regions stuck in international legal purgatory.