Crimea’s planned March 16 referendum on whether it should leave Ukraine and join Russia is underhanded, dishonest, and absurd—and completely legitimate. Vladimir Putin has yet again maneuvered the West into a corner. Jujitsu-like, he is using one of our most prized institutions—international law—against us. This is not the first time, and so calls to punish Russia and start a Cold War II are understandable. Yet we should swallow our pride and let him bask in his victory. In the long run, it gets him nothing.
Putin’s first victory against the West took place in 2008. At the time, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two renegade provinces in Georgia, were controlled by pro-Russian governments and patrolled by Russian peacekeepers. When the pro-Western Georgian government sent in the army to reacquire control of South Ossetia, Russian military forces moved in and crushed the Georgians. Russia then recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, in clear violation of Georgia’s sovereignty. The West condemned Russia’s actions but did nothing. Some Western analysts blamed Georgia for starting the war, but Georgia was merely trying to assert control over its own territory, which it has now irrevocably lost.
Putin’s second victory came thanks to President Obama’s rash announcement last year that the United States would send bombers into Syria to punish President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against civilians. Obama claimed that international law provided a basis for U.S. military intervention—but was blocked in the Security Council by Russia and China. In a Machiavellian op-ed obligingly published by the New York Times, Putin pointed out that U.S. military intervention would violate the sovereignty of Syria, breaking international law and harming the U.N. system:
We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.
Bereft of international and domestic support, Obama backed down after Putin offered him a fig leaf in the form of Syrian chemical weapons disarmament. Assad, Russia’s ally, was free to continue slaughtering civilians using bullets and bombs.
In both cases, Putin used international law to advance his interests. However, Putin’s military takeover of Crimea, in the wake of the downfall of pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych flagrantly violated international law. It violated traditional principles of state sovereignty, the U.N. charter, and several agreements among Ukraine, Russia, and other countries. The temptation is therefore to punish him, to make Putin live up to his own words in the New York Times. The United States has imposed sanctions; other countries may join it.
But this is a mistake. By engineering the referendum in Crimea, Putin has again thrown international law back into the face of the West. If a fair vote is held, and Crimeans vote overwhelmingly to join Russia, then any Western effort to stop them will be seen as an attempt to thwart the will of the people, a violation of their right to self-determination, which is enshrined in the U.N. charter and multiple human rights treaties. And how would the West stop them anyway? Because Crimea would not be an independent state but a province of Russia, the usual ways of not recognizing a country—withholding U.N. membership, refusing to appoint an ambassador, and refraining from trade—would not work. Once Russia swallows up Crimea, we could not isolate Crimea without taking action against Russia. But Europe relies on Russia’s oil and its bank accounts, and so the United States would stand alone, unable to hurt Russia and only isolating itself.
What of Ukraine’s sovereign rights? We can sympathize with Ukraine while noting that Crimea is an already autonomous region over which Ukraine has enjoyed only nominal control. Crimea’s ties with Russia go back centuries. It was transferred from Russia to Ukraine only in 1954 while both countries were regions of the Soviet Union. This transfer reflected a top-down administrative judgment, not the sentiments of the Ukrainian or Crimean peoples.
As for the principles of international law, Putin put it well last week:
We are often told our actions are illegitimate, but when I ask, “Do you think everything you do is legitimate?” they say “yes”. Then, I have to recall the actions of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, where they either acted without any UN sanctions or completely distorted the content of such resolutions, as was the case with Libya.
Putin is wrong about Afghanistan (a case of self-defense later ratified by the Security Council), but he is right about Iraq and Libya, and he could have added Grenada, Panama, and Kosovo as well—all wars that the United States started in violation of international law.* Other countries did not try to sanction the United States for these violations because those sanctions would have hurt them more than us. And now these countries are in the same position with respect to Russia. As Putin’s patron saint, Thucydides, said, “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
We can take some comfort in the fact that, for all his cleverness, Putin’s long-term prospects are bleak. Russia is a corrupt, stagnant country. Its economy, which is essentially a giant pool of oil, is the size of Italy’s. It has steadily lost influence in the border regions of Europe, which long for the embrace of NATO and the European Union. Its vast neighbor, China, poses a long-term threat in the east. Along the south, weak states offer nothing but the prospect of endless ethnic strife.
In the end, Crimea—a poor, tiny region with a potentially unruly minority population of unhappy Tatars and resentful Ukrainians—is a booby prize in the contest over Ukraine. And in fact, Russia has lost that larger fight; Ukraine, more populous than Poland, is now permanently outside its orbit. Russia has no friends and only a handful of allies of convenience. Back in 2008, when Russia tried to persuade the world to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, only Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru (population 9,000), Vanuatu (population 262,000), and Tuvalu (population 11,000) heeded the call (and Vanuatu later changed its mind). By contrast, the United States’ illegal military intervention in Serbia, a Russian client state, enabled Kosovo to break away and form a state with the support of the United States and more than 100 other countries. Today, Russia can call on Syria, Belarus, and Cuba for diplomatic support. It is a declining state that can do little more than bully a few impoverished and geopolitically insignificant neighbors. Let it.
Correction, March 11, 2014: This article originally misidentified Grenada as Granada in a list of wars that the U.S. started in violation of international law. (Return.)