Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

07 March 2014

Crimea and Ukraine: A Question of Self-Determination

[For a brief comment on demographics and security in Ukraine, click here. For other recent comments on the crisis in Ukraine, click here, here or here. For a 2009 essay on why NATO has outlived is usefulness vis-a-vis Russia, click here.]

Over two decades ago, in 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. Fifteen vassal states went free.

No one asked for a national referendum throughout the former Soviet Union’s eleven time zones. No one doubted Russia’s right and ability to divest its empire suddenly, just as Britain had done gradually throughout the last century. The process went as smoothly and bloodlessly as any subject people—let alone foreigners on other continents—had a right to expect.

But Russia had made a mistake. Back in 1954, it had ceded Crimea to Ukraine, as a local administrative matter, when both were part of the Soviet Union.

Soviet General Secretary Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev made the decision. Later he became one of the three men to save our species from self-extinction.

As a Yankee commentator recently observed, Khurshchev hardly thought, at that time, that transferring Crimea to Ukraine would make any difference at all. He and the Central Committee ruled the entire Soviet Union absolutely, including Ukraine, from Moscow.

The real mistake was not Khrushchev’s. It came after his death, when the Soviet Union split up. Then Crimea went with Ukraine. Russia got a lease, until 2042, on the home of its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea’s nominal capital.

Now a belated nationalism is raising its ugly head among the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Crimea. The international community is shocked, shocked to find that: (1) Sevastopol is the home of the Black Sea Fleet; (2) its population is nearly three-quarters Russian; (3) Crimea’s population has a clear majority of Russians; and (4) Russians, having spent centuries taming Crimea and building its island of stability there, are reluctant to let it go, both for strategic reasons and to protect the ethnic-Russian majority in Crimea.

There is geopolitics in this crisis, to be sure. But the crux of the matter is people. Crimea’s people are mostly Russians. That fact cannot be changed, at least not without the kind of horror that we all hope we left behind in the last century.

So what to do? Russia says let Crimea have a referendum, whose result is foreordained, and go free. Our President, a former law professor, says not so fast. Nothing in Ukraine’s constitution, he says, allows secession without Ukraine’s consent. So the rest of what is now Ukraine must vote to allow Crimea to secede.

The results of any such vote are also foreordained. A vote in Ukraine to let Crimea secede is as likely to fail as the vote of Crimea to secede is likely to win.

Let’s leave aside, at least for a moment, the lack of a decisive reason on Ukraine’s part to keep a province which Russia won through centuries of strife, which is populated mostly by Russians, and which contains a massive naval base that, by contract, Ukraine cannot control until at least 2042. Let’s leave aside the possibility that a “no” vote by Ukraine’s people might be motivated primarily by raw nationalism, revenge, or spite.

Isn’t the crux of the matter self-determination? In fact, isn’t world history since the end of humanity’s most disastrous war a consistent tale of self-determination?

Let’s review the postwar record. India went free from Britain, then Pakistan from India and Bangladesh from Pakistan. Algeria went free from France, after terrible carnage. After even more carnage, Vietnam went free from France and then from us Yanks. Large parts of Africa went free from France and Portugal. East Timor split from Indonesia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia from Czechoslovakia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia from the remains of Yugoslavia. South Sudan split from Sudan. And last but not least we had the Soviet Union’s vassal states, including the Balkans, drifting slowly out from behind the Iron Curtain.

These split-ups have not been without angst and conflict. But the world’s worst conflicts today are all where self-determination has been denied or retarded.

First and foremost, look at Syria. A minority Alawite tyrant ruled over the 88% majority of non-Alawites, who got restless. Geopolitics—the national interests of Iran and Russia—took precedence over self-determination. The result was a nation in ashes and rubble, over 100,000 citizens dead, over seven million displaced, and a magnet for terrorists, extremists and brutal crazies from all over the globe.

In that case, the triumph of geopolitics over self-determination has hardly been an unqualified success. And Syria is not alone.

We Yanks invaded Iraq in part to depose a minority tyrant who ruled and abused the majority Shiites. A low-level civil war is still going on there, as many predicted. Iraq may yet split up into three nations, with majorities of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Only geopolitics, especially the interests of Turkey, holds that happy solution back.

So postwar history has mostly been a process of partition and self-determination along ethnic and religious lines. Where that has happened, however violently (as in the case of Pakistan’s partition from India), the result has been eventual stability, peace and tranquility, at least relatively speaking.

Where it has not happened, there has been continual unrest and often horrible violence. Just look at the Congo, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine today.

If you include political differences, as well as ethnical, racial, religious and cultural divides, virtually all today’s trouble spots arose out of a dearth of self-determination. Just count them and weep (in alphabetical order): Afghanistan, Congo, Egypt, Iraq, Kashmir, Korea, Nigeria, Palestine, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Even the Basques in Spain, the Scots in Britain, the Walloons in Belgium and the French in Canada have been restless at times.

At our best, we Yanks are schizophrenic on the issue. We give self-determination much lip service. We bash China for refusing to let the Tibetans and Uighurs go free, or at least to treat them better. But we want Ukraine to retain Crimea by force of law (since it has no other), leaving a Russian majority in Crimea at the not-too-tender mercy of a Ukrainian majority nationwide.

Part of our schizophrenia derives from our own history. We Yanks fought our own bloodiest-ever war, on our own territory, to keep our nation together. Like Ukraine’s, our Constitution has no provision for legal secession. Worse yet, it forces all of us to accept grossly unequal representation in our Senate, in which bare land trumps people by a factor of as much as 60. So we stay whole and discordant, while both Texas and the rest of us might be better off if Texas left.

Russia is schizophrenic also. It tells us Yanks constantly to butt out of its internal affairs and respect its sovereignty. But when it comes to taking back a gift it gave to Ukraine half a century ago, it doesn’t think much of sovereignty.

China is the least schizophrenic of the major powers. Its refusal to endorse Russia’s claim to Crimea is entirely consistent with its perennial focus on national sovereignty. China doesn’t want any foreigners messing in its internal affairs, let alone its suppression of Tibetans and Uighurs. Its leaders don’t think much beyond that basic principle.

But the facts of history remain. In the global economy and our Nuclear Age there is not much use for huge nation-states held together by force of arms, let alone empires.

Tip O’Neill, a Democratic House Speaker, once said that all politics is local. Now most wars are, too. The nuclear deterrent and better governance have stopped wars over territory among major powers. The global economy has made wars for resources unnecessary. All that is left is wars over letting majorities and minorities govern themselves, or just letting them be.

Our President and other global leaders need to think deeply on these points. If every majority had its own way on its own territory, however small, most conflicts now troubling our globe would cease. We might actually have a truly global peace, not just occasional cease-fires.

Self-determination is a good thing. Properly applied, it might end wars among our species. Letting Russian Crimea go, or at least Sevastopol and the other Russian-majority parts of Crimea, might be a good start. But first we all have to think over whether our present geopolitics and reliance on huge, monolithic multi-ethnic states is absolutely necessary in the twenty-first century.

Law should follow and formalize human social and cultural evolution. Trying to make things work the other way around has not always been successful. Crimea might be a sad practical demonstration of that point.

On the other hand, letting Russian Crimea go might get the Russians thinking more deeply about self-determination in Syria. Maybe we could then cut the Gordian knot by giving Assad and his Alawites their part of Damascus and reserving the rest of the country for the majority to return to and rebuild.



  • At Mon Mar 10, 03:33:00 PM EDT, Blogger George Carty said…

    Sadly, the civil war in Syria is about something more fundamental than self-determination -- it is in fact a war over water.

    It started in the mid-'00s when the Turks decided to solve their problem with Kurdish terrorism by bringing prosperity to their eastern territories. This involved damming the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, cutting Syria's water supply by 40%.

    Most of the Syrian jihadists come from the provinces worst affected by the resulting drought, and if water does turn out to be the main cause, the war will inevitably continue until a full third of Syria's population is either dead or in exile.

  • At Sat Mar 29, 02:20:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear George,

    Thanks much for your interesting comment, and sorry for my nearly three-week delay in posting it. For technical reasons, I lost track of comments. I'm now trying to recover.

    The single source you linked has a number of further links, all of which provide vital insight into the impact of climate change and drought on the Syrian conflict.

    For me, one of the most interesting sources was this one from the Times of Israel, dated May 9 of last year. It explains how strategic thinkers in Israel are already taking drought into account, and how desalinization has saved Israel from a fate like its neighbors'.

    Thanks again for your contribution,



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