President Barack Obama and the European Union (EU) are wrong in their interpretation of the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. Both Obama and the EU have made statements condemning the presence of Russian troops in the Crimean Peninsula. They have also declared that the upcoming referendum in which the autonomous region may vote to formally join Russia is illegal and contrary to Ukraine’s constitution. It is almost certain that the Crimean parliament would not have scheduled such a referendum without some kind of tacit approval from President Vladimir Putin and Russia itself, but the fact that Crimea even has its own parliament is one aspect of the situation that brings to light the problems with the approach of Obama and the EU.
The Crimea is already in a somewhat unique position in terms of its relationship with Ukraine and Russia. The territory almost became fully independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. It eventually withdrew its claims of full independence and agreed to remain part of Ukraine, but as a highly autonomous region. It was allowed its own legislative body and significant control over laws within its territory. The Crimea remained under the formal control of the Ukrainian government in Kiev, but the ties between the central government and the territory itself are limited.
Further complicating the relationship is the large Russian military base at Sevastopol. This base has been home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet since the days of Czar Katherine the Great. There are over 10,000 Russian military personnel stationed at the base and it is a highly important strategic base for Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia entered into an agreement to lease the base from Ukraine. Regardless of the formal status of Crimea, Russia is not going to abandon this base. They are going to have a presence in the Crimea no matter what. This is just one of the many reasons that President Obama and the EU are wrong on the Ukraine crisis.
Obama, the EU, and the United Nations (UN) all place a high degree of importance in the concept of self-determination. It is incorporated in the UN charter that all people should be entitled to choose their own government. If this is to be the operating principle in world politics, then the question must be asked as to why the Crimea voting to join Russia is unacceptable. Obama and the EU would likely reply that the Crimean parliament is simply acting on the wishes of Putin and Russia and that their action does not reflect the will of the Crimean people. As noted previously, it is likely that this referendum would not have been scheduled without the Crimean parliament having some assurances from Russia that joining the Russia would be acceptable. However even having such an assurance is not indicative of the process being dictated by Moscow.
The Crimea itself is heavily populated by ethnic Russians and has been a part of Russia at various points in its history. There are more ethnic Russians than any other specific group within the region. It is entirely plausible that a majority of the people in the Crimea would vote to join Russia if the question were put to them. The presences of Russian military forces within the region would certainly raise questions of the validity of such an election, which is why it might be in Putin’s interest to withdraw Russian troops prior to the referendum. This may be the reason why he has tried to categorize the troops in the region as “local militias” and not actual Russian soldiers.
The international reaction of Obama and the EU is indicative of the “double standard” that is often applied in questions of regional autonomy and self-determination. Such situations are not evaluated equally and are often the reaction of the world community is dictated by more practical concerns, not adherence to the principal of self-determination itself. It is not in the interests of the United States or Western Europe for Ukraine and the Crimea to be affiliated with Russia; therefore they oppose the Russian action and condemn the Crimean referendum. If self-determination was truly their guiding principle, Obama and the EU would embrace a democratic process that would determine the future of the Crimea.
Self-determination is an important principle in the world today. By applying it only selectively and in situations that meet their own interests, leaders like Obama and his European allies diminish the value of the principle. This is why Obama and the EU are wrong on the Ukraine crisis.
Editorial by Christopher V. Spencer