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World Association of International Studies

Post Crimea Crisis; on Self-Determination
Created by John Eipper on 03/25/14 7:07 AM

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Crimea Crisis; on Self-Determination (Cameron Sawyer, USA, 03/25/14 7:07 am)

I have written before about the idea of self-determination and the supposed right of peoples to hold plebiscites and referenda and secede from the state to which they are subordinated. I continue to believe that it is nearly impossible to find the justice in such situations. There is fundamentally no justice in the formation of states, which are almost always born out of blood, conquest, and exploitation. One injustice follows another in the history of any state--some people win, others lose; some people invade and conquer; others are conquered and oppressed or are conquered and exterminated, or ethnically cleansed.

Therefore I believe that borders should in nearly all cases be left alone unless they can be changed by mutual consent of all concerned. With apologies to, for example, our Catalan friends (who might even be an exception to the general rule), the romantic nationalism of oppressed minorities yearning for their own state is usually just the yearning of the elites of those oppressed minorities to become the oppressors themselves without interference from the state to which they belong now. Romantic nationalism spread among the people is usually just the opium spread around by the aspiring future oppressors, often with tremendous cynicism.

So I was opposed to the dismembering of Serbia, I am opposed to secession from Russia by Chechnya, and I am opposed to the annexation of Crimea by Russia without the consent of Ukraine. Neither the fact that there is a great deal of justice and historical logic in Crimea's belonging to Russia, nor the fact that most Crimeans desire it, makes it right for Russia to do it by the use or threat of force. I do believe that the dismembering of Serbia by force was wrong, but the annexation of Crimea is even more wrong, because unlike the case of Kosovo, Russia had no international consensus behind it.

The sad thing is, I believe, the transfer of Crimea to Russia, where, all things considered, it probably belongs, could most probably have been accomplished by other means. By negotiation and, ultimately, perhaps, by purchase. I can't believe that bankrupt and destitute Ukraine would not have been open to the idea of selling Crimea, which is alien territory to Ukraine, and which Ukraine does not need for anything, and which Ukraine is incapable of developing. Surely it could have been for, say, 20 years of free or heavily discounted natural gas, upon which Ukraine's inefficient Soviet-era steel industry depends. Putin spent $60 billion just on the Olympics; surely a similar sum would have been enough to solve the Crimean question peacefully. It would ultimately have been much cheaper for Russia, as the costs to the Russian economy over the medium term will be much greater than $60 billion.

I have written before (https://waisworld.org/go.jsp?id=02a&objectType=post&o=83187&objectTypeId=71851&topicId=7195 ) that the whole affair was really a colossal misjudgment on Putin's part. What must have seemed to him like an elegant geopolitical chess move was really not. Indeed, the object was accomplished with hardly a shot fired, and leaving the West with no counter-move. But Russia is not the old Soviet Union, which lived in economic isolation from the rest of the world. Russia today is a capitalist country with an intensely consumerist population, which like other peoples votes its pocketbook, and which supports the regime largely to the extent of its ever-expanding material level of life. The new economic isolation which will follow from Putin's adventure in Crimea will strike a heavy blow to the Russian economy, which contrary to what many believe does not live merely by the sale of natural resources, but which, as an advanced industrial economy, depends on investment and trade. This heavy blow will be felt in the pocketbooks of average Russians. Let's see how well the regime is able to cope with that. I'm not sure that the regime realizes how dangerous all this is to it.

The other really sad thing about the whole situation, maybe the most sad thing of all, is what will happen to Ukraine. The EU and NATO will now rush to take Ukraine into its embrace, but neither the EU nor NATO will be able to even begin to solve Ukraine's problems. Ukraine's economy, such as it is, is entirely dependent on a steel industry which cannot survive without subsidized energy, and on trade in goods which cannot be sold anywhere but in Russia, at least until Ukraine can, starting from zero, build a new kind of economy. The West, which has its own economic problems, will not be willing to support Ukraine with the vast subsidies which would be required to make up for the loss of subsidized Russian energy and Russian markets for its Soviet-era industry. The West will be very surprised when the current regime in Ukraine turns out to be just as corrupt as the last one. The West will soon realize that it has stepped into a deep swamp, and Ukraine will end up as a burden and seemingly insolvable problem. So Ukraine, which needed both Russia and the West in order to develop and prosper, will end up the main victim of the whole story, the main victim, in fact, of the failure of Russia and the West to understand each other and to work out a functional partnership. Putin deserves a great deal of blame for this situation, but by no means all of it. Here is a particularly intelligent comment, by Henry Kissinger:


And we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again--we repeatedly mistake nominally pro-Western politicians for the world's next Thomas Jefferson or Mahatma Gandhi, just because they are nominally pro-Western. And we are surprised every time all over again when these figures turn out to be just as odious as the non-pro-Western politicians they replaced. Does it never occur to our foreign policy specialists that we are just being used to help these figures grab power? Didn't we learn anything from the case of Misha Saakashvili in Georgia, who made such a fool out of us? Just because the present regime in Ukraine is opposed to Putin, whom we dislike, does not automatically mean that they are worthy of our support. The Western media have largely brushed off Putin's characterization of the Ukrainian regime as "fascist" and "anti-Semitic," and indeed, Putin does not have a perfect record of truth or sincerity in such matters, but as a matter of fact, in this case, there is an alarmingly great deal of truth to the accusations:


A Ukrainian friend of mine, a prominent political scientist (in Russia, where most talented Ukrainians went during the last 20 years), whose brother was a deputy minister in the first Timoshenko administration, believes that the current Ukrainian regime is an unstable coalition similar to the coalition which carried out the February, 1917 revolution in Russia, a coalition of idealists of various stripes (including real democrats and fascists alike) with the usual (for Ukraine) aspiring kleptocrats, and hard-bitten and cynical political operators. He believes that the same thing will happen in Ukraine, as happened in Petrograd in October, 1917--the democratic elements will have a short honeymoon, but when the right moment comes, the most bloodthirsty and cynical elements of the unstable coalition will seize the day and liquidate their erstwhile partners. He believes that the West is being taken for a ride, and that it will end badly for all concerned.

Which, if it really happens, would mean that, yet again, as happened in Iraq, as happened in Afghanistan, and as happened in Georgia, fools will be made out of us--we will have poured resources into supporting a regime which turns out to be of no use either to us, or to its own people. Will we really never learn to stop meddling in the internal politics of other countries?

It is altogether a very sad situation, from all possible sides.

JE comments: Cameron Sawyer makes a powerful case for non-intervention.  I second Cameron's endorsement of the Eugene Robinson op-ed (last link above), which explores the troubling rise of Oleksandr Sych's extreme right "Svoboda" party, which has been labeled as neo-Nazi.  Among other things, Svoboda decries the "Muscovite-Jewish mafia" and advocates for the inclusion of "ethnicity" in Ukrainian passports.

I cannot imagine such warnings will be ignored.  I foresee a great deal of vetting and introspection before the EU and/or NATO admits the "new" Ukraine.

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  • Self-Determination: Scotland (John Heelan, -UK 03/25/14 9:45 AM)
    Congratulations to Cameron Sawyer for his interesting piece on the Crimea problem (25 March).

    It would be interesting to look at Scotland's desire to seek independence from England and to identify (if any) Cameron's "aspiring kleptocrats, and hard-bitten and cynical political operators" who are involved.

    (The Scottish referendum on "Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes/No" is planned for 18 September 2014.)

    JE comments: We don't think of Scotsmen and Scotswomen as corrupt, but verily there must be a few cynical political operators out there...in kilts...stirring up the haggis (oops, the masses).

    Jesting aside, the prospective "yes" vote stands at just 28%, according to this recent poll.  This sounds like an insurmountable barrier for the independentists.


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  • "Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine": Timothy Snyder in *NYRB* (Paul Levine, Denmark 03/26/14 4:16 AM)
    As always I am grateful for Cameron Sawyer's insights (25 March) into Russia and Ukraine.

    But for an alternative view of who the real fascists are in this case, WAISers might be interested in a New York Review of Books piece written by historian Timothy Snyder:


    JE comments:  Snyder shows how both sides of the Crimea conflict are attaching the fascist label to the other party--the pro-EU elements in Ukraine call Putin a fascist, while Vladimir Vladimirovich says the same thing about the Ukrainians who overthrew Yanukovych.  It's a variation of Godwin's Law, a pointless but not surprising game of name-calling.

    Snyder also discusses the Eurasian Union, a Russia-sponsored foil to the EU that is set to launch in 2015.  This sounds like a reprise of Pan-Slavism.  Anti-Semitism and homophobia, as well as hostility towards liberalism and democracy, are central tenets.  I'd like to know more about this rival "EU," and what it might mean for the former Soviet republics.

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  • Thoughts on Crimea (Boris Volodarsky, Austria 03/27/14 5:46 AM)
    John Eipper asked me off-Forum for my thoughts on the Crimea crisis. In my view, Ukraine has always consisted of two parts--East and West--and the West, previously part of Austria-Hungary and Poland, had never been happy under the Bolsheviks/Communists/Russians and new Ukrainian oligarchs. The situation today is exactly as it was in August 1961 in Berlin, when the wall was constructed. These two countries--West Ukraine (like West Germany) and East Ukraine (like the DDR)--must be separated until the people of East Ukraine (under Russia) decide to break the wall and unite with their Western relatives.

    This is not going to be easy, because it will take a few decades of a very different living. I believe I know exactly what I am saying, because I first came to East Berlin in 1988. After about a week living in a general's suite in the Russian embassy compound, my wife and I crossed Checkpoint Charlie in our Lada-2107 sedan and found ourselves in West Berlin. How different it was only a few minutes' drive from the Brandenburg Gate! A different smell, different weather and different people! All the women were blond and beautiful, and all men tall and wearing white raincoats. We stayed in the Polish pension Augusta (now a 3-star superior hotel), on Fasanenstrasse which is just a few meters off the Ku'damm and watched the Wall fall (I have a picture of myself standing at the middle of Checkpoint Charlie on 9 November 1989), when cheerful crowds from East Berlin started to move to the West. At the entrance of the KaDeWe department store, a feeding post was organized to give them hot soup and helping to change money.

    I have been watching East Germany/East Berlin as part of the united Germany. In spite of huge investments, (almost) nothing changed really, because people remain the same. East Germany is different from West Germany, and after four decades of Communist dictatorship it became even more different. Absolutely the same is going to happen in Ukraine. East Ukraine and West Ukraine should live separately until they decide it is time to unite again. But they will never be the same people, as East Germans even today are very different from West Germans. Like Trabant and Mercedes, sorry to say.

    Imposing sanctions on the Russian oligarchs and Putin's associates is a good thing, but it is not going to change anything. Crimea will be Russian, and the Eastern part of Ukraine should decide where they want to be. Russia will certainly not allow anybody to intervene and, to be honest, nobody can do anything.

    Let us sit and watch what's going to happen.

    A postscript. After my keynote lecture at the LSE last Thursday (and a dinner with WAISer Paul Preston), my wife Valentina and I went to Vienna. Yesterday afternoon we went shopping at the local gourmet place named Billa Corso at the very centre of the city. There we met a group of children aged between 8 and 10 speaking Russian. In the lift (the shop is three stories high), Valentina asked them where they came from and they responded in chorus: from Kiev. Because Valentina spoke Russian to them, they asked in turn where we were from. Hearing that we are from the former USSR they asked: "Are you for Russia or for Ukraine? Do you know there is a war between us?" It was quite a shock to hear that from young children, but probably that was what their parents felt. Even on holidays in Vienna the children were thinking about the war back home.

    To attack Ukraine was probably Putin's biggest political mistake, and the lack of an adequate response was perhaps the biggest mistake of the West. But I remember it had all happened already in 1938 and 1939...

    JE comments: Great to hear from Boris Volodarsky, and my apologies to WAISdom for the delay in launching today's posts. (There was a wi-fi outage at WAIS HQ.)

    What do WAISers think of Boris's fascinating Ukraine-Germany analogy?  My first thought is that the East-West divide in Germany did not involve language difference.  Moreover, there was never any question of annexing the East to a huge and powerful neighbor, as in Russia for East Ukraine.  Indeed, the "Ostis" probably saw reunification as the only way to un-annex themselves from Russia.

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    • Trabants, Audis, BMWs (John Heelan, -UK 03/27/14 9:49 AM)
      Boris Volodarsky's comment (27 March) of being in Berlin the day the Wall came down reminded me that not long after, I saw a metaphor of economic difference between the DDR and West Germany. We were on vacation on the border between southern Bavaria and Austria and were driving up the Autobahn to Munich. We noticed on the other side of the Autobahn there were groups of tiny, poorly maintained Trabants heading south, trundling along and being overtaken at high-speed by shiny BMWs and Audis.

      JE comments: Ah, but the Trabant is now a collector car, highly sought after! Who, in contrast, cares about a 25 year-old Bimmer?

      I must run this 2007 photo again. (We were in Budapest on the hottest day in history; literally:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_of_Budapest )

      My sister-in-law Justyna tells me that we'll be renting a Trabant this summer in Nowa Huta, Poland, as part of a PRL "heritage" tour.  I'll take mine in robin's egg blue:


      (Egads, either I was dehydrated when the photo was taken--it was 105 degrees--or I've put on some weight.)
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    • Thoughts on Crimea; Response to Boris Volodarsky (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 03/28/14 5:10 AM)
      Boris Volodarsky in his post of 27 March is speaking about a mistake made by Putin in recovering Crimea. Frankly I believe that it would have been a terrible mistake if he had not reacted, otherwise the poor fellow in a couple of years would have found US missiles installed a short distance from his summer resort. Of course the missiles would have been installed only for self-defense and democracy; perhaps against the terrible Iranian threat. Everybody knows that the Iranians may invade California, Oregon, Texas and New Jersey simultaneously and at any moment...

      Boris is right about two peoples, one in the Northwest of the country and speaking Ukrainian and the other in the Southeast but speaking Russian. The latter wants to return to the motherland. After all, why do they have to stay in a country where they are not liked and where wages and pensions are only half of those in the motherland?

      We shall remember that the Ukrainians are in a certain way the forefathers of the Russians, but they separated when they were ruled by Jagiellonians in the great Kingdom that included Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine and for a short period in the early 16th century, even Moldavia. This Kingdom was completely different from the nearby German, Ottoman, and Russian Empires. For instance, it was the first European state that had a written constitution on 3 May 1791, a situation extremely different from the absolutism of the others.  This was not lost on the generations that followed.

      We shall remember that the great leader Pilsudski after WWI was even dreaming of a new federation that would have included Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine (the present North West).

      A final consideration: the only correct borders are those that follow as far as possible the ethnic divide.

      JE comments: Yet in Eastern Europe, the ethnic divide was never clear cut. The city of Bialystok in the 19th century, for example, spoke six different languages.

      Regarding Crimea, history and ethnicity point to its Russianness, but this cannot justify its outright conquest. It's an extremely dangerous precedent in international law. Now, states can cite Putin's action as justification for their own irredentist adventures.

      By the by, when was the last time one nation annexed territory from another, and got away with it?   I'm thinking 1945, if we consider the re-drawing of Poland's and Germany's borders. Prior to that, there was Versailles in 1919, and Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.  Note that all three of these cases were victor's justice in the wake of major wars.

      (Note for Eugenio:  the Iranians might try to invade California or New Jersey, but Texas?  They would be horribly outgunned.)

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