On March 16, Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia. Crimea had been part of Russia until it was given to Ukraine in 1954, and has been an autonomous republic since. Recently, Russian soldiers occupied Crimea and surrounded Ukrainian military bases in the region.
As with most events in world history, this is a teachable moment with several important observations to make and lessons to learn. Here follow six such observations and lessons:
1. There is no comparable event involving United States history.
Some writers insist upon trying to understand the events in Crimea by comparing them to United States history involving Texas. This is not a valid comparison for several reasons. First, there is no group in Texas that is comparable to the Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group that used to have a khanate in the region and is descended from the Mongols. Second, there is no pipeline running through Texas that is comparable to the Druzhba pipeline system that runs through Ukraine. Third, Texas was once an independent country which became part of the United States, seceded as part of the Confederacy, and was reconquered by the United States. Fourth, never was part of another state given to Texas and then taken away again. Thus, any comparison must involve hypotheticals which simply cannot comport with historical facts.
2. If voting changed anything, it would be illegal.
It is clear that the vote in Crimea was carried out under duress, and the vote result is suggestive of the votes carried out in authoritarian regimes like North Korea or those of the Arab world, where voting against what is desired by the ruling class is extremely hazardous to one's well-being. If, however, the vote had gone in the opposite direction, it is unlikely that it would have made any difference. After all, ballots perform rather poorly at stopping bullets, and Putin is the sort of leader who has no reservations about using force to achieve his goals, as evidenced by the Russian occupation of Crimea.
3. A condition of anarchy exists between states.
The word anarchy comes from Greek αναρχος (anarkhos), meaning “without leaders.” The world system has no overruling authority, unlike the system inside a single state. There is no hierarchically superior power that can resolve disputes between nations. The United Nations is a weak attempt to do such a thing, but this instance shows its ineptness: Russia has veto power over UN Security Council Resolutions, and will simply veto any resolution condemning its activities in Crimea and/or prescribing punishments for such activities.
While this sort of anarchy is not the sort that anti-statists wish to create, it does demonstrate that a situation without rulers need not degenerate into a Hobbesian war of all against all. However, a stateless society would need to have better dispute resolution options than those which are available to states today, such as contract/reputation ratings and insurance policies against aggressive acts.
4. Putting trust in an agreement for which there is no viable recourse when the agreement is breached is unwise.
This should go without saying, but this error appears to be a systematic error at all levels of human interaction, from voters trusting the promises of politicians to negotiators of agreements between governments trusting the word of negotiators who represent far more powerful governments.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Ukraine had in its territory the world's third largest strategic nuclear weapons arsenal. In 1994, Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for pledges to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The problem with the agreement is that Ukraine was left with no recourse if the agreement were breached, as it has been by Russia's invasion of Crimea, its own military could not repel the threat, as Ukraine's current forces cannot, and no other signatory provided military aid, as none have.
5. The supposed legitimacy of the actions of states is based solely upon the ability and willingness to use violence.
To quote Mao Zedong, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Other standards of the establishment of state legitimacy do not work; going by length of time a government has operated, the presence of a military, legal opinions written by lawyers, or an edict by a body with authority over states does not allow a state to get established in the first place, while going by a constitution or a vote would prevent the continuing operation of states by allowing for individual secession. And if the vote for Crimean secession is illegitimate because it has been carried out under occupation by a foreign military, then the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan, Germany, and even the United States within the states which were part of the Confederacy are likewise rooted in illegitimacy.
6. If one has nuclear weapons, giving them up is unwise. If one does not have nuclear weapons, seeking them is wise.
Since the Cold War paradigm was established in 1949, no nation that has had a nuclear deterrent has been invaded. There has been no more effective deterrent against threats to a nation's sovereignty and territory in human history than having a strategic nuclear weapons stockpile. Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons after the 1994 memorandum, and has now been invaded. Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein abandoned their quests for nuclear weapons, and now they are dead. This sends a strong message to those who are worried about their security and the potential for foreign invasion, and makes the likelihood of a nuclear exchange occurring somewhere in the world much higher.