We Americans support self-determination.
Except when we don’t.
Consider the official American position on these recent bids for independence: Chechnya? No. East Timor? Yes. Abkhazia? No. South Sudan? Yes. Palestine? Well, it’s complicated.
Self-determination is always a delicate subject. Scotland, for example, holds a referendum in September on whether to sever ties with the United Kingdom. Needless to say, the rest of the UK is opposed. Spain refuses to recognize the right of Catalonia to go its own way.
United States history is checkered on the issue of self-determination. The nation was born in revolution, asserting in its founding document that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” Yet less than a hundred years later the American government fought a civil war to prevent a region of the nation from seceding.
Self-determination seems an admirable goal, until its pitted against the territorial integrity of nation-states. The debate over these two goals dates to the enshrining of the principle of state sovereignty in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War within the Holy Roman Empire and the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Dutch Republic.
The right to self-determination — as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations — means nations have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status without external interference. Neither the charter nor any subsequent resolution of the world body defines what constitutes a nation. Lack of a definition means there are no legal criteria for determining which groups may legitimately claim the right of self-determination.
Woodrow Wilson ran into this problem when he tried to incorporate the principle of self-determination — integral to his famous Fourteen Points — into the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. "National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.” Wilson declared in a speech on February 11, 1918. Wilson soon discovered it was not easy to sort out the jumbled ethnic groups in eastern Europe. The repercussions from the failure to create nation-states comprising discrete ethnic groups (an impossibility in much of central and eastern Europe) dominated much of the next several decades of European history.
All of which brings us to Crimea. Let’s be clear about one thing: The Russian seizure of the peninsula by force was an illegal act violating international norms. The decision to hold a referendum under the barrel of a gun does not alter the illegality.
And yet… 58 percent of the people in Crimea are ethnic Russians, 24 percent Ukrainians, and 12 percent Tatars, Muslims of Turkic descent who ruled Crimea until the Russian Tsars annexed it in 1783. Jutting into the Black Sea as it does, Crimea is strategically important; it is the base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Crimea — known as Taurica in ancient times — was ruled by Greeks and Romans, later coming under the domination of Gothic tribes, the Kievan Rus’ state (one of the ironies of Russian-Ukrainian relations is that the Russian nation traces its founding to Kiev, in Ukraine), Byzantium, and the Mongols. For centuries it existed as the Crimean Khanate, a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire, before becoming part of the Russian Empire.
Crimea enjoyed a brief independence after the October Revolution, but it was soon incorporated into the new Soviet Union, where it became an administrative region of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Like much of the rest of European Russia, Crimea suffered brutally under Nazi occupation. In 1944, after the Red Army reconquered the peninsula, Stalin ordered the forcible deportation of the entire population of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia for allegedly collaborating with the Germans. Estimates are that half died on the way, and the Tatars were not allowed to return until the demise of the Soviet Union. Needless to say, the remaining Crimean Tatars do no favor reversion to Russian rule.
This long history of suffering, death, and exile has made Crimea ethnically Russian, which makes it all the more surprising that in 1954 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred administrative control of Crimea from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It’s not clear why Khrushchev did this, and at the time it was not a big deal, since both Russia and Ukraine were constituent parts of the Soviet Union. But that changed in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union.
In December 1991, Ukraine held a referendum on independence; 54 percent of Crimean voters supported independence from Russia, and Crimea become an autonomous region of Ukraine, a status it maintained until Russian troops invaded.
Crimea’s history is linked with Russia; its population majority Russian; and a large part of the Russian Navy is based in Sevastopol. Clearly, Crimea is important to Russia.
And yet… the Tatars, a significant minority, justifiably are wary of Moscow, and a larger minority of Ukrainians probably want things to remain as they were after 1991.
Self-determination, admirable in principle, always gets grittier in the application.