The Russian move into the Crimean peninsula has caused a great deal of anger and opposition in the United States, much of it misplaced. What would the United States do if in a moment of temporary weakness it had lost California, but then later had a chance to regain it? However, we do not need this hypothetical example when there are the real live ones such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Haiti repeatedly, Grenada in 1983, and the Dominican Republic in 1965, among others. All of these U.S. invasions were violations of international law as much as the Russian incursion into Crimea, arguably more so.
Ukraine is not only the historic origin of Russia, but was part of the Russian-ruled Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. At that time the Crimean peninsula slipped out of Russian control only because the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had formally transferred it to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954 as a mere bureaucratic paper change that no one ever imagined would someday make it become part of a foreign country. Indeed, during World War II, the Soviet Union paid a deadly, but heroic price to regain Ukraine from the Nazi invaders. How ironic that today Russian military action in the same land is denounced as a violation of international law.
True, territorial integrity is usually a principle to be honored as its violation constitutes illegal aggression. However, all international boundaries are not necessarily fair as witness the notorious Sykes-Picot boundaries that created much of today’s artificial Middle Eastern borders now being challenged by the Sunni-Shia conflict and the newly empowered Kurds. Bangladesh, Eritrea, Kosovo, and South Sudan are other such recent examples that successfully challenged untenable state borders in the name of self-determination.
Ukraine is a former Soviet Republic, not a former satellite state like Poland or Bulgaria, which were technically independent states. Interestingly, however, Ukraine was an original member of the United Nations due to a Roosevelt-Stalin compromise necessary to obtain Soviet membership in the fledgling international organization at the end of World War II. So the former Soviet Republics are what the Russians now call the near abroad. Many of these near abroad former Soviet Republics that are now independent states contain significant numbers of ethnic Russians who, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, no longer live in their own home country, Russia. Thus, Russian troops entering the near abroad, is more understandable than if they would enter a former satellite state.
This can quickly become problematic, however, as the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are also former Soviet Republics, but no one would say Russia has a right to go into them. Indeed all three of them are now members of NATO and the EU! Georgia too is a former Soviet Republic that actually fought a brief war against Russia in August 2008 and is seeking to become a member of these two Western organizations, which would probably be a bad mistake. The best way for these former Soviet Republics to maintain their independence would be to get along with Russia a la Finland, rather than incorporating them into NATO which would be a bridge too far and one day might come back to drag the United States and world into a disastrous unwanted war.
Hopefully the new Putin Doctrine of reasserting Russian control over such strategic, recently lost areas as the Crimea when the present situation appears untenable, will be implemented judiciously and not use indiscriminately to reduce other former Soviet Republics. There is room for understanding Putin’s actions in Crimea and ample areas for compromise. Only time will tell whether Putin is just claiming what is reasonably Russia’s or is over reaching.
Michael M. Gunter is a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tenn., and the author of the forthcoming Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War (London: Hurst and Company, 2014).