Rule of Law: Comparing Crimea and Kosovo

While Vladimir Putin’s comparison may be invalid, understanding the Russian perspective could help the West to resolve the dispute.

Members of a pro-Russian self defence unit run after taking an oath to Crimea government in Simferopol March 10, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Members of a pro-Russian self defence unit run after taking an oath to Crimea government in Simferopol March 10, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As Russian President Vladimir Putin announced “acceptance” of the Ukrainian province of Crimea as part of Russia, a major argument he cited to validate his actions was the West’s precedent in Kosovo.
On both international law and broader legitimacy grounds, he said, Russia’s actions in facilitating the self-determination of the Crimeans to secede from Ukraine and join Russia was no different than the West’s 1999 military actions, facilitating Kosovo’s self-determination to secede from Serbia and become an independent state. He also called the West hypocrites for pushing for Kosovo’s independence, and trying to block Crimea’s.
There are obvious holes in Putin’s comparison from an objective standpoint. Most importantly, NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1999 after hard, undeniable (and later proven in court) evidence of Serbian mass killings, abuses and deportations.
Putin’s forces claimed they were saving ethnic Russians in Crimea from pogroms and other systematic violence from the new pro-West “revolutionary” central government, but have not presented any evidence – probably because there is none.
After NATO drove Serbia’s military forces and militias out of Kosovo, it sent in the KFOR peacekeepers, with at least a partial mandate from the UN Security Council.
No country, including neighboring Albania, which most Kosovars are ethnically linked to, annexed Kosovo. Russia sent in its forces with no international mandate (and no countries, including China, are supporting it), and the result of its troops entering, along with Crimea’s disputed referendum on independence, was its swallowing up of Crimea.
Moreover, Kosovo declared independence nine years after Serbia lost effective control over it, and after a long diplomatic process which had led to it already exercising most of the attributes of an independent state.
Crimea declared independence days after a Russian invasion and in the midst of an unresolved dispute over the future of Ukraine, following pro- West Ukrainians’ overthrow of a prior pro-Russian government.
Furthermore, while arguably on paper Crimea has the four traits of statehood under international law – a permanent population, defined territory, government and the capacity to enter relations with other states – in practice, all of Crimea’s territory is disputed, and its “foreign policy” could never contradict Putin’s views.
But after all of the holes, a crucial point is that Putin, Russia and probably most Crimeans (even if the election itself may have been a sham, most analysts say a fair referendum would have ultimately had the same outcome) probably genuinely believe the comparison is valid.
They also likely truly believe that Kosovo was an unfair power play by the West, into the Russian-ethno-Slavic sphere of Eurasia.
Recognizing that most of the debate today is about how forceful a response the West should use, and not if, this was the bombshell that Henry Kissinger recently dropped into the fluid debate.
In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Kissinger, not known for weakness at flexing muscle, posited that objectively, ethnically and historically, Crimea is far more connected to Russia than to the rest of Ukraine or Europe.
He cited that: Crimea was not even part of Ukraine until 1954; 60 percent of Crimeans are ethnically Russian; Crimeans are largely Russian Orthodox and not Catholic, like western Ukraine; most Crimeans speak Russian over Ukrainian; and Ukraine itself has rarely been independent.
While he does not discuss current events in-depth, others have noted that however upset Ukrainians were with their pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovich, he was still democratically elected and the parties had agreed to a political “cease-fire” and transitional agreement immediately prior to his being overthrown.
There will probably never be agreement as to whether his overthrow was a legitimate action by the Ukrainians who elected him, for his violating basic aspects of the social contract between the elected and the electors, or whether he was overthrown in an illegal coup, however valid the complaints.
Overall, Kissinger’s point is that the US and the western Ukrainians overplayed their hand, and pushed both Putin and pro-Russian Crimea too far with the overthrow – and no seeming readiness to contain it or roll it back.
With Kissinger’s big name, he has already taken hits by critics, who say the historical narrative he presents is simplistic in that it disregards many statistics.
They cite Ukraine’s vote for independence in 1991, recent polls in the 70% range indicating no confidence in Yanukovich and polls indicating that large Ukrainian majorities supported integrating with the EU (not Russia), including Crimeans polled at 52% pro, in earlier 2013.
They also criticize Kissinger for saying anything agreeing with Putin, when the West and Russia are at a standoff over an apparent Russian territorial grab.
The polls listed are true, but also cherry- picked. A lot has happened since 1991, and a lot even since early 2013.
While Putin’s citation of possible pogroms is considered absurd by most, it does appear that most Crimeans were fearful of political and cultural oppression by the overthrow’s instigators, who now run the rest of Ukraine.
And then there is the key question Kissinger asks: How will this end, and how does Russia really view things? While many attack US President Barack Obama as weak, it is far from clear that even his more aggressive predecessor George W.
Bush would have used force to stop Russia on Ukraine. That means Russia’s views, however foreign to the West, will be part of the solution.
Russia to this day views Kosovo as an outright territorial grab, in a light as bad as that which the West views Russia’s move in Ukraine.
None of the above differences will get Moscow to change its view, especially since Russia views Ukraine, in being on its border, as within it’s immediate sphere of influence, for which the US has no more business “interfering.”
Russia would likely view Ukraine the way the US viewed Russia’s escalating direct involvement in Cuba, in the US’s backyard in 1962 (minus the nuclear element.) Thus, while Putin’s lecturing of the West as hypocrites and his comparison with Kosovo are highly problematic, and without remotely endorsing a weak response, Kissinger may be on to something in understanding the Russian perspective in terms of resolving the dispute down the line.