Why should we care about Crimea?

Why should we care about Crimea?

Beyond the question of what exactly the Western powers expect of Russia and how likely it is that Russia will meet those expectations there is a more fundamental question that should be asked. Why should the west care what happens with Crimea? What US national interests, for example, are at stake there? What difference would it make if the people of Crimea decide to leave Ukraine – as the Kosovo Albanians did with Serbia – and join Russia. 

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

The US continues to stumble around like a zombie vis-à-vis Ukraine.  As Russia makes clearer with every response to the latest reiteration of the Western demand that it remove its forces from Crimea, this is not going to happen.  The West, led by the US, demands that Russian troops be withdrawn and Ukrainian sovereignty respected.  It offers international monitors to ensure no one is threatening Russians in Ukraine – as Moscow disingenuously charges –  as well as negotiations to ensure Russian interests.  It warns of sanctions while the US presses forward with its own first tranche targeted on individuals and entities deemed to be violating Ukraine sovereignty.  Russia responds with further moves to push not only for increased Crimean autonomy but now for outright annexation.  The US already is warning it would not recognize such a move.  It is deploying planes and ships to the region.  The UK foreign minister warns of a “shooting war” should Russia move elsewhere into eastern Ukraine.  Putin just shakes off Western demands and threats and, early last week, ordered the test firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile just to remind anyone who forgot that Russia remains a nuclear power.  It seems that Western policy is to continue asking Putin to give up and retreat in the face of every indication he has no intention to do so.

Some – including now the New York Times – are beginning to notice that the Russians appear to be taking advantage of precedents set by the US and EU for previous armed interventions and unilateral political alterations.  At the top of many lists is the 1999 NATO intervention in Serbia – taken without any UN Security Council authorization – and the 2008 Kosovo declaration of independence taken outside the framework of UNSCR 1244.  The US and most EU members recognized the new “state” even though it violated Serbian sovereignty.  The US has consistently argued that the Kosovo intervention and eventual rejection of Serbia’s claim to its cultural homeland were “unique” and set no precedents.  The US continues to repeat the same refrain now, suggesting that the NATO intervention there was to protect people and arguing that Serbia lost its claim to Kosovo because of its actions there. But all this is clearly in the eye of the beholder and ignores that others may see things differently and see their own national interests at stake in other places, such as Russia in Ukraine.

Without reprising the complex history of Ukraine and Crimea, the essentials appear clear.  Russia sees the US and Western Europe trying to extend their political and economic empire into the very birthplace of its civilization.  Russia sees an effort to manage a post-Yanukovych transition agreed in negotiations immediately trashed and recognized by the West.  Putin put pieces on the board in Crimea – the actions on the ground over the last several days – while signaling that he is open to deal with the new Ukrainian government and accept that Yanukovych is history.  Perhaps there are genuine negotiations going on between the parties behind closed doors.  But the rhetoric from the West suggests that all Moscow is getting in return is continued US and EU demands that first it surrender.

Beyond the question of what exactly the Western powers expect of Russia and how likely it is that Russia will meet those expectations there is a more fundamental question that should be asked.   Why should the west care what happens with Crimea?  What US national interests, for example, are at stake there?  What difference would it make if the people of Crimea decide to leave Ukraine – as the Kosovo Albanians did with Serbia – and join Russia.  We all know the shallow historical connection of Crimea to Ukraine and that Russians are a large majority there.  Why could the West not accept Russian annexation of Crimea as a somewhat belated border adjustment in the wake of the end of the USSR?   The knee-jerk support the West gives to Ukrainian sovereignty cannot in the full light of day be seen as simply “principled.”  Rather it is an assertion that when the West violates international standards – that force may be used only with the approval of the UNSC and that state sovereignty must otherwise be respected – it’s okay because it’s the good guys doing it.  When others do the same, it is unacceptable.

Perhaps Putin missed a trick in not seeking a Security Council resolution calling for the reestablishment of the legitimate government in Ukraine with a possibility of sanctions to back it up.  It could have cited threats to ethnic Russians and their language.  The US, France and UK would probably have refused and Russia could then have acted on its own anyway.  But the charade of going to the UN would have made the analogy to the 1999 Kosovo intervention complete.

Ultimately, the US and its European allies should take a deep breath and consider their real interests.  A new cold war with Russia over Crimea serves no one, including Ukraine.  The West should ratchet down the rhetoric and avoid military gestures that we really have no intention – and certainly no interest – in backing up.  We should focus instead on practical relations with Moscow so that important equities elsewhere can be preserved, including cooperation on issues such as Syria and Iran.  Our continued partnership with Russia on the International Space Station shows that we can work together.  It will take accepting that however much we dislike Putin rubbing our noses in our own past actions, we have to work with realities and recognize Russia’s bottom lines.  Nothing in Crimea merits putting our common interests at risk.  Indeed, we should let relations between Ukraine and Russia seek their own level.  NATO and the EU marched up to the very borders of the old USSR and, in the Baltics, past them.  It’s not unreasonable to accept that Russia has its own regional interests so close to home.  How would the US feel if China sought a greater role in Mexico?  How did the US feel about Soviet missiles in Cuba?  What was that Monroe Doctrine all about?

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He will serve as Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year.

To read other articles by Gerard for TransConflict, please click here. If you are interested in responding to this article, please do not hesitate to contact us by clicking here.

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50 Responses

  1. Monica Lleo

    The problem on accepting the Crimea Referendum will be that the International Community will also have to accept the north Kosovo Referendum, held in February 2012, and the more than certain Republik of Sprska Referendum.
    We all know the shallow historical connection of north Kosovo and Republika Sprska to Rusia and Belgrade. Why could the West not accept Belgrade annexation of Republika Sprska as a somewhat belated border adjustment in the wake of the end of Yugoslavia? …
    The only problem would be to convinced Cataluña this are extraordinary cases…

    1. Gerard Gallucci

      The break-up of Yugoslavia and the USSR can be seen as leaving unresolved issues including about borders. With Catalonia, there is no such history (at least recent). However, all the cases you mention can be seen as raising the issue of self-determination. The West seems to have no consistent approach to that, in some cases using it – as in the case of Kosovo’s UDI – and in other cases denying its relevance.

      1. Andrey

        Dear Gerard, as much as I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here, I just wanted to mention that it’s not only the West who does not have a consistent approach to self-determination. Nobody does! I remember that the right of self-determination was a trump card for the Soviet Union while arguing the issues of “liberation from neo-colonialism” in Africa back in 60-70s. UN Security Council decisions were vetoed by the US back then. Later, what a twist, it was Russia after the break up of the Soviet Union who became a strong opponent to the right of “self-determination”! It looks that we have a new turn of the spiral of this saga now…All in all, collision of the international law norms about “territorial integrity of states” vs. “right for self-deterimiation” had been and still used by different actors to serve their interests! In case of Crimea, I would argue that Russia is about to make a right decision, although at least partly for a wrong reason….

        1. Gerard Gallucci

          Dear Andrey: I won’t argue with your comment. But I will suggest that for the two great powers among the UNSC PermFive to be participating in this “spiral” means a joint lack of leadership for the international community. Russian unilateralism now being met by American refusal to even dialogue – Secretary Kerry refusing to meet with President Putin – until Moscow answers a questionnaire?

    2. Lt Rinas

      Dear Monica, after Kosovo and Metohia case, all above mentioned entities have full right do declare whatever they want. Could you also be more precise about “shallow historical connections of north Kosovo and Republika Srpska to Rusia and Belgrade”?

    3. Fadil_H


      Why accepting only the “referendum” of some 40K people in northern Kosovo and not, for example, referendums of more than 100K of people (Albanians in southern Serbia) or Bosniaks in Sandjak (southern Serbia), almost 400K of Hungarians in northern Serbia and many others. What the Kosovo northern Serbs are so “special”??

  2. Mridula Ghosh

    It is absolutely important to recall that the present turmoil in Crimea draws its beginnings from the resilient anti-corruption mass uprising called the Euro-Maidan in Kyiv, leading to more than hundred deaths, thousands injured and disabled, they are still recovering. More than three hundred people are still missing. Facts strongly indicate covert involvement of Russia in supporting the previous corrupt regime in Ukraine, the ex-President is a fugitive in Russia. The former Interior minister, the Prosecutor general and a bunch of others have also fled the country. US, Canada and Switzerland have frozen the millions hoarded by the corrupt officials of the former administration. Moving to geopolitics and using cold war rhetoric is doing disservice to the real deeper issues. People in Ukraine successfully challenged the model of oligarchic crony capitalism built on corruption and authoritarianism built by Russia and the other CIS states, with no respect for basic human rights and freedoms, no systemic checks and balances. By moving its troops covertly (without identification signs) Russia wants to shift the attention of its own citizens and the world from the real change that has taken place in Ukraine. The issue is annexation of Crimea by Russia not Crimean independence. Russian historians like Andrei Zubov are saying that no parallels can be drawn here except that of Hitler’s annexation of Sudentenland area of Czechoslovakia, however radical it may sound. As of today, no international observers (UN Special Envoy, OSCE military observers group) could enter Crimea. Journalists are kidnapped and attacked. Referendum in Crimea at gun point and intimidation is far from being fair and this is no way out.

  3. Fadil_H

    Its very interesting, and intriguing at the same time, how you, Gerard Gallucci, see the world. When it comes to Serbia, Russia and such places there is no more logic. Just imagine “threat” to Russians in Crimea and what Albanians in Kosovo faced from one of most criminal regimes – that of Slobodan Milosevic.

    For you, everything what Serbs do is right. Now, everything Russians do, is right. No matter that you contradict yourself in every word you wrote against Kosovo.

    Nevertheless, honored readers must be recalled for few things. In the beginning of 1990s, former state, known as SFRY (Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) broke up as a result of Serbian hegemony or Milosevic’s claim “all Serbs must live in one state”. So only the Serbs must live in one state and who cares for the others!!! Such a fascism can be supported only be people like you Gallucci.

    Let me recall that Kosovo had been a constituent element of SFRY, sovereign state and UN member, while Serbia was JUST ONE of other constituents (like Kosovo) and hence neither independent nor sovereign state. Ukraine did not use neither 0.1% of violence to ethnic Russians as Serbia did to Albanians. Ukraine did not broke up so other constituents can declare independence as it was the case with SFRY. NATO intervened against Serbia after years of immense violence of Serbia caused to the Albanians by killing them, raping, burning their houses, expelling from the schools, university, jobs. In the end Serbia expelled half of Albanian population from their homes. This is extreme violence while we can’t speak for any violence from Ukraine to ethnic Russians. In contrary, Russians are those to commit violence and as a such do not deserve a minimum of support.

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  5. Fadil

    Seems like the Russians (their politicians) are the most ridiculous people in the planet Earth. If one reads what they said and wrote at the International Court of Justice in the Hague (ICJ) in case of Kosovo declaration of independence, and now referring of the declaration of “independence” of Crimea to the opinion of ICJ for Kosovo, one may ask whether these people are serious at all. The Russians may believe that all people in planet Earth are stupid or have problems with memory but 21st century is very bad for liars and cheaters, as Russian politicians are. Of course the others are not angels but Russian politicians are champions of stupidities they speak. Their immense stupidity could be seen while, for example, foreign minister Lavrov would say while occupying South Osetia (part of sovereign Georgia) that Russia based its military intervention based on Article 51 of UN Charter while even pupils in the elementary school know that in that case Georgia, not Russia, had right using that clause as it was victim of Russian aggression and not the opposite.

    Article 51 of UN Charter says: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

    By this article, Georgia had absolute right to respond to Russian aggression, and not the opposite. Now, Ukraine has absolute right to respond to the Russian aggression in the territory of sovereign state and UN member.

    1. Troll Hunter

      Dearest Fadil: The “right” to respond to “aggression” does not imply the ability to do so. Ukraine has not the ability and NATO has no duty to do so for it. NATO also has no stomach to do so having been recently defeated by the puny north Kosovo Serbs even. So stop your silly ranting.

      1. Fadil


        You simply do not understand very basic things. My point was that Mr. Lavrov, while occupying parts of sovereign and independent state, UN member, Georgia, said huge stupidity by citing Article 51 of UN Charter, which, in case of Georgia, was totally different than that of Lavrov’s claim. Actually its was Georgia to be under Russian aggression and not the opposite. So it was Georgia to ask for application of Article 51 of UN Charter and not Russia because Georgia did not attack Russia. But when it comes to Russia and people like you, Gallucci and others alike, LOGIC is not relevant. People like you do not have logic at all.

        Now it is Russia to send military troops in the territory of sovereign and independent country, member of the United Nations WITHOUT any single UN SC resolution although it is the same Russia which opposed such moves without proper UN SC resolutions in the past. i.e intervention in Syria and elsewhere. To be the worst, there is no even minimal use of force to anybody in Ukraine to make the intervention acceptable in moral aspect i,e the so called doctrine R2P (Responsibility To Protect).

        So I didn’t speak at all for Ukraine’s ability to defend itself from Russian aggression although UN charter is very clear in that aspect. It is the duty of the world to stop aggressions of such country (Russia) with the most hypocrite politicians in the world.

        1. Andrey

          Dear Troll, beware of people who have no doubts!!! Their truth is the most true in the world and their ability of listening to other people’s arguments is severely impaired by their (over)confidence….

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