Following up on my previous post, I want to look at Russia’s rhetoric regarding Crimea and how it relates to its rhetoric regarding intervention and recognition in Kosovo and South Ossetia. While countries may use arguments that start to seem inconsistent, Russia’s use of “law talk” is especially striking because it uses legal rhetoric so often, even when it has rather weak arguments. While Russia deploys legal language, increasingly they are not the concepts of international law as generally accepted. Rather, Russia is building a revisionist conception of international law to serve its foreign policy needs regarding the states of the former Soviet Union.
But, first, let’s take a few steps back. For President Putin, the situation in Crimea has its roots in Kosovo. Kremlin watchers have argued that the loss of Kosovo was a traumatic experience for President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (For some background on the run-up to Kosovo’s declaring independence, please see this post.)
In his speech of March 18, President Putin revisited the disagreements Kosovo declaration of independence, even quoting the U.S.’s argument before the ICJ:
I do not like to resort to quotes, but in this case, I cannot help it. Here is a quote from another official document: the Written Statement of the United States America of April 17, 2009, submitted to the same UN International Court in connection with the hearings on Kosovo. Again, I quote: “Declarations of independence may, and often do, violate domestic legislation. However, this does not make them violations of international law.” End of quote. They wrote this, disseminated it all over the world, had everyone agree and now they are outraged. Over what? The actions of Crimean people completely fit in with these instructions, as it were. For some reason, things that Kosovo Albanians (and we have full respect for them) were permitted to do, Russians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in Crimea are not allowed. Again, one wonders why.
This idea that the residents of Crimea just want the same ability to become a country that those in Kosovo had is rhetorically appealing. (And keep in mind the combination of legal rhetoric with ethnic grievance in his quote, I want to come back to that.) But wanting to be a country does not mean you have the right to become a country. As discussed before, there is no general right to secession, regardless of referendum results.
However, there are many differences between the two cases: Kosovo had been under international administration for close to a decade, its final status was left open in the UN Security Council Resolutions, it was the site of significant ethnic violence. None of that is true in Crimea.
But what is especially interesting is how Russia has changed what it is describing as the lesson of Kosovo. In 2008, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called Kosovo’s potential separation from Serbia a “subversion of all the foundations of international law, . . . [a] subversion of those principles which, at huge effort, and at the cost of Europe’s pain, sacrifice and bloodletting have been earned and laid down as a basis of its existence.”
In his March 18 speech, though, President Putin took a different tack. While (Serbia’s) sovereignty and territorial integrity were the focus of Russian diplomacy concerning Kosovo, there is little talk now about protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty. Rather, President Putin spent the opening sections of his speech decrying the historical mistake of handing Crimea over to Ukraine “like a sack of potatoes.” And what of agreements, such as the Budapest Memorandum, recognizing the “existing borders of Ukraine,” respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and reaffirming the obligation not to use or threaten to use force? President Putin explained “Russia seemed to have recognized Crimea as part of Ukraine, but there were no negotiations to limit borders.” (Emphasis added.) That is contradicted by the text they actually signed. What about sovereignty? “It is also obvious that there is no legitimate executive authority in Ukraine now, nobody to talk to.” (Perhaps he was confusing change of government with dissolution of a state.) And then “the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol turned to Russia for help in defending their rights and their lives…”
Once again, this is an argument based on irredentism and a sense that borders and sovereignty can become rather wispy and insubstantial when you hear the call of people of the same ethnicity or who speak the same language as you do. (Not necessarily the same citizenship, mind you: ethnicity and/or language.)
From here, he opens his view to the state of international law… (Continue Reading)