As Crimea's referendum to join Russia quickly took place and the Kremlin gleefully recognized it as a new part of Russia, the Western media has been carefully subdued in its account of what this means for the greater world order. There are a number of reasons for this. First is the undeniable fact that Crimea has always been Russian at heart, despite what many would like to believe. Second, EU, NATO and the US were never going to interfere in Russia's backyard and this geopolitical reality is a harsh reminder that whatever the Western wishes might be for Ukrainian people, good or ill, hard power reigns supreme. Third is the gapping hole in international law when it comes to territorial annexation and independence. Each is a painful reminder that the 21st century is not as different from the 20th as we would all like to believe.
First, Crimea has always been a Russian-speaking territory, with few Ukrainian ties. Having visited the territory over the previous ten years, I have never encountered anyone there who identified himself or herself as Ukrainian. Even those who vacation there from Kiev and other parts of the country would identify themselves as Russian first and Ukrainian only in terms of what their passport said. So even as the media decried the referendum as a sham, it failed to identify what this actually means. Of course Russian opinion dominated the local media and of course Ukrainian minority was left to fend for themselves with little to no media support. I am under no illusion that this referendum would ever pass legal standard of the Western world. But the strange near-silence on specific voting violations available to me from major news networks of the West speaks volumes; no matter what the rest of the world wishes of it, Crimea voted overwhelmingly in favour of Russian unification, even if the numbers are skewed.
The second issue is of European and US reluctance to offer any meaningful help to Kiev even as the government disintegrated and Russian troops amassed on its border. As I have said a month ago in this very space, there is almost no plausible scenario in which the Western powers would be willing to risk the military and economic cost to defend a country which is less than a blip on their radars. I can be cynical and point out Ukraine's lack of oil, but we all know it is much more than that. The US can wax eloquent till the end of time of humanitarianism, independence, and the world's responsibility to liberate oppressed people. But even if Russia coats the Crimean peninsula with troops and imposes the harshest of marshal laws on the populace, I would still be very surprised if the US and EU did anything beyond economic sanctions. I'm not completely certain if they would do anything else even if Putin marched on Kiev riding a tank and waving a hammer and a sickle. And this is the harsh reality which has been forgotten in the euphoria of the post-Cold War era: power matters. While there is little doubt that in a potential WWIII the conventional weapons US and EU would come out victorious, the cost of doing so dwarfs anything Ukraine has to offer.
Finally, and I believe more pertinent to this discussion, is the thorny issue of territorial annexation. The legality of Crimea holding a referendum to break away from Ukraine is problematic one. There is little precedent for a peaceful mechanism of a country breaking itself apart like this. The only institutionalized mechanism that has been internalized by a country for its own, technical, demise is in Canada. Canada has provisions incorporated into its constitutional law for Quebec to separate as its own country. Even then, anyone who looks closely at the cost involved to both territories balks at the repercussions that arise out it, not the least of which would be Canada loosing it G8 status. In general, the very concept is anathema to international order.
Countries view each other as discrete units, and for all the talk of overlapping civil society and regional independence, no one is willing to deal with the geopolitical repercussions of countries being able to easily disintegrate into discrete political units. Historically, this has always been so, with the most prominent example which I return to again and again being the US Civil War. Interestingly, the second problem of all this, the legality of Crimea joining Russia, is not much of a problem at all, as historically territorial unification has been viewed favourably by the international community. Example such as German unification, Australian federation, and the US states merging all point to this.
All of the above are of course gross generalizations. Libraries can be filled with volumes on the complexities of these issues. But what should be taken away, I think, is that Russia flexed its muscle simply because it could, and the West did nothing because it was not willing to pay the price. Putin knows this, and consumed by the unfairness of the post-Soviet global order, an issue to which I will return to at a later day, took Crimea as any leader of any country would. The British fight for the Falklands, the Americans have maintained their Pacific territories, and numerous other examples attest to this. So even if we like to believe that "international law depends on governments inheriting the rights and duties of their predecessors", this has been a timely reminder that it in fact depends on the power which is willing to enforce those rights and duties and assume the prices levied in pursing such action.
The West, in this case, was not.