By Ido Kilovaty
After weeks of tension in the atmosphere around the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula, a referendum on the question of separation from Ukraine and the annexation to Russia yielded 96% votes in support of joining Russia. Right after the referendum, Russian president Vladimir Putin has accepted Crimea’s petition to join the Russian Federation. The response from the United States and the European Union has been weak so far, from suspending Russia from the G8 to very concrete and narrow economic sanctions on some Russian officials. However, the annexation of Crimea can mark a dangerous precedent in the future of the region.
Is the annexation of Crimea legal?
The answer relies on two sub-questions. First, is the annexation legal under international law? Second, is it legal under Ukrainian law? The answer is “no” to both.
Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter prohibits the use or the threat to use force. Immediately after the outbreak of violence in Ukraine, Russia has mobilized troops to Crimea and demanded the Ukrainian troops to surrender. Not only does the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine violate Ukraine’s sovereignty (and hence violate the principle of non-intervention), but it is a clear violation of the prohibition on the use of force. In the Nicaragua case, the International Court of Justice remarked that an intervention is prohibited when it:
“bear[s] on matters in which each State is permitted, by the principle of State sovereignty, to decide freely. One of these is the choice of a political, economic, social and cultural system, and the formulation of foreign policy. Intervention is wrongful when it uses methods of coercion in regard to such choices, which must remain free ones. The element of coercion, which defines, and indeed forms the very essence of, prohibited intervention, is particularly obvious in the case of an intervention which uses force, either in the direct form of military action, or in the indirect form of support for subversive or terrorist armed activities within another State.” (Emphasis added.)
Apart from the violation of the prohibition on the use of force, Russia cannot rely on the grounds of protecting the Russian community in Crimea in its annexation. A well-established norm in international law prohibits the acquisition of territory by armed force. In 1967, the United Nations Security Council reaffirmed the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” The annexation of Crimea following Russia’s military intervention in Crimea is a clear case of acquisition of territory by the use of force.
Moreover, Article 73 of the Ukrainian Constitution reads: “Alterations to the territory of Ukraine shall be resolved exclusively by the All-Ukrainian referendum.” Such an all-Ukrainian referendum did not take place, and a solely Crimean referendum is invalid in this case.
Therefore, the annexation of Crimea to Russia is illegal both under international law and under Ukrainian law.
Moldova as Putin’s next target
The Transnistrian Region in Moldova is a region very similar to Crimea, both in its demographic and political composition. Since Moldova’s declaration of independence following the separation from the USSR, Transnistria held separatist political views due to its Russian population. Moldova lost control over Transnistria following a four month war between the two in 1992. Since then, Transnistria has been autonomous though still a part of the internationally recognized territory of Moldova. Currently no member of the United Nations recognizes the sovereignty of Transnistria. As a result, Transnistria, along with other post-soviet regions with dense Russian population, might turn into the next Crimea. The Russian military is already present in Transnistria, and it may be only a matter of time until Russia attempts to annex Transnistria, too. As in Crimea, a 2006 referendum in Transnistria showed 97% support of joining to Russia, a shocking resemblance.
Moldova, is not alone in the list of potential targets. Other regions of post-Soviet States have a large populations of Russians, such as Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Similarly to the Crimean crisis, Russia has not been held accountable for its war in Georgia.
The potential crisis in Transnistria also gives rise to concern in neighboring Romania. Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta said “Romania together with its EU and NATO partners should show their commitment to supporting Moldova’s independence and territorial integrity.” This shows not only the concern of post-Soviet States, but also of neighboring States which were not part of the Soviet Union, such as Romania and Poland.
The inability of the United States and the European Union to effectively deter Russia from its aggression may have adverse effects in the future following Russia’s imperialistic aspirations.
A possible solution?
For obvious reasons, the United Nations Security Council will be ineffective in addressing the Crimean crisis as well as Russia’s aggression. However, other measures are available to prevent Russia from further aggression towards other States in the region.
First, while the European Union is highly dependent upon Russia, the European Union is also Russia’s biggest trading partner, accounting for 267 billion Euros worth of trade in 2012. (Meanwhile China, which is the second biggest trade partner of Russia, had only sixty-four billion Euros worth of trade in 2012). The European Union can effectively reduce future trade with Russia and deter Russia from future violations of sovereignty and aggression. However, the European Union will have to find another source of crude oil and gas, a task that might be virtually impossible to accomplish.
Second, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has to reaffirm that an attack against one of its members (which include potential victim States such as Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland) is an attack against all members, which invokes the right to collective self-defense, as enshrined in Article 5 to the Washington Treaty as well as Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Such declaration will serve to set limits to Russia’s future aspirations.
Moreover, the international community is capable of suspending Russia from various international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and more.
All in all, it does not appear that the United States or the European Union is interested in engaging in a war with Russia, however, use of their economic powers may reduce and suspend future trade with Russia. Such measures can be effective as they harm Russia’s economy without using armed force or exacerbating the situation. Unfortunately, the current sanctions are inadequate.
It seems that the Crimean crisis is only the beginning of a future international crisis in the region. Russia has no negative incentive to stop using force to intervene in other regions. Only time will tell how efficient the current sanctions are, but it appears that they are insufficient in deterring Russia from annexing Crimea. What is clear is that Russia’s actions are of concern of all the States in Eastern Europe, which by themselves, appear unable to defend their vital interests against the Russian aggression.