Why did Putin annex Crimea?

Events have proved me wrong: I predicted in my earlier post Storm in the Crimean Teacup that President Putin would not want to annex any part of the modern Ukraine. Now he has agreed to annex Crimea. Why? And why was Crimea so quick to give up the chance of complete independence?

If the Crimea only wanted to hide behind Russia’s skirts to avoid being bullied by the Ukraine, this could turn out to be a replay of many earlier incidents in Russia’s expansion and subsequent troubles. Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat describes how tribes on Russia’s borders would enlist Russia’s help in freeing themselves from oppression by other tribes, only to find that their helpers were even harder to get rid of than their previous oppressors. Thus by a process of military osmosis Tsarist Russia became what Lenin is said to have called ‘the prison house of nations’.

Crimea’s history and my single visit in 2006 persuaded me that it would make a viable nation state. It has ¬†almost exactly the size and population of Macedonia, which is applying for EU membership, and more valuable assets. But Ukraine’s constitution bars any part of Ukraine from seceding unless the whole of Ukraine agrees in a referendum. This constitution seems anomalous given the worldwide trend to local self-determination (British people as a whole, for example, have no say in the Scottish independence referendum and neither do Europeans have the right to stop Britain withdrawing from the EU). But Ukraine’s odd right to ban unilateral secession seems to have been guaranteed in perpetuity by the US and the UK in the Budapest Memorandum. All sides in the dispute argue that their opponents have acted in defiance of international law (which might hold the Ukraine constitution to be illegal) but there is no news on any court taking jurisdiction on the matter as is normal in legal disputes.

The legal arguments seem finely balanced, given that it is common ground that a clear majority of Crimeans would rather be part of Russia than part of the Ukraine. It is a shame that their referendum did not offer the alternative of independence guaranteed by Russia. It is not clear to me whether countries which voluntarily join the Russian Federation have any more right than Ukrainian subjects to secede. If they do not, both Russia and Crimea may come to regret the latter’s voluntary incarceration in a new prison house of nations.

See my summary of the Crimean War of 1854/6, temporarily on open access at History Today for April 2014

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