There is simply no justification for Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea.
The erroneous rationalization offered for Russia's annexation of Crimea proceeds along one or more of the following lines:
1: The US, NATO and other Western governments left Vladimir Putin and Russia no choice. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO aggressively sought expansion, extending its reach very near or up to the borders of Russia with the membership of many former East Bloc nations. Russia could not allow Ukraine, hosting a sizeable Russian minority and sharing a long border with Russia, to become the next NATO member and complete near encirclement of Russia's western borders. What's next, Kazakhstan? To make matters worse, the European Union (EU) also expanded into the former Soviet Bloc, threatening Russian economic interests.
2: The US and other Western governments actively supported one or more of the various Ukrainian opposition movements responsible for the eventual fall of Ukraine's democratically elected, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Moreover, ultra-nationalists in Ukraine have threatened violence against the Russian and Russian Orthodox minorities. This Western support for Ukrainian opposition groups and appearance of ultra-nationalists threaten the security and economic interests of Russia.
3: There is a patently sanctimonious ring to the West's cries of Russian foul in Crimea in light of the US invasion of Iraq and NATO's interventions in Kosovo and Libya. Big and powerful nations like Russia must be expected to protect their interests, even if their actions run afoul of rules. Others have done it. Why can't Russia?
These fallacies do not stand up to reasoned scrutiny. Accepting them is tantamount to capitulation to either reinstatement of "big power spheres of influence" or to Putin and Russia's paranoia. Here's why.
On the question of eastern and central European membership to NATO and the EU, these countries and perhaps Ukraine as well, all want to be a part of the West — as democratic, market-oriented states allied with the EU and other Western institutions. Well familiar with the historic predatory proclivity of Russia and the Soviet Union (USSR), they sought to arrest historic precedent by their voluntary and willful decision to seek and acquire membership in these Western institutions. Sharing security, economic, cultural and historical ties to Europe and the West, why wouldn't NATO and the EU welcome them?
To suggest that NATO aggressively expanded into these nations is to conflate the entirely voluntary act of these governments to seek membership with their forced imprisonment in the old Warsaw Pact. These governments, as well as Ukraine's, should and must be free to choose security and economic alliances, a right denied to them before the fall of the USSR. Having freely sought formal Western affiliations, why wouldn't NATO and EU members support them?
Certainly, current members have to decide for themselves whether any new member serves their interests. However, it would have been morally unconscionable to deny these nations membership merely on the grounds that they belong in some post-Soviet era orbit, especially after what they endured first under Nazi, and then Soviet, occupation and oppression.
Moreover, given Russia's history of dealings with these states and as familiar as they were with past treatment at the hands of the Russians/Soviets, they were wise to seek Western security ties. It's perfectly logical and strategically sound. Election after election in every one of those former East Bloc and Soviet states has proven that this is what the people of those states want. So, why wouldn't the US, EU and NATO support them? Good for peace, good for stability, good for the people of these countries, and good for markets.
Russia was given every opportunity to be a part of this effort. It chose to go its own way. All one needs to do to see how successful this policy has been is to look at these newly free nations. They are all better off aligned with Western economies.
Caving into Russian nationalist paranoia and refusing to support these nations would have been to repeat the tragedy of Yalta in 1945, which effectively condemned the citizens of these countries to oppression under their Soviet masters for more than 45 years. (It is worth noting that Joseph Stalin and his successors violated much of the agreement reached at Yalta, including allowing free and fair elections in these countries.)
Western governments promote democracy all over the world. They have much to show that it has worked, not everywhere but most places. And it isn't just the US. Governments of the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, Japan and Australia as well as the EU — and even the UN — also support democratic institutions wherever assistance is requested and needed.
Such support strengthens the rule of law, nurtures respect for human rights, enables often neglected women and minorities, and ultimately advances the most stabilizing force in the world today: democracy. They should neither apologize, nor be ashamed of it.
Apologists conflate this support for democracy with the unfortunate rise of ultra-nationalists in Ukraine. It's a convenient, but hardly clever argument. Ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist movements are present elsewhere in Europe, thankfully in small numbers, and are strongly opposed by both governments and the majority of citizens in the countries where they are present. They are a sad, yet sometimes inevitable occurrence in free nations.
The fact that ultra-nationalists in Ukraine chose to lend their unwelcome violent opposition to the Yanukovych government does not diminish the otherwise sincere, peaceful effort of the majority of opposition groups to rid themselves of a corrupt, undemocratic regime.
President Putin and Russian nationalists failed to learn the lesson of the Soviet Union's collapse: that democracy, market-oriented economies, rule of law, respect for human rights and liberty are the natural desire of most human beings and are what account for stable, peaceful and prosperous nations. They are swimming not only against the tide of history, but the inexorable current of human will.
In Ukraine, there may indeed have been actions that could have been taken tactically to mitigate events — such as the removal/resignation of its corrupt president. But democracy is often messy. Revolutions always are. Given the heightened state of passions after nearly four months of often violent confrontations, it is unclear that any outsider could have altered the current of Ukrainian will.
This is the ultimate rationalization. It preys on America's and NATO’s lingering guilt over questionable and regrettable actions taken under extraordinary and less-than ideal circumstances. Regardless of the question of legitimacy over actions in Iraq, Kosovo and Libya, there is no comparison to what Russia has done in Ukraine.
If the US invasion of Iraq was wrong — as most people agree today — how much more wrong is Russia's invasion of Ukraine? In Iraq, the US and the 39 others participating nations secured UN Security Resolution 1441 to justify their action.
Moreover, Saddam Hussein had a long and well-known history of gross human rights abuses and had expressed interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction dating back to the 1980s; although subsequent investigations proved no such weapons existed at the time of the 2003 invasion. Additionally, Hussein had previously invaded Kuwait and was widely viewed as a threat within the region.
Does this sound at all familiar in Ukraine? Russia has acted unilaterally against Ukraine, without even the attempt to secure a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution and with not one allied nation. Human rights abuses in Ukraine were well-documented under its Russian-backed former president.
Ukraine willingly surrendered its nuclear weapons in 1994 in the Budapest Memorandum, signed by the US, the UK and Russia in exchange for recognition of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Unlike Hussein's Iraq, Ukraine threatens none of its neighbors.
Russia's claims of abuses and threats against Russian minorities in Ukraine as a justification for its invasion of Crimea sound as disturbingly familiar and hollow as the now proven false claims of the Bush administration regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq.
In Kosovo, every NATO and EU member, as well as Yugoslavia's neighbors, supported NATO's actions. Moreover, prior to initiation of action in March 1999, efforts had been made through NATO, the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and at the Rambouillet Conference (January-March 1999) to defuse and resolve the crisis in Kosovo diplomatically. UNSC Resolution 1199 expressed the council's "grave concern" at reports that over 230,000 persons had been displaced from their homes by "excessive and indiscriminate use of force by Serbian security forces and the Yugoslav Army."
The Independent International Commission on Kosovo, convened in August 1999 in the aftermath of the intervention to assess NATO's action, found in its report on Kosovo that:
"[Yugoslav] forces were engaged in a well-planned campaign of terror and expulsion of the Kosovar Albanians… most frequently described as one of 'ethnic cleansing,' intended to drive many, if not all, Kosovar Albanians from Kosovo, destroy the foundations of their society, and prevent them from returning."
The report concluded that NATO's actions were "illegal but legitimate."
Russia's actions in Ukraine are neither legal nor legitimate. NATO can be forgiven for acting decisively, if illegally, to quell a looming humanitarian catastrophe on its very doorstep in Kosovo where hundreds of thousands of lives were threatened. While perhaps politically unstable, Ukraine posed no such humanitarian crisis before Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea. Crimea of 2014 bears no resemblance to Kosovo of 1999.
In fact, Russia's objections to NATO's intervention in 1999 likely stemmed from the same motivation for its invasion of Crimea in 2014 — perceived entitlement to the former USSR's "sphere of influence."
After the apologists' woeful analogies to Iraq and Kosovo, it is hardly surprising that references to NATO's intervention in Libya ring just as hollow. NATO acted on UNSC Resolution 1973, also supported by a number of Arab League states. While NATO forces provided the primary muscle for the campaign, governments from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and others also lent military support to the effort to curb Muammar Qadhafi's violations of UNSC Resolution 1973.
Those who opposed NATO's intervention besides Russia, which abstained on the UNSC vote, included Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Their unsurprising claims of neocolonialism subsequently and predictably proved to be unfounded.
Like Iraq and Kosovo, Libya offers a weak and altogether ineffective comparison, much less justification, for Russia's actions in Ukraine. Russia's apologists are grasping at slim straws in using any of these.
Indeed, there is simply no justification for Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea or for ongoing threatening actions on Ukraine's eastern border. These actions are patently illegal and condemned by most governments around the world.
It is telling that Russia has no — not one — ally or governmental defender on its position. The UNSC voted 13 to one (Russia) to condemn Moscow's annexation of Crimea. China abstained but it is clear that Russia's hiving off of Crimea undercuts China's "One-China" policy and wish to reincorporate Taiwan.
It is time that apologists accept there can be no justification for Russia's actions.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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