There’s been a nasty dose of ‘border relativism' in the debate about Crimea and it misses the point; you can’t have a referendum at the point of a gun, doesn’t matter what history says.
Yes, Crimea used to be part of the Soviet Union and was gifted to Ukraine in 1954 (which was part of the Soviet Union then) by Nikita Khrushchev. He couldn’t have anticipated Ukraine would one day be independent - or perhaps he could; the Russian borders have bulged and receded over the last 1000 years, as have the borders throughout Europe.
Each border changed represents a war, a lot of dead people, and different ethic communities left stranded on either side of that border. That’s the history of Europe, and it’s why post the second world war, the rule of law rather than the rule of the gun is the preferred and morally just way of settling border disputes, and recognising the rights of orphaned communities.
International law is relatively new. It’s hard to enforce. Sometimes it fails catastrophically to protect the weak, as it did in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. After all, it’s a set of laws without its own police force. But despite its weaknesses it is still the most humane and progressive defence against acts of state sanctioned thuggery we have.
In 1975 The Helsinki Accord was signed. In this remarkable international agreement, countries on either side of the Cold War agreed to peaceful mechanisms for managing differences. The text could not be clearer and Putin would know it word for word:
“The participating States regard as inviolable all one another's frontiers as well as the frontiers of all States in Europe and therefore they will refrain now and in the future from assaulting these frontiers … they will also refrain from any demand for, or act of, seizure and usurpation of part or all of the territory of any participating State.
The participating States will likewise refrain from making each other's territory the object of military occupation or other direct or indirect measures of force in contravention of international law, or the object of acquisition by means of such measures or the threat of them. No such occupation or acquisition will be recognized as legal.”
Putin’s actions in Crimea are undeniably illegal, and New Zealand and other progressive countries are right to take a stand, as strong advocates for the rule of law.
No matter what your politics, or whether you think the ethnic Russians living in Crimea deserve a referendum, or that Crimea is the same struggle as the Basque people in Spain or France, or the Kurds in Iran or Iraq, or the Scots in the UK; that doesn’t change the fundamental principle and our modern norm, that you do not solve border issues at the point of a gun.
The question is, what will happen next? The Crimean referendum has returned an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote to rejoining mother Russia. No surprises there. It’s not like there was an option for ticking ‘stay in Ukraine’. The two questions in the referendum, each requiring you to tick a box, both meant independence from Ukraine. There was no option except not ticking at all, to say ‘no’ to Russia:
"Do you support joining Crimea with the Russian Federation as a subject of Russia?”
"Do you support restoration of the 1992 Crimean constitution, and Crimea's status as part of Ukraine?
The second option is confusing because the 1992 constitution asserts that Crimea is an independent state, not part of Ukraine, so if you tick ‘yes’ to a return to that constitution you are actually ticking yes to more autonomy. Either way you’re ticking ‘no’ to Ukraine.
It looks like only ethnic Russians voted, while the Crimean Tartars, mostly Muslim, who remember the gulags of Stalin stayed at home and refused to participate in a stitched up referendum. So did young people, born in Ukraine and without the nostalgia for the Soviet Union shared by their parents and grandparents.
Just because there’s been a referendum doesn’t mean Putin will annex Crimea. He may be happy to have flexed his muscles and made the West look weak. But the region is so volatile now. In1914 all it took was one man to fire a gun and kill the archduke for a world war to start.
History teaches us lessons, but it shouldn't paralyse us from taking action.