Crimea and the morality of secession

March 7

The new pro-Russian Crimean regional government has now set a March 16 date for a referendum on secession from Ukraine and joining Russia. Unlike the previously scheduled referendum set for March 30, this one appears to be unambiguous about detaching Crimea from Ukraine in the event of a “yes” vote. This raises the question of whether Crimean secession from Ukraine for the purpose of joining Russia would be morally justified. There are multiple reasonable ways of approaching the issue. But each of them suggests that the answer to this question is “no.”

Many political theorists argue that secession from an existing state can only be justified if it is necessary to address serious injustices or human rights violations. It is pretty obvious that Crimean secession flunks that test. The Ukrainian government has not inflicted any severe human rights violations on Crimea’s majority-Russian population. Indeed, Crimea has always enjoyed substantial autonomy within Ukraine, which the new Ukrainian government has not tried to abrogate. The new Ukrainian government is far from ideal, of course. It may not be able to overcome the endemic corruption and mismanagement of the Ukrainian state. But of course Russia’s government is extremely corrupt and poorly run as well. In any event, corruption and mismanagement do not by themselves rise to the level of major human rights violations.

Another way to look at the question is to consider whether Crimean secession would be legal under international law. Again, the answer is pretty obviously “no.” The territorial integrity of states is a basic principle of modern international law, and Crimea is universally recognized as a part of Ukraine, including (for the moment, at least) even by Russia. Moreover, Russia’s occupation and potential annexation of Ukraine would violate Russia’s obligations under the 1994 Budapest agreement, under which Russia, the United States, and Britain guaranteed Ukraine’s “existing borders” in exchange for Ukraine’s agreement to give up its nuclear weapons (I bet many Ukrainians now regret this deal). The three powers reaffirmed that agreement as recently as 2009.

Political theorist Christopher Wellman and other libertarian-leaning scholars have argued for broader rights of secession than are permitted under current international law, or advocated by conventional political philosophers. These writers argue that a majority or supermajority of residents of a contiguous territory should have the right to secede and form their own state (or, in this case, join another existing state) any time they want to, so long as the new regime created by the secession movement does not engage in significant human rights violations or inflict any other substantial injustices. For reasons I outlined here, I am sympathetic to this view myself.

But even this relatively expansive vision of secession rights is not enough to justify what may soon happen in Crimea. The reason is that Crimean secession for the purpose of joining Russia is likely to result in human rights violations. It is safe to assume that Russian rule in Crimea will be at least as oppressive as it now is in Russia itself. And that rule has included numerous severe violations of human rights, including censorship of opposition speech, intimidation and imprisonment of dissidents, and persecution of gays and lesbians, among others. Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia exactly as one would expect from a former KGB officer. There is no reason to believe that he would rule Crimea any differently. Indeed, the extent of repression in Crimea could even be greater, since the region has substantial Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar populations, both of which have strong historical reasons to oppose Russian rule. The Tatars in particular have a long history of repression, genocide, and mass murder at the hands of Russian and Soviet rule. Putin and his allies in Crimea might resort to harsh tactics to suppress opposition from these two groups.

The above analysis assumes that a majority of the Crimean population wants to secede and join Russia. Because the region’s population is about 58% Russian, this could well be true. But it is far from certain. The new Crimean government that called the referendum came to power in a coup last week. It is headed by Sergey Aksyonov, a former organized crime boss known as “the Goblin,” whose pro-Russian party got only 4% of the vote in the most recent Crimean election. Whether the new regime and its secession plan really do enjoy majority support in Crimea is at least questionable. We may never know for sure, since Putin and his Crimean allies probably won’t hesitate to resort to fraud, should the vote look likely to go against them, just as Putin has done with elections in Russia itself.

The bottom line is this: Even from a perspective broadly sympathetic to secession rights, there is no defensible justification for the present attempt to detach Crimea from Ukraine and make it part of Russia.

UPDATE: Thomas Fleming of the Rockford Institute responds to this post here. His response is confused on several key points. For example, he seems to assume that I endorse all three of the above theories. In reality, I support Wellman’s view. But I also think it important to point out that Crimean secession is illegitimate under other widely held positions, even if I personally don’t agree with those views. We can be more certain that an action is wrong if it stands condemned from a variety of otherwise divergent viewpoints.

Fleming also seems to believe that the three theories of the morality of secession are somehow invalid merely because real-world governments don’t consistently adhere to them. But the purpose of moral principles is to evaluate actions, not describe them. Real-world governments also don’t consistently follow moral principles against rape, murder, and theft. But that doesn’t mean those principles are unsound. It just means that governments sometimes act immorally.

Fleming is also inaccurate in some of his descriptions of the three theories of secession. For example, he thinks they are somehow “postmodernist,” even though all three are based on ideas that long predate postmodernism.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and the study of popular political participation and its implications for constitutional democracy. "He is the author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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Will Baude | March 7