Russia, eastern Ukraine, and the morality of secession

It is increasingly clear that Russia has invaded eastern Ukraine for the purpose of supporting pro-Russian secessionist movements who seek to establish a new state possibly called “Novorossiya” (literally “New Russia”) that is likely to try join with Russia in the future. The moral and legal issues raised by this invasion and secession movement are much the same as those arising from Russia’s earlier occupation and annexation of Crimea. Both actions are illegal under international law, and also blatantly immoral and unjust. If it forbids anything, international law clearly bans the invasion and annexation of other countries’ territory. In addition, the Russian invasion violates a 1994 international agreement guaranteeing Ukraine’s borders, which was signed by Russia, as well as the US and Britain. At that time, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons stockpile in exchange for the security guarantees – a decision some Ukrainians regret today.

Both the invasion of Crimea and that of eastern Ukraine are also morally indefensible because Russian rule is far more oppressive than the Ukrainian government the Russians seek to displace. Although the Russians claim to be protecting Russian-speaking minorities in eastern Ukraine, in reality Russians under Ukrainian rule enjoy far better protection for their human rights than Russians living under the rule of ex-KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin in Russia itself. Mikhail Svetov of the Libertarian Party of Russia offers an instructive comparison of the two governments in that regard. There were few if any significant human rights violations in eastern Ukraine before the separatist uprising began. The lion’s share of atrocities since then have been committed by the separatists themselves, though it should be noted that pro-Ukrainian forces are guilty of a few abuses of their own.

As I have suggested previously, the Ukrainian government would do well to offer greater autonomy and stronger protections for the minority rights of the Russian-speaking regions of the country. But Svetov rightly points out that the Russian minority in Ukraine enjoys far greater protection for its minority rights than minority populations in Russia itself, including the large Ukrainian minority there. Both Russia and Ukraine have fascist nationalist movements that seek to oppress minority groups in various ways; however, as Svetov emphasizes, such forces have vastly more influence in Russia than Ukraine (where they have enjoyed very little support in recent elections).

In one important respect, Russia’s promotion of secession in eastern Ukraine is even more reprehensible than the annexation of Crimea. In the latter case, it is at least possible that the Russian invasion and annexation was supported by a majority of the local population. While the absurd 96.7% pro-Russia vote in the March referendum is was almost certainly fraudulent (and held by a regional “government” that itself came to power by force and fraud), we cannot rule out the possibility that a fair vote would have had a pro-Russian majority.

In eastern Ukraine, by contrast, a survey released in May by the Pew Research Foundation found that 70% of the region’s population oppose allowing regions to secede, including 58% of Russian speakers. This poll probably underestimates the true degree of opposition to secession, because it only asked whether regions should have a right to secede, not whether they should actually exercise that right. It is likely that some of the 18% of eastern Ukrainians (and 27% of Russian speakers) who support a right to secede don’t necessarily believe that it should actually believe that it should be exercised at this time.

In fairness, the same survey also revealed 54% support for a right of regional secession in Crimea, which strengthens the . But the results in that region may well be skewed by Russia’ intimidation and repression of opposition speech, which likely made pro-Ukrainian poll respondents hesitant to express their true opinions. By contrast, the Ukrainian government has not suppressed pro-Russian speech within its borders.

Majority support or lack thereof is not always the decisive factor in assessing the morality of secession movements. A secession supported by a regional majority may still be unjustified if it leads to severe human rights violations targeting minorities, as in the case of the current repression of the Crimean Tatar minority by Russia. Similarly, Germany’s occupation of the Sudetenland in 1938 may have been supported by the majority-German population in the region, but was still indefensible in light of the Nazis’ plans to severely oppress the Czech and Jewish minorities there. Conversely, secession that is opposed by a majority in the region might still be justified if it is the only way to prevent severe human rights violations by the present government.

In the case of eastern Ukraine, however, secession is both opposed by the majority of the region’s population, and would lead to lead to far worse human rights violations than any likely to be committed by the Ukrainian government. From any reasonable standpoint, both legal and moral, there is no possible justification for Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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David Bernstein · August 29, 2014