The United States and the international community are rightly outraged by Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine. However, the Kremlin maintains that Russia has acted within the bounds of international law, and the case against Moscow is complicated when Russian president Vladimir Putin employs arguments that sound very much like Obama administration talking points.
Russia has engineered a plebiscite next week in Crimea in southern Ukraine, to decide whether the region will join the Russian Federation. The area is majority Russian, and was part of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic until 1954. The vote is widely expected to favor annexation, and the Russian Duma has already agreed to accept Crimea. There is no legal basis for the vote; Ukraine’s constitution states unambiguously that Crimea is “an inseparable constituent part of Ukraine” and its laws are subordinate to the central government. But once the annexation is a fait accompli, there will be little the international community can do about it.
The referendum is meant to put a veneer of legitimacy on territorial seizure. After all, can the United States legitimately stand in the way of the popular will of the Crimean people? Putin could point to the January 2011 referendum that created the country of South Sudan, which President Obama praised as “an inspiration to the world and a tribute to the determination of the people and leaders of south Sudan to forge a better future.” If the people of Crimea select a better future as Russians, Putin might argue, don’t they have the same rights as the South Sudanese? Of course, South Sudan was formed through international negotiation with a closely monitored vote, neither of which will be factors in Crimea. And to extend Hillary Clinton’s Putin/Hitler analogy, check out the 1935 plebiscite that joined the Saar region to Nazi Germany. The song remains the same.
Thousands of Russian troops are occupying the Crimea, but Moscow claims an implausible deniability. The Kremlin says the Russian-looking troops guarding key locations on the peninsula are local “self defense units,” wearing uniforms that they probably bought at an Army surplus store. The de facto blockade of Ukraine’s Navy is not really a blockade because it is not declared, and reactionary Ukrainian Navy commander Rear Admiral Denys Berezovsky has told his men to ignore orders from their own government. That aged warship Russia scuttled in a channel to block Ukraine’s free passage to the Black Sea? Just something that happened, apparently. Perhaps they can call it a man-made reef to stay politically correct.
The Kremlin is going to great lengths to stay at least nominally within international legal boundaries. Moscow continues to recognize the authority of ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, rather than new interim president Oleksander Turchynov. And because in the eyes of the Kremlin Yanukovych retains his position as Ukraine’s head of state, his request for Russian military intervention is wholly legal. This enabled Putin to say that sending troops over the Ukrainian border would be “completely legitimate and correspond to the international law.” Obama counters that Putin “seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations," which is an ironic charge given Obama’s flexible interpretations of American law.
Putin also maintains he has a right to use any means necessary to protect the Russian minority in Ukraine. Putin’s reasoning parallels the case Obama made in March 2011 to support U.S. intervention in Libya under the rubric of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). “We are answering the calls of a threatened people,” Obama said then. Putin may well say they same thing after anti-Russian riots – organic or manufactured – break out in coming weeks. If and when his forces eject the Turchynov government in Kiev, Putin could argue that “every government has the responsibility to protect its citizens, and any government that brutalizes and massacres its people does not deserve to govern.” This is what Obama said regarding Syria’s dictator and Russia’s friend Bashar al-Assad. The main difference is, Assad still rules; Turchynov is on borrowed time.
Putin does well to tie his moves in Ukraine to Obama-era rationales of protecting minorities and enabling popular sovereignty. If he could work in talking points about “building resilient communities” and climate change, the United States would have nothing left to object to. Obama argues that “the people of Ukraine have the right to determine their own future.” Putin agrees; it just depends on how you define Ukraine.