Foreign Policy Governance

Questions and Answers About Crimea and Secession

By Bridget Coggins

28 February 2014 Voice of America photo by Elizabeth ArrottWikimedia.

28 February 2014 Voice of America photo by Elizabeth Arrott via Wikimedia.

After asking if commenters had questions about Crimea’s potential separation from Ukraine under its occupation by Russian military forces, we suggested explanations to several. Another follows.

Commenter Tony asked:

This Q&A is a fantastic idea; thank you. Where else do ‘civilians’ get their questions addressed by someone with expertise?

Would you clarify the definition of irredentism? Above you say it means “a demand to separate from an existing country in order to join another country.” Doesn’t it refer to such an event supported by a claimed historical or ethnic connection between to two parties.

Also, Russia claims that these territories want to join them; I doubt we ever will discover the truth. Russia would never permit a referendum to be lost, and who in those territories would publicly criticize Mother Russia’s warm embrace?

Thanks for your question, Tony. I’m afraid I’m going to have to give you a political science-y answer.

You’re right, most irredentist demands are predicated on historical, ethno-linguistic ties with the country that the group hopes to join. But I wouldn’t make those ties a necessary part of the definition. Why not? Because I can imagine a circumstance, especially where territories are geographically contiguous or proximate, where a group without historical or linguistic ties to another country might nevertheless want to join it. This happens within countries quite often, in fact. For example, in Killington (formerly Sherburne), Vermont, well-known for its ski resort, there is just such a movement to separate from Vermont and join New Hampshire in order to escape what some feel is excessive taxation. Unlike its neighbor, New Hampshire has no state income tax or sales tax. There are shared historical ties with New Hampshire, of course, but not ties that are not shared with the rest of its county or much of the rest of Vermont. Were the town to successfully convince the legislatures of Vermont and New Hampshire to accept its referenda on secession (2 so far in favor), would we not call it a successful case of irredentism? I would. And if something similar happened internationally, I would then too. I might qualify it with “economic” or “ideological” irredentism, but I believe they belong together in the same category and I don’t want to come up with a new term to describe it. To my mind, the defining characteristic of irredentism is the goal of the group hoping to accede to another country (or state above). Where there is no pretense of domestic support for a territory’s incorporation into an existing state, I would call it conquest (see Manchukuo).

As for the legitimacy of the Putin administration’s strategy, I agree that it is deeply flawed. If I were confident that the Crimea’s population is actually in favor of joining the Russian Federation, then I would make every effort to ensure that a well-planned, free, and fair referendum takes place, overseen and endorsed by international observers. For various reasons — military occupation, hasty scheduling, widespread international outrage, and a likely boycott by pro-Ukraine voters — that is not going to happen. Even if there is overwhelming support for accession to the RF, we won’t be likely to know it after the votes are tallied next week.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Q & A!

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