Secession, Recognition, and Ukrainian Politics, Continued

By Bridget Coggins

Yesterday we asked if anyone had questions about the issue of Crimean separation from Ukraine, under the Russian military presence in the Ukrainian autonomous republic. Commenters raised several.

These are all great questions!

Our first question comes from commenter Boaz:

Bridget, What can you tell us about precedents for a territory not asking for independence but to be annexed to another? Sudetenland? Texas?

Scholars use different terms to apply to these similar, but distinct demands. Secession is the demand to separate from an existing country in order to form a newly independent one. Whereas irredentism is a demand to separate from an existing country in order to join another country. So the situation in Crimea is an irredentist conflict.

Here’s where things become muddled. In contemporary politics, it is usually the case that contested irredentism takes the form secession, followed by unification.[1] So, for example, even though many in South Ossetia may ultimately want to join Russia proper, the more immediate goal is independence from Georgia. This is a strategic move because the incorporating countries do not want to be seen as fundamentally subverting another government’s sovereignty (a justification for war or casus belli). Therefore, Russia does not currently claim South Ossetia for itself; it has recognized it as an independent peer. Once an entity becomes independent, it may surrender its sovereignty voluntarily to join an existing country at will. It is usually only a domestic constitutional matter for the joining and incorporating states. This makes the process straightforward and less contested.[2]

In the post-Soviet space, there are a number of these conflicts that straddle the line between secession and irredentism: Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Transniestria also come immediately to mind. In these cases, the would-be annexer (Russia or Armenia) has been content for these regions to claim independence even when their behavior might seem to indicate an eventual plan to incorporate the territory. Although Russia’s strategic interests are clearly more at stake in Crimea, it is curious that it has not pursued a similar strategy vis-à-vis its other would-be territories in Moldova and Georgia.

As for precedent, I can’t think of any previous cases of non-colonial territories where a local referendum and annexation were successful in the long term (i.e. widely recognized as legitimate by most members of the international community). Can you? I’d love to grapple with some possibilities. Sudetenland and Texas seem too far removed in time to provide reasonable analogies.

Second is from commenter H:

If Crimea is being annexed to Russia, via the referendum, then does state recognition even matter? Crimea would essentially be subsumed by Russia, so do you see some states recognizing the “new” Russia?

Yes, recognition still matters here, though in a different way than in purely secessionist conflicts. While it is true that state leaders will not be recognizing a “new Russia” if Crimea is annexed, when diplomatic recognition is first exchanged between states, that recognition applies to the government, territory and its population. Presumably, the United States and many other countries will not be swayed by a pro-Russia referendum and will maintain their recognition of Ukraine as it was constituted when the United States first recognized it.

If the Russian Federation is the only government that recognizes Crimea’s incorporation while the rest of the world opposes it, then it will have to constantly assert and defend its authority there. Further, life will become more difficult for people within Crimea who want to interact with the outside world. It will be harder for them to travel, to do business, and trade without the access that external legitimacy provides. Russia will also likely be subject to additional unilateral and multilateral sanctions as it further incorporates Crimea. At this point, it is not clear how far any of the major players are willing to go to alter Crimea’s status or preserve the status quo. Still, territories with contested sovereignty claims, and especially contested between powerful states (see Kashmir and Taiwan), are notoriously unstable and have historically been the flashpoint for great power war (see Yugoslavia).

And finally, from Batistuta:

Great idea for a thread!

I have one question. As far as I understand, the referendum in Crimea will not be about independence, as in Scotland, but about joining Russia. Do these two kinds of referenda work the same way? Would Russia somehow have to vote on whether or not they accept Crimea into the ‘union’? Are there any precedents for this?

Referenda like this occurring within democratic countries with a coherent government are usually conducted at the national level because autonomous regional governments are not typically endowed with the constitutional authority to make major territorial and jurisdictional changes without the consent of the rest of the country. And this is true in Ukraine’s case; Crimea is not empowered to make this decision on its own. However, where the national government is incoherent, especially in the wake of civil wars various ad hoc referenda have been organized to establish the will of the people and the future political order within a country. There’s no set standard for how these decisions are made, though most aim for universal franchise and tend to strongly favor the status quo.

Since this referendum is, by and large, not going to be accepted as a legitimate indicator of the will of the people of Ukraine, the content of the question put before those in Crimea does not really matter. This stands in marked contrast to other referenda regarding territorial changes in stable democratic states like Quebec-Canada, Scotland-UK, or Puerto Rico-US where the question order, language used, and percentage vote are hotly contested and consequential to the ultimate outcome.

If we look to the Russian Federation’s constitution, we can get a sense of what the domestic process of annexation would look like. It isn’t a foregone conclusion that the Russian Federation would accept Crimea, there are legal hurdles to overcome, but public statements from those within the Duma and Council suggest that there is widespread support. Here are the relevant articles:

Article 65
2. Admission into the Russian Federation and creation of a new constituent entity shall take place in accordance with the procedure established by federal constitutional law.

Article 137
1. Amendments to Article 65 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation which determines the composition of the Russian Federation shall be introduced on the basis of a federal constitutional law on the admission to the Russian Federation and the creation within it of new constituent entities of the Russian Federation, or on changes in the constitutional and legal status of a constituent entity of the Russian Federation.

Article 108
2. A federal constitutional law shall be considered to have been adopted if it is approved by a majority of not less than three-quarters of the total number of members of the Council of Federation and not less than two-thirds of the total number of deputies of the State Duma. An adopted federal constitutional law shall be signed by the President of the Russian Federation and promulgated within fourteen days.

[1] I say, “contested” because if the national government consents to the annexation of all or part of its territory it may do so. It may also establish any domestic political means of determining whether all or a part of its territory should be incorporated into an existing government — including a national referendum on the issue.

[2] Though, closer to home, recent polls show that a majority of Puerto Ricans would prefer statehood to its current semi-sovereign arrangement with the United States, but it is unlikely that Congress will approve it as the 51st state. So it’s not always straightforward.

  1. 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?

  2. I’m a bit late, but…

    If we are looking at post-WW2 history then we have two examples of referendums confirming an annexation by India. In 1961 India invaded the Portugese colony of Goa. The Goans later voted in a referendum to join India. Likewise in 1975 the Indian army took over Sikkim, and later the population voted to become part of India.

    There are also a few examples of post-WW2 invasions which have been more or less successful (in that the invader is still there) but were not confirmed by referendums.

    The are two examples for China – the invasion and annexation of Tibet in 1951 and of Indian claimed territory in 1962. Though both are ambiguous. Tibet wasn’t accorded wide diplomatic recognition as an independent state; and the Sino-Indian border was disputed and in a very remote area.

    Morocco took over Western Sahara in 1975 and still has control.

    There are also several examples of short lived secessionist states which achieved practical independence but not widespread diplomatic recognition (or no recognition at all), for example Biafra.

    1. Thanks for highlighting those examples; I’m surprised Western Sahara doesn’t come up more in recent discussions because it’s one of the more blatant cases of territorial conquest in recent history (Moroccan maps often show all of Western Sahara lying within its borders), and a frozen conflict to boot. (Though in one of the world’s least densely populated territories.)

      I suppose the North Vietnamese conquest of the South is one of the last comparatively major successful invasions which resulted in permanent annexation, though of course that is a special case.

  3. Thanks for those examples, Nic. I was trying to think of local votes of accession followed by annexation and coming up empty. Of course, I grant your point that Russia has invaded Crimea and if that’s the relevant dimension of comparison, then there are a number of similar cases. I would even add Hawaii to your post-WWII list. The only point on which I would quibble is Western Sahara, simply because although it may seem that little is being done to proactively challenge Morocco, few recognize it as the legitimate authority (Note that this may change:

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