1954 in Moscow, USSR. Soviet people crowded at the Exhibition of Achievements of the People's Economy (Image: Henri Cartier-Bresson)
The declaration by the Russian Prosecutor General that the transfer of Crimea from the RSFSR to Ukraine in 1954 was unconstitutional has no standing in international law not only because any such decision is the province of the Constitutional Court but also because it concerns the actions of a state, the USSR, that no longer exists.
But that does not mean that it isn’t dangerous, according to historian Boris Sokolov, because at least in the Russian capital today and among “useful idiots” in the West it creates a dangerous precedent that Vladimir Putin might use to destabilize the entire post-Soviet space as well as adjoining territories.
Some parts of the Prosecutor General’s “decision” are simply laughable, as for example its claim that “even after the transfer of Crimea, “Sevastopol retained the status of a city of all-Union subordination” is simply not true, Sokolov says, as anyone can learn by consulting the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.
But what is most disturbing, Sokolov says, is that republic borders were changed frequently during Soviet times. (For a listing and discussion of the most important of these, see Paul Goble, “Can Republic Borders Be Changed?” RFE/RL Report on the USSR, 28 September 1990.)
The Ukrainian SSR and the RSFSR exchanged territory several times in addition to the Crimean transfer. If the Russian procurator general’s ruling were recognized as legitimate, that would raise questions about all the others because “the decision” is cast in general terms rather than limited to the specific case.
“In exactly the same way,” Sokolov continues, “one would have to recognize as illegal practically all the changes of the territories of the Soviet Union republics carried out in Soviet times” because in almost all cases they were decided upon and implemented in the same way as the 1954 transfer of Crimea from the RSFSR to Ukraine.
But it could have even broader implications. If Putin required it, Sokolov suggests, the Prosecutor General would likely declare the 1867 sale of Alaska to the United States illegal as well as the 1954 accord in which Iran agreed to give up claims to a portion of Turkmenistan in perpetuity.
Indeed, the Moscow historian says, “the application of the principles used by the Prosecutor General of Russia in the decision on Crimea to other legal acts connected with the change of borders among the Union republics could lead to real geographic chaos on the post-Soviet space.”
Now that a deputy from the ruling United Russia party has appealed to the Prosecutor General for a ruling on the recognition of Baltic independence by the State Council of the USSR in 1991, things could get truly dangerous, Sokolov says. “If it is needed, the Prosecutor General at a necessary moment will declare the State Council an illegitimate organ and that means the recognition of the independence of the Baltic states would be considered illegal.”
Should that happen, “the Kremlin would obtain a pretext ‘to meet the desires of the Russian language population and begin a hybrid war against Latvia or Estonia,” Sokolov points out.
Such declarations are mostly for internal consumption; “however, they are addressed also to ‘useful idiots’ in the West who will affirm that since the Soviet Union was dissolved in a not completely legal fashion, Putin’s policy has its reasons.” They could become the basis “for new Russian aggression not only against Ukraine but also against other post-Soviet states.”