Moscow’s nullification of 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine a dangerous precedent, Sokolov says

1954 in Moscow, USSR. Soviet people crowded at the Exhibition of Achievements of the People's Economy (Image: Henri Cartier-Bresson)

1954 in Moscow, USSR. Soviet people crowded at the Exhibition of Achievements of the People's Economy (Image: Henri Cartier-Bresson) 

2015/06/30 • Analysis & Opinion, Russia

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.

The 19 February 1954 decree to transfer the Crimean Oblast from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian SSR by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. (Image: Wikipedia)

The 19 February 1954 decree to transfer the Crimean Oblast from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian SSR by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union.  (Image: Wikipedia)

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.

Map of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic

Map of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic

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.”

Edited by: A. N.

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  • George

    Can anyone confirm this note I read some months back; thanks.

    ‘Crimea was transferred under the jurisdiction of Ukraine by Malenkov, not “drunken” Kruschev. Voroshylov signed the transfer dated 19.02.1954

    In exchange for Crimea, Ukraine had to give Russia:
    Taganrog City and other areas along the Ukrainian border, a total area roughly equal to the area of the Crimean peninsular. These areas had the most fertile soil and more than 1.2 million of the Ukrainian population.
    (source: minutes #49 of the Presidium of Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR dated 25.01.1954)

    Along with Crimea, Ukraine inherited the following challenges and problems:
    arid saline steppe
    virtual absence of agriculture and manufacturing
    virtual absence of water and energy sources
    barely populated region with underdeveloped infrastructure

    Ukraine was given a task: Within a short time frame, turn Crimea into a region with developed manufacturing and agriculture and a resort destination for the ‘working people’ of the USSR.

    The fulfillment of the above tasks was financed from the budget of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic.’

    • Dagwood Bumstead

      The Ukrainian SSR had handed over area around Taganrog to the RSFSR in 1924 according to a map showing Ukrainian territorial changes on Wikipedia. So one could see the Crimea as fair compensation.
      According to professor Stephen Kotkin of Princeton university the decision to transfer the Crimea had been taken by Stalin. Malenkov succeeded Stalin after the latter’s death in March 1953, initially in both Stalin’s functions: that of 1st Secretary of the CPSU and that of Chairman of the Council of Ministers and Prime Minister. In September 1953 Khrushchev took over the position of 1st Secretary of the CPSU, one suspects that Malenkov didn’t hand it over entirely voluntarily.
      Malenkov was deposed as PM in 1955 and eventually kicked out of the Politburo, ending as a manager of a power plant in Kazakhstan. Most people don’t even remember or know his name- he has well and truly sunk into obscurity. He was lucky, in Stalin’s time being deposed meant a one-way trip to the Lubyanka.
      Voroshilov was one of Stalin’s toadies and totally incompetent, as was Budyonny, another of Stalin’s yes-men. As Head of State he was a figurehead, nothing more, just as Kalinin had been.
      The Crimea had lost a considerable proportion of its population due to Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 and they weren’t permitted to return until Gorbachev. Although some did return, many are still in Central Asia.

  • Dagwood Bumstead

    Time for Germany to open a similar case on the legality of Russia’s annexation of Königsberg, methinks. Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander.