Russian marines march along the embankment of Sevastopol, Crimea, during a celebration of the Navy Day on Sunday, July 26, 2015. (Image: AP Photo/ Alexander Polegenko)
The second of the eight myths Vladimir Putin has propounded to justify his illegal annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea is that Russia has “a historic right” to this territory, a claim sometimes is made in terms of law, sometimes in terms of ethno-national characteristics, and sometimes in terms of “the sacred.”
The Kremlin’s legal arguments with respect to the annexation of Crimea are especially specious and problematic. They are based on the notion that Russia is the single legal successor of the USSR which in turn was the single successor of the Russian Empire, neither of which is true, Popov points out.
But more important, he says, is that legal succession is not the basis for borders. “Borders of contemporary states legally are in force to the extent that these states are recognized in these borders as members of the United Nations” and “all its members.” Russia recognized Ukraine’s borders on that basis, in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, and in the Friendship Treaty of 1999.
Putin acts as if he is unaware of this and has declared that since a revolution occurred in Kyiv, its borders were up for grabs as far as Russia is concerned. He even said that “with this state and in relationship to this state, we have not signed any documents imposing such requirements.” That is a strange declaration for someone trained in law.
The Kremlin leader must be aware that a revolution occurred in the USSR at the end of 1991, “but not one state in the world thought as a result of this to cast doubt on the borders of the RSFSR which became the borders of the Russian Federation.” And he must know that the 1917 Russian revolution was “more illegal and bloody than the February 2014 revolution in Ukraine.”
If as Putin says Ukraine “lost its rights to its territories” after the Maidan, then what does that mean for Russia and the territories it has incorporated or claims?
The second part of what Putin presents as the legal argument for the annexation of Crimea is “the ethno-national version,” Popov says. According to it, “Russia, being ‘a nation state of the Russians’ has the right to Crimea because Crimea ‘always was populated mainly by Russians.’”
It simply happened, this Kremlin version of reality continues, that after the disintegration of the USSR, Crimea and ‘Novorossiya’ “fell into that part of ‘the divided Russian nation’ which turned out to be beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, and that this historic injustice must be corrected.”
But the Russian Federation is not, as Putin seems to imagine, a state formed by the ethnic Russians. “The Russian people, as an ethnos, as a combination of people speaking Russian and considering themselves Russian do not form any nation.” Whatever Putin has been told, “a nation in the contemporary understanding is a civic community of all the citizens of a state.”
Before the Anschluss, “the national state for the majority of the residents of Crimea was Ukraine” because the majority of them had Ukrainian citizenship. Arguing otherwise suggests one has adopted the latest iteration of the barbaric doctrine of blood and soil, one that leads to “xenophobia, militarism, obscurantism, and a leader cult.”
That the Russian nation state in Putin’s understanding absorbed Crimea “without significant bloodletting and without ethnic cleansing,” Popov continues, keeps this action from being justly called “Nazi-like.” But those who celebrate it forget that “the idea of ‘the assembly of lands’ is a dangerous one.”
Finally, the third aspect of the “historic” argument about Crimea is the sacral one. It was articulated by Putin in his December 2014 address to the Federal Assembly during which he asserted that Crimea has “particular importance not only because ‘in Crimea live our people’ … and not only because ‘the territory itself is strategically important’ … but because ‘namely here was the spiritual source of the formation of the multifaceted but monolithic Russian nation and the centralized Russian state.”
Such assertions are possible only if one does not know history and only if one acts as if the meaning of “Russian” has not changed over time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, “Russian” referred to everything and everyone in the empire. It was thus “a political attribute,” even though some began to give it a more narrow ethnic reading.
In the 20th century, that changed, Popov says. “The Russian language began to be called only that language which had been called Great Russian and correspondingly the ethnonym ‘Russians’ became attached only to its bearers, the former Great Russians.” At the same time, and thanks to the Soviet period, the political meaning of the term largely disappeared.
“Ignoring these distinctions infuriates representatives of the non-titular ethnoses, and one can understand why. Russian citizens of Kazakhstan don’t like it when they are called Kazakhs. They are Kazakhstantsy but not Kazakhs. And in exactly the same way, Tatar and Yakut citizens of Russia should not be described as Russians: they are ‘rossiyane’ but not Russians. They are Tatars and Yakuts.”
Putin and the “Crimea is Ours” people ignored this evolution and “use the word” as if it had one unchanging meaning. They also ignore the fact that Crimea did not have a Russian plurality until 1939 or a Russian majority until after the war, the result of Nazi ethnic cleansing and Soviet deportation.
“As we see,” Popov continues, “facts and statistics do not confirm the ‘Russian from time immemorial’ model of Crimea.” Ethnic Russians became predominant only very late – and with methods that one can hardly approve of. And the peninsula’s status has had little to do with Russia most of its history.
It was annexed by the tsarist empire only in 1783. After 1917, it was part of the RSFSR only 36 years, 24 years less than it has been part of Ukraine (38 years while Ukraine was the Ukrainian SSR and 22 years after it became an independent state.). The Krymnashists act as if only one period is worth noting.
Their arguments in support of that notion are simply wrong, Popov concludes.
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