The West and the EU in support of Ukraine

The West and the EU in support of Ukraine

In the 21st Century Eastern European political landscape, we have witnessed a transfer of sovereign territory from one country to another in a matter of three days, after Russia decided to recognize the referendum in Crimea and annexed the region.

The European Union (EU) and the United States (U.S.) have been vehemently opposing the Russian intervention from the beginning, but their actions can only be characterized as a punch that will not hit anyone. With the newest sanctions, a total of 33 individuals have been blacklisted. This symbolic action puts little economic pressure on Russia, if any at all, because the “cost” Russia incurs is miniscule in real terms. Instead, a more serious sanction would have involved an industry-wide sanction towards key sectors of the Russian economy that is dependent on Western demand. Similarly, the newly-signed treaty with Ukraine is quite symbolic in itself, since it does not include trade integration clauses, which have been the most important parts of the treaty since the beginning of the discussions.

The only hopeful outcome of the sanctions would be to see investment in Russia somehow decreasing with the help of the international rating agencies downgrading the Russian outlook. This may possibly put more economic pressure on Russia, but the current actions continue to be ineffective. Could it be because the EU is not fully aware of “what did Russia do wrong?” We know it has done something “really bad,” but what was it exactly?

Violation of international law… But which law?

The conventional view that Russia “violated international law” has been plagued with abstract references, thus creating confusion rather than promoting a legal course of action against Russia.

Which international law did Russia violate? Did Russia violate humanitarian laws in its dealings with the Ukrainian armed forces? Did Russia violate human rights laws in prohibiting individuals from participating in the referendum? Answering these questions from the beginning would have helped the international community consider legal remedies, but instead, we are confused more than anything else.

The Russian violation of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty is arguable as well, because after all, Crimea wanted to be a part of Russia, and this request was approved by “democratic” means. On some level, international law (in this case the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights) supports Crimean separation because it recognizes the inalienable rights of people’s self-determination. It was not a violation that Crimea wanted to be a part of Russia – or be independent – it was how it proceeded to do that. The way the referendum was set up and carried out was illegal – it should have been done under the constitutional framework of Ukraine.

The reality is that Russians shrewdly took advantage of a chaotic situation and held a “referendum” to make their move pseudo-legal. Nevertheless, Russians can still argue the decision was not a unilateral action of territorial aggression. And they have a case. Then, the EU has a clear path: support a fair and just referendum in the region and respect their choice. In supporting the self-determination of peoples, this seems like a very clear path for the EU to commit itself – not much else will be effective.

What Happens Now?

If the EU is to learn from its history, it would notice that non-recognition of Crimea’s new status will not change anything. The Turkish Northern Republic of Cyprus, quite similarly, is a territory only recognized by Turkey. When the Turkish Armed Forces entered Cyprus in 1974, the Turkish state absorbed Cyprus and recognized its independence. The international community reacted by “not recognizing” the Turkish side, up until today, but that has not changed a single thing. It has been realized that the only way to solve the Cyprus issue is for Cypriots to decide for themselves – and the international community has seen that unless they agree to do that, there is nothing else anyone can do. The same applies to Crimea – or any other territory in the region. Any problem we have now, or any potential future problem, will only be solved through pushing the local population in the respective region to solve it among themselves. That’s the only positive way forward. The EU and the U.S. should be looking to find legitimate ways to understand people’s demands in different regions, and act accordingly. Will anything else make a difference in creating peace and stability?

*Aydın Barış Yıldırım is a doctoral researcher at University of Antwerp