The legitimacy and recognition of Crimea: A conundrum

Yordan Gunawan
Senior Lecturer
Faculty of Law, Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta

Association of International Relations Office of Muhammadiyah and ‘Aisyiyah Higher Education

The Crimean Peninsula was an autonomous territory of the Crimean Soviet Socialist Republic in October 1921, as part of the territory of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. By a unilateral decision from the highest Soviet Presidium in 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader at the time, transferred the Peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Such issue hardly mattered until the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Following the referendum on independence held by Ukraine at the end of the year, Crimea agreed to remain part of Ukraine, but with significant autonomy, including its own constitution and legislature.

Due to financial problems faced by Ukraine in 2013, the State tried to work out a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but Russia offered them a $15 billion bailout and subsidies for oil. The majority of people in Ukraine wanted to work with the European Union (EU). The Ukrainian Government, however, opposed working out the trade deal with the EU and took side with Russia instead on the grounds Ukraine did not have its own independent source for oil and had been dependent on Russia to provide it. Such decision then was protested by a lot of people. The protests which were peaceful turned violent and even escalated the urgency of the crisis. Accordingly, the Government negotiated with the protestors.

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who was establishing a post-communist Eurasian Union at the time was enraged since it meant that Ukraine would switch its allegiance from Russia to the European Union and the IMF. Even though Putin had earned support for the Union in other post-communist States, the protests in Ukraine might undo some of his gains. Moreover, such situation could deter potential post-communist States from joining the Union. In response, he exerted military pressure to ensure that the protests would not leak to the other Eastern European States. Subsequently, Russian forces dramatically escalated the standoff between the two States. Russia’s military interventions started with sending troops to two military bases in Crimea. Following that, about 150 Russian troops and more than 20 military vehicles were reported to be dispatched around the Perevalnoe base, where a heated standoff was taking place.

International law generally recognizes a “defense of nationals” concept, under which one State may enter another State without consent in order to protect its nationals against an imminent threat, at least where the territorial State is unwilling or unable to protect those nationals itself. Although the use of armed force in conducting humanitarian intervention may be acceptable, the use of such intervention shall be conducted as the last resort. Therefore, Russia’s humanitarian intervention through aggression against Ukraine is considered a breach of international law. It is due to the fact that Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter states there is a firm prohibition to not using force or other means that fundamentally would violate the territorial integrity or political independence of a State. Consequently, the armed forces identified as Russian Special Forces that took over the Crimean Peninsula were considered a breach of territorial integrity. Moreover, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 also emphasized that the signatories, including the Russian Federation, should respect the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine’s territory.

Furthermore, Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter also prohibits any State to intervene in domestic affairs such as politics, law, economics, social, and culture of other States. Nevertheless, there is an exception for the non-intervention principle i.e., the Security Council or State, either individually or collectively, may conduct the use of armed force based on the authorization of all members of the Security Council. The intervention, however, cannot be done unilaterally and it also should be applied in the case of Russian aggression. Since the United States, as one of the members of the Security Council, condemned Russia’s action and did not authorize Russia to intervene in the sovereignty of Ukraine, Russia’s intervention was considered against Article 2 (4) and Article 2 (7) of UN Charter.

In addition to the use of force authorized by the UN Security Council, Article 51 of the UN Charter permits the use of armed force in the form of self-defense against armed attacks from other States. Thereof, Ukraine as a member of the UN is entitled to the right to self-defense against the armed attack that was conducted by Russia. In fact, Ukraine had asked for the help from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to look at all possible means to help in protecting its territorial integrity, sovereignty, people, and nuclear facilities within Ukrainian territory. Even so, Ukraine is only allowed to use armed force to defend itself until the Security Council takes the necessary actions to preserve and maintain international peace and security.


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