Russia’s historical claim to Crimea shows the significance that this region holds for Russia and what Crimea has always been meant to Russia. Russians claim that their history with Crimea started a long time ago before the birth of Christ when the city Chersonesus was established by the Greeks on the Crimean peninsula. Chersonesus city is significant to the Russians because it witnessed the Baptism of St. Grand Prince of Kiev Vladimir in 988 AD. Then, in the tenth century the Tmutarakan (Crimea) principality was founded on the shores of the Black and Azov seas by the Russian princes on the Crimean shore. So, it was the significant period when the Kievan Rus’ of the Slavs a put down their strong roots throughout the Crimean peninsula. At the end of the eleventh century, Turkic peoples b have increasingly intruded into Rus’ and Crimea eventually was cut off from them. Crimea them lost its independence and found itself under the rule of the Turkic, the Golden Horde, Byzantium, Genoa, and Turkey by 1094 (1).
In the 18th century, Empress of Russia Catherine the Great conquered southern of Ukraine and Crimea to restore the land to Russia. The Empress founded a warm water naval base named Sevastopol in Akhtiar harbor that has become an important bay of Russia (1). However, at the end of the First World War and during the Russian Civil war, Crimea that was controlled by the White Army was defeated by the Red Army and then became part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1921. Then, in the Second World War -1942- the peninsula was occupied by the Nazis but got liberated in 1944 (2). In the aftermath of World War II, the international community came together to sign the United Nations charter that prohibits any use of force except for self-defense. In 1954, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who was a half-Ukrainian handed to Ukraine Crimea as a gift (3). Afterwards, in 1994, Russia, Ukraine and the US and the UK agreed not to use force or threaten the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine under the Budapest Memorandum. They also agreed not to use economic coercion on Ukraine to subordinate it. Therefore, any attempt of use of force not falling under the exceptions mentioned by the UN charter is deemed to be violation of treaties and international law.
Therefore, with respect to the recent Crimean case, many arguments have arisen whether Russia is entitled to annex the Crimean territory under International law or not. Russia’s argument for its right to annex the territory passed witnessed several claims and counter arguments. First, Russia argues that its intervention in Ukraine is based on people’s will and agreement by holding a “free and fair” referendum that allows people of Crimea decide on their future. The counter argument claims that the referendum is inconsistent with the Ukrainian constitutional domestic laws.
Therefore, it doesn’t conform to the fundamental principles and norms of international law. According to the international law, countries can acquire territory if: discovered an inhabited land, occupying a land peacefully over a long period of time, or signing a treaty like the one Khrushchev’s did to transfer Crimea to Ukraine. Also, international law can only accept people’s fighting for secession in the existence of a historical grievance over the territory, which can’t be applied over Crimea (5).
Second, the circumstances that led up to the decision of the referendum brought a great problem about the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government that came to powers by means of a coup d’état, which made Russia claim that the “legitimate” president of Ukraine called upon it to stabilize Ukraine. According to Article 111 of Ukrainian constitution “the President can only be impeached from office by parliament through ‘no less than three-quarters of its constitutional composition“. However, the Ukrainian parliament voted 328-0 to impeach President Yanukovych but the 449-seated parliament would have needed 337 votes to remove Yanukovych from office. Therefore, according to the constitution Yanukovych is still the incumbent and legitimate President of the Ukraine. This strengthens Russia’s argument in many perspectives as the interim government that used force to remove the legitimate president is also pushing a nationalistic agenda that threatens Human rights of minorities like the Russian minority. According to the Russian federation constitution Article 61(2) “guarantees its citizens defense and patronage beyond its boundaries”, so Russia facing a humanitarian crisis on its borders and due to the lawlessness has the right to intervene. Especially with the case that both the “legitimate” President of Ukraine and the Prime Minister of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea requested Russian military forces intervention to provide security for the Crimean region and to stabilize the political violence in the country (7) (4).
In addition, Russia always refers to the case of Kosovo as under international law there is no prohibition of unilateral declaration of independence. Putin always quotes the American submissions to the ICJ that “Declarations of independence may, and often do, violate domestic legislation; however, this does not make them violations of international law” (4). The case of Kosovo that adds credibility to Russia’s claims is that the NATO forces led by US didn’t get UN authorization to intervene and it didn’t have any kind of justification under the International law. However, later the cause was called “illegal but legitimate” as it was a humanitarian cause. So, Russia uses the same argument of protecting Russian minorities in the “lawlessness” situation in Crimea and the call by the legitimate president himself for help. Invoking Kosovo’s declaration of independence besides the NATO illegal intervention was deployed by Russia in their case before UN Security Council, but the resolution failed to pass with only China, Namibia and Russia supporting it (7).
Third, based on the argument of the use of force and violating “territorial integrity and political independence” of Ukraine, Russia claims that its intervention is basically for self-defense and humanitarian impulses. However, Russia has violated the UN Charter that obliges states through “Article 2(3) the obligation upon nations to settle international disputes by peaceful means. Article 2(4) prohibits members from using force or the threat of force against another state’s territorial integrity and political independence“. United Nations’ Security Council has permitted the use of force only to restore or maintain security and international peace or if the state itself exercises its right of self-defense according to Article 51. Besides, some International Law analysts claim that Russia has violated the 1975 Final Act of the Conference in the Security and Cooperation in Europe when signed Helsinki Accords. The Accord affirmed that the signed states’ obligation to respect each other’s territories and restriction of the threat of use of force. Also, analysts claim that these commitments have been affirmed again in the 1994 Memorandum of Security Assurance that is related to Ukraine’s accession to the NPT treaty of the Budapest Memorandum. Another treaty that has been violated as well is the 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. (4) (6)
After the series of accusation Russia confronted, it began to claim that the forces exists in Crimea are not Russian military force units but local Crimean pro-Russian militias. So, since the Russian military has never invaded or occupied Crimea, therefore, Russia has never violated international law and the UN charter. The problem with the Russian claim is that it doesn’t have any evidence and it lacks facts supporting the claim as Russia set a deadline for Ukrainian forces in Crimea to surrender. Also, the Ukraine’s United Nations envoy stated that 16,000 Russian troops were deployed to Crimea. Besides, Putin refused to allow OSCE monitors to visit Crimea in order to assess the security situation there (6). In addition, the federal government of Ukraine accused Russia of applying compromises against Ukraine by using its military action to shut off access to Crimea by closing roads, ports and airports besides encouraging a separatist movement within Ukrainian national borders (7). Further, Ukraine accuses Russia of violating the Black Sea Fleet Agreement and the 1999 Agreement between the Cabinet of Ministers on the use of Airspace over the Black Sea that put caps on the Russian troop level in Crimea before the approval of the Ukrainian authorities (4).
In conclusion, Although Russia’s historical claim to Crimea seems legitimate; the new international order that exists today with the legitimate signed treaties by Russia that it would never intervene in Crimea makes its position very weak. Also, it’s obvious that Russia’s claims to annex Crimea have taken a lot of twists and changes, yet its justifications are still illegitimate according to the international law. The problem is with Russia’s intervention in Crimea as it introduces instability in the international relations with the other great powers as it departs from the most basic principles of jus ad bellum. Therefore, unless the international community under the international law accepts Russia’s claim that it never deliberately deployed the use of force but for a humanitarian cause, Russia’s action will always be considered as a violation of the principle of state sovereignty according to the UN charter and violation of the “use of force” principle.