The crisis in the republic of Crimea, which is officially a part of Ukraine, showed the world how quickly state borders can change in the 21st century. That sudden disorder in Ukraine started in November 2013 as widespread protests across the country from pro Russian groups and pro European groups began due to a last-minute decision by former president Viktor Yankvoych stating that he wanted to suspend talks on an association agreement with the EU and called for renewed dialogue with the Russian-led customs union. (Yesilot)
The pro-Russian leadership in Crimea organized an unplanned referendum where the vast majority of participants voted in favor of merging with the Russian Federation. Despite the fact that the Crimean Turks rejected this referendum, and that several states (like the US and Turkey) did not recognize it, president Vladimir Putin signed a draft law annexing Crimea and the Russian Federation council accepted the plan on March 20-21 2014. Several Russian troops gathered in border areas neighboring the eastern cities Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv where pro-Russian groups announced independence after referendums were held. Presidential elections were still held on the 25th May, ignoring the fact that the number of protests were increasing drastically. President Petro Poroshenko won the election with more than 55% of the vote however; no, polling stations were open in several cities in Ukraine, including Donetsk so the election were there but not in all the cities which means that it wasn’t representative of the whole population and some people didn’t have access to polling stations. (Ukraine crisis in maps)
On 20th June the newly elected president announced a 15-point peace plan; however, it ended shortly when a military helicopter was shot down over eastern Ukraine. This caused a clash between the government and rebel groups, which led to the withdrawal of the rebels in the northern areas of the Donetsk region. Several major incidents followed, including the Malaysian airline tragedy where a flight was shot down near rebel held territory close to the border with Russia, as well as expansion of the rebel groups’ domain on the coast. (Ukraine crisis in maps)
The situation expanded when the pro Russian rebel group held elections on their own after the government excluded them from the polls for a new parliament. This led to fighting between the army and the rebels around Donetsk and Luhansk and to the destruction of Donetsk airport. Finally, in February 2015 the two opposing fronts reached an agreement where leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France announced a cease-fire as well as weapon withdrawals and prisoner exchanges. In the aftermath of the unrest in Ukraine, the Russian Federation stopped the opportunity to step in and attempt the capture of the Crimean Peninsula under the claim of protecting the Russian minority living there.
These events warrant the discussion of two main points: Russia’s violation of norms of international law and whether Crimea, under international law, is considered an independent state today. First of all, Russia used military force to take control of the peninsula and to force Ukrainian troops not to intervene in the process of secession. After the referendum, Russian troops took control of Crimea, detained the Ukrainian military equipment and forced Ukrainian troops to surrender. Russia violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity and this position was preserved by the integration of Crimea into Russian territory. The legal obligations between Russia and Ukraine are contained in a number of bilateral and multilateral treaties and hence, the actions of the Russian military forces in the Crimean peninsula as well as explicit threats of military actions in the rest of Ukraine, consider Russia to be in straight violation of international law, including the United Nations Charter, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Helsinki Final Act, the Statute of the Council of Europe, as well as Russia’s accession commitments. (Bharat H Desai) The presence of Russian troops on Ukrainian soil is an explicit breach of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which in turn makes Russia in violation of Article 1 of the United Nations Charter. Russian troops have also continuously committed acts of human rights violations in the Crimean peninsula. Russia also continues to administer the territory de facto based on an invalid referendum. The Russian Federation has violated the provisions of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum by invading Ukraine. (MARXSEN) The United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia dedicated themselves to “respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and confirmed “their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations”. Russia violated that obligation by using force in order to stop Ukrainian troops from intervening in the secession.
The 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and Russia again declared sacred the borders between both states and specified that both parties
shall build their mutual relations on the basis of the principles of mutual respect for their sovereign equality, territorial integrity, inviolability of borders, peaceful resolution of disputes, non-use of force or the threat of force, including economic and other means of pressure, the right of peoples to freely determine their fate, non-interference in internal affairs, observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, cooperation among states, the conscientious performance of international obligations undertaken, and other generally recognized norms of international law
Again, Russia violated this treaty through the process of the integration. (MARXSEN)
The second issue is the current status of Crimea under international law. In order to justify Crimea’s secession from Ukraine, the Crimean government refers to the right to self-determination of peoples. (MARXSEN) Despite the fact that the right of self-determination is a fundamental principle of international law, it is usually understood that the concept itself may not be used to separate the territory of existing nation-states it is only used to safeguard the importance of international borders. (Roethke)This is also clearly conveyed in the Friendly Relations Declaration, which states that the principle of self-determination may not be “construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States” as long as states regard the principle of equal rights and self-determination in relation to minority groups. I do not believe Crimea has become an independent state under international law because it could not secede from Ukraine since the legal requirements for a right to secession were not fulfilled. Crimea has also not become an independent state with the capacity to invite Russian troops after the referendum and could therefore not adopt an internationally binding treaty on the accession to Russia. Thus, Crimea is still, in fact, a part of Ukraine and in this way it cannot enter into any treaty relations with Russia so that its accession to Russia is without legal effect under international law.