Crimea Votes for “Independence” – What’s Next?

“It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything” – Joseph Stalin

As expected, Crimea voted overwhelmingly to declare independence from Ukraine and join with Russia. It’s not clear what happens next. Does Ukraine invade to prevent the departure? Doubtful. Do they simply stand down and let Crimea go? Also doubtful.

In an attempt to justify the Russian invasion and “vote” for independence, the Russian Times produced a piece yesterday noting “5 Referendums that the West has not taken issue with.” The point of the article seems to be to claim that US foreign policy is arbitrary and capricious. Hmmm. Perhaps they should have just stated that outright and left it as a tweet.

There is a mild “apples-to-oranges” feel to their complaint. The examples that were given are these: Kosovo, South Sudan, the Falklands, Scotland, and Catalonia (Spain). None of these really fits the Crimea situation. First, Crimea is not voting on independence per se, but switching from one country to another. (Perhaps the Russian Times should have pointed to the origins of Texas. While not exactly a referendum on switching countries, the outcome was eventually just that.)

Second, Crimea is currently occupied by a nation-state that has vested interest in maintaining control over Crimean ports. Perhaps only the Falklands even come close; though the British were actually trying to give the Falklands back to Argentina in order to improve relations with South Africa until the plan became public and Falklander backlash convinced the U.K. to allow self-determination.

Kosovo and South Sudan sought independence after suffering a great deal of blood loss at the hands of former oppressors (not so in Crimea). As for Catalonia and Scotland, those votes have yet to happen. Spain is sounding a rather loud protest (which we will discuss shortly), but the UK has merely threatened to not allow Scotland to use the Pound as its currency. Not exactly a gun to the head.

Interestingly, the Catalonia situation does bear some resemblance to current secessionist movements here in the US. There are a number of groups that have looked at either (a) taking over a small state by population influx and voting for independence (typically New  Hampshire or South Carolina) or (b) cobbling out land from an existing state to form a new state (Northern California, Northern Colorado, and Western Maryland). In all of these cases the complaint is the same – the government we have does not represent our interests and we want to make a change. (Exactly the same complaint as Catalonia, which feels they are simply a tax cash-cow for the rest of Spain.)

All of these secession movements highlight several interesting concepts regarding statehood. First, there is a typical cost/benefit tradeoff for independence. Moving to smaller states doesn’t generally improve security (from an international level) as there are economies of scale to national defense. Thus, the independence movements have concluded that the cost (high taxes, oppressive legislation) of staying a part of the larger state outweighs the benefit of greater national security. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to Crimea, which is actually trading up as far as state security goes.)

Next, we see quite clearly that there isn’t some court-of-higher-power where these issues can be resolved. The U.S. and E.U. can protest the Crimea vote, but they can’t appeal to Caesar to stop it. Here in America we fought a nasty Civil War over the right to secede. The debate continues today as to whether the Constitution permitted secession. Ultimately the question of “legality” is irrelevant – we fought a war and the outcome decided things.

Finally, the powers that stand to lose something from a localized independence movement are not likely to let things go on quietly. Governments lose power and revenue when net-productive regions want to be free … and governments hate losing power and revenue.

As for the Russian Times, it’s hard to argue with the general premise that US foreign policy can be arbitrary and capricious. But the RT could make a better argument than this.

I’m reminded of the Reagan/Gorbachev discussion about freedom of movement for citizens. Reagan wanted Gorbachev to allow emigration from Soviet-controlled states (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”). Gorbachev responded by noting that there is a wall on America’s southern border with Mexico, attempting to label the US as hypocritical. To this Reagan responded “Mike, there’s a big difference between trying to get out and trying to get in.” There are meaningful differences between the situation in Crimea and the situations noted by the RT.

As for what comes next in Crimea, I’m not sure. In the short-term, Putin holds all the important cards. Nobody can stop him from annexing Crimea. In the long term, we may see economic and currency war as western powers try to punish Russia (in whatever limited way) for this step.

There is also a not-insignificant possibility of retaliation by the Ukrainian protest movements. In the aftermath of the Yanukovych ouster, the protestor-controlled parliament passed legislation outlawing Russian as a second national language. This was clearly designed to be antagonistic toward Russia and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The point here is that there are elements within Ukraine, elements that have some sway, which may be looking for a dust-up. And these elements are apparently difficult to control. They are the same elements that stormed the parliament building the day after they had signed a truce with the Yanukovych government. (Though, it is plausible that there goal was to push Crimea out, making for a more west-leaning Ukraine. If so, then they have succeeded.)

So. the ball is in our court. The US and EU will have to respond – as will Ukraine.

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