US Hypocrisy on Crimean secession move: Washington Supported Break-up of Sudan, Yugoslavia, Iraq

(By Juan Cole)

Russia has arranged for its supporters in the Crimean state parliament to vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, and has announced that there will be a popular referendum on the issue in the semi-autonomous province, which has been part of Ukraine since the 1950s and went with Ukraine when that former soviet socialist republic became an independent country in 1991.

It is not clear if Russia’s supporters in Crimea are serious about this accession to Russia or if they are just playing a bargaining chip intended to wring long term concessions from the interim Ukrainian government, such as a permanent lease of naval facilities in Crimea to the Russian navy.

While a Crimean secession from Ukraine is unwise and will cause a lot of trouble, it isn’t unprecedented in the last few decades and the US and the West have supported some secessions or country break-ups when they suited their interests, while opposing others.

The US supported the secession of Kosovo from Serbia in the late 1990s (both had been part of the Yugoslav federation in the Cold War, but it fell apart in the 1990s; Serbia’s claims on parts of Bosnia and on all of Kosovo as the main Yugoslav successor state were rejected by the US, which helped Bosnia and Kosovo secede.)

Slovakia seceded from Czechoslovakia in 1993, although that was a more amicable split than the Kosovo secession or the Crimean one, if it happens. Still, Slovaks voted to secede, and no one stood in their way.

The US was positively delirious about the break-up of Sudan and the creation of South Sudan 2011. (Forces in the US congress see the break-up and weakening of Arab Muslim states as a good thing). The wisdom of that secession is questionable, since South Sudan has promptly become a failed state and is now having a civil war. The violence down there was always blamed on Khartoum, but apparently there are social formations and economic conditions in the south that just aren’t conducive to order.

While the US was ruling Iraq, Joe Biden and other US politicians tried to break it up into a Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite state. No one said that a Kurdish secession would be contrary to international law.

Jane Harman when in Congress proposed breaking up Iran into ethnically based provinces. She left that body over a scandal involving Israeli intelligence.

Lots of Irish-Americans would be perfectly happy to see Northern Ireland secede from the United Kingdom and join Ireland. Boston donated money for terrorist actions against London in the 1980s in hopes of making that happen. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) was at that time an open supporter of IRA violence. Official US policy was more even-handed. (I’m not taking a position on N. Ireland; just sayin’). In 1998 George Mitchell negotiated a settlement between the UK and Ireland on Northern Ireland, which recognized Ireland’s legitimate interests in the north.

Mitchell’s careful agreement, in fact, would be a good model for keeping Crimea in Ukraine while recognizing Russian interests there.

But those pundits (and President Obama himself) who are suggesting that a Crimean secession from Ukraine would be contrary to international law or unprecedented, or that the US would always oppose such a thing, haven’t been paying attention. The US position on secessions depends on whether Washington likes the country affected. And Washington itself toyed with partitioning Iraq while it was a colonial possession.

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Related video:

Reuters: “Obama says Crimea referendum would violate international law”

49 Responses

  1. Good point. Given the tens of thousands killed in the Ukraine, as in those other places, how can we insist on the carnage continuing.

    • Tens of thousands have been killed in the Ukraine over this? I think I’ll need to see a source for that.

      • Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Examiner, December 9, 1854.

        It began with around 600 dead including the horses and has continued ever since.`

  2. Why would the Russians, already suffering resistance from the Chechens, want to bring another resentful Muslim constituency, the Tartars, under the tent again? They will abstain from the so-called referendum, and might be radicalized by their forced reabsorption into Russia.

    • Good point. Russia might just dragg themselves into years of guerilla war with the Tartars and ethnic Ukrainians.

  3. I think the real hangup is the nonproliferation treaty that the US, EU, and Russia all signed when Ukraine gave up their Nukes. All the countries agreed not to invade Ukraine’s sovereign borders at any future date. WH would probably like to honor that Treaty if possible bc he hates WMD of any type.

  4. Rob B

    And to be clear, love your work and writing most of the time, just think these two situations are easily distinguished.

  5. “The U.S. position on secessions depends on whether Washington likes the country affected.” In 1861, the southern half of the country seceding sure didn’t make Washington happy.

    I’m not so sure Washington sees the threat of Crimean secession in the same light since it will probably result in sanctions being placed on Russia. Claiming Putin invading Crimea is no different than what Hitler did in the late 30s as Hillary Clinton did last week, gives Washington another BAD GUY to take the place of Ahmadinejad.

    The new POTUS of Iran tweeting “Have a nice day” is NOT what the war hawks in D.C. want to hear.

    They need “BAD GUYS.”

    Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed Iran wants another HOLOCAUST, so the next U.S. POTUS saying Putin moves like Hitler fits right in since he also supports Iran.

    If nuclear negotiations with Iran fail, I can see a perfect shitstorm forming on the horizon.

    • I can actually see the comparison working (in actions, not persons, mind you) if we limit ourselves to the Sudetenland Crisis. The annexing of a strip of foreign territory on trumped up charges of ethnic repression is indeed very similar.

      However, it’s best to avoid dropping the H bomb even when two actions really are similar given the, um, unique nature of Hitler’s worldview. Just staying within Germany a much less inflammatory example would be Prussia’s annexation of Schleswig-Holstein from Denmark in the 1860s.

    • True. Washington had no problem with Texas seceding from Mexico in the 1840s; only dispute over slavery prevented that “republic” from becoming a state more quickly afterward. That’s the closest parallel I can see to the Crimea situation, but Russia has a deeper historic claim to Crimea than we did to Texas.

      • Deeper is a vague word but we did have a competing claim recognized by international law of the time for Texas: “Possession” The English and French argued over US territories on that basis. Each drew different maps–these would include expanded (competing) territories for ones subject natives. The whole west coast was once part of Virginia on King James parchment but no one took that seriously because all of whatever was out there was not possessed. Israel’s Occupation anticipates making the same sort of competing claim.

  6. What recent events in Ukraine show is that
    1- The Cold War is still very much with us and people on both sides of the fence are not willing to move on. The truly amazing propaganda on both sides harks back to the worst days of the Cold War.
    2- There is no limit to how far Western powers are prepared to go in order to weaken Russia. President Reagan promised Gorbachev on the eve of the breakup of the Soviet Union that NATO would not incorporate former Soviet republics. However, practically all East European members of the former Warsaw Pact are now NATO members, and now the West is even pushing to separate Ukraine that has a substantial number of Russian speakers and even ethnic Russians from Moscow.
    3- There is no concern for truth or human rights. The new tape that contains a conversation between EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and the Estonian foreign minister who has since confirmed the authenticity of the conversation shows that the snipers who shot at both the protestors and the police in Kiev were allegedly hired by Maidan leaders. This is a matter of great importance. It shows that the members of the new gang who have taken power in Ukraine committed crimes not only against members of the police, but also against ordinary unarmed civilians. Should this not be investigated and those responsible brought to book instead of serving in the new “democratic government”?
    4- The Nuland tape provides a rare glimpse into how the United States makes use of her diplomatic assets, the UN, vast funds (some five billion dollars according to Nuland’s admission elsewhere) and her European allies to get what she wants. It is interesting to note that the United States is pushing for the separation of Ukraine from Russia and incorporation into the EU even more than EU leaders want, and in Nuland’s words, “F… the EU”. Meanwhile, Ukraine needs some $35 billion to be bailed out, presumably by the EU.
    5- It shows that neocons are still very much at the heart of US Administration and their demise has been greatly exaggerated.
    6- Above all, and the most frightening aspect of recent events, is the fact that the neocons are prepared to drag the whole world to the brink of a major global confrontation in order to achieve their goals. I believe all of us should be concerned.

    • Very well said. Item 2. bears repeating with my emphasis:

      “2- There is no limit to how far Western powers are prepared to go in order to weaken Russia. President Reagan promised Gorbachev on the eve of the breakup of the Soviet Union that NATO would not incorporate former Soviet republics. However, practically all East European members of the former Warsaw Pact are now NATO members, <strong>and now the West is even pushing to separate Ukraine that has a substantial number of Russian speakers and even ethnic Russians from Moscow.”

  7. South Sudan is not to be compared at all. The vast majority of the south Sudanese wanted nothing to do with the kleptocracy and fundamentalist regime in Khartoum when it used food to convert them to Islam and this is coming from a Muslim by the way. It was also done after a long civil war in the Sudan always initiated by more kleptocrats.

    Being a failed state does not cut it and is irrelevant to the question of independence. One could argue that the nascent US may have gone the way of a failed state and certainly the civil war if the South had successeded would have ended another failed state and a dictatorship.

  8. Has there ever in American history been a time when hypocrisy was as rampant as it is now? The first colonists fleeing religious persecution in Europe didn’t take long to doing a little persecuting themselves. Then there were the slave owners who declared that all men are created equal with a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness when they had no intentions of freeing their slaves. That was hypocrisy then but nothing on today’s scale.

    • The subject of scale is akin to “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” You do understand that when Pandora opened the jar, that, in reality, there was nothing in it. That is not contrary to finding Hope in an empty box (jar really back then).

  9. Not really comparable situations, Juan.

    Look, I’m as lefty as they come — longtime reader, huge opponent of our Iraq adventure, and pretty critical of US foreign policy in general.

    But let’s not turn a blind eye on Russia’s actions here just because the US has also done some bad or stupid things. And let’s not forget that Putin’s Crimea ploy has brought about universal condemnation, including from virtually everyone who opposed the Iraq War.

    Regarding secession, you yourself have written about how harmful this notion of ethnic separation is. You’ve attacked people for suggesting breaking up Iraq, criticized people who proposed breaking up Libya. The notion of territorial sovereignty is a very legitimate one under international law.

    The reason the Yugoslav, Czech, and Soviet breakups were recognized internationally was because the constitutions of these states all permitted their republics a unilateral right to secede. In S. Sudan, there was a long-running civil war, and the Sudanese government consented to a referendum and independence for the South. (I agree it was unwise, though if I had to stay under Omar al-Bashir, I might have wanted out too.)

    Kosovo was admittedly a different case and a somewhat problematic precedent. But — although the situation wasn’t entirely black-and-white — there was a civil war, ethnic cleansing, and ultimately a separate UN administration. For all practical purposes, the country wasn’t going to reunite with Serbia. And the referendum was internationally-sponsored, and monitored by neutral observers.

    In Crimea, it would be a different situation if the Ukrainian government consented, or at least if there were neutral observers on the ground and some kind of international peacekeeping force. Instead, Russia invading a neighbor on flimsy pretexts, and is staging a rapid referendum without any neutral observers, unilaterally redrawing its boundaries. That’s a pretty dangerous precedent, and marks one of the very few times this has happened since the WWII era.

    • My point was not advocating the break-up of anything, but that secession has often been supported by the US when it suited US interests. Iraq wouldn’t vote as a whole to let Kurdistan go, and neither would the Sudanese people have wanted to lose the south.

  10. I’m so stupid. Can someone please explain to me why we care if Ukraine splits up? Why not just let them do it? What am I missing? No one seems to be talking about this at all that I can find…Thanks.

  11. I don’t necessarily disagree with you but isn’t it different for countries to be divided (all the examples you cite here) vs. voting to join another major power that has been very muscular in terms of expanding its sphere of influence?

    • it depends if you focus on Crimeans seceding or what they are seceding to. If the former, the analogies hold.

      • Step one, send people across border,
        Step two vote to secede from one state and join another
        (see, e. g. Antakya region voting to leave Syria for Turkey).

        Not comfortable at all with that.

      • You’re assuming a Crimean secession would be driven by the will of the Crimeans. I haven’t seen any evidence that there was a significant secession or join-Russia movement in Crimea prior to the occupation, it may have been a popular idea but not one that was a popular movement.

        Furthermore Putin doesn’t have a reputation for fair elections in his own country, I see no reason to believe the outcome in of the referendum will reflect a free and open vote.

  12. The U.S. likes the break-up of Arab Muslim states? How can you, as a supposed liberal, be in favor of a state with enormous diversity like Sudan defining itself solely on the basis of Arab ethnicity and Islam?

    Every single instance you cite that was supported by the U.S., the region in question that was struggling for autonomy had legitimate grievances against the central government. Even the previous Russian territorial grabs, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, came after the central governemnt in Georgia revoked the autonomy of those regions. The Abkhaz and the Ossetians are distinct ethnic groups by any metric.

    In the Crimea, the “prime minister” was installed after the Russians invaded. Russia guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons as a Soviet successor state.

    Your desire to paint the United States as an arsenal of hypocrisy is one reasons people roll their eyes when they hear the word “liberal”. The U.S. is hardly being hypocritical in this instance; it’s making the same calculation between standing up for admittedly muddled principles of international law and the mucher clearer principle of assessing if we have a dog in this fight. Unlike those other states, the Russian dictatorship isn’t a tin-pot one, and dealing with it effectively requires more analysis and nuance than your Glenn Greenwald impersonation allows.

    It’s obvious Ukraine is being violated here; it’s obvious that Russia is taking a play right out the Manual for Tsars. The liberal position is a thoughtful response that balances international law against the likely indifference of most Americans to get involved. There are more liberals than your blogger-professoriate so stop with your obnoxious anti-American posturing.

    Finally, the ignorance of the commenters comparing this obvious foreign invasion to the right of self-determination under the principles of the Declaration of Independence is pathetic. Read some American history.

    • Civil war is still occurring in Sudan, even on this very day, over various political, social, and cultural issues, including language and identity issues.

      South Kordofan, Darfur, and Blue Nile, three regions with non-Arab majorities, are riven with expanding conflicts involving rebels versus the state and its militia proxies. I would say that Sudan is not too far from becoming a failed state or is perhaps already one.

    • The political, economic, and social hegemony of certain Arab tribes in Sudan is still an issue in the country even without the South.

    • When people read the DOI they often overlook the part where it says that governments long established should not be overturned for “light and transient reasons” but only under extreme circumstances when all other options have been exhausted and when oppression has become unbearable. If that were the case in Crimea I think the pro-Russian party would have won more than 3/100 seats in the Crimean Parliament.

  13. ..and I’m sorry, but “it’s too complicated” is not a satisfying answer. Let the Russian-speaking majority vote a chunk of themselves into mother Russia..anyone that doesn’t like it can leave and Ukraine can continue on as a better integrated country. Why not?

    • I too have been using the (too-general) comment name “John” here for several months. Can agree that you (or both of us) use something more specific? Our distinct views will otherwise be confusing!

  14. Perhaps, as a gesture of good faith to promote a peaceful resolution, the US will give up its base at Guantanamo to encourage Russia to let go of its base at Sevastopol.

  15. Sad but true. Sad, but good that you say it, since so few will, based on the news reports I’ve seen and heard.

  16. Secession, or rather the right to a government established by the consent of the governed, is a human right and a great problem solver.

  17. I agree to a certain extent only. In Yugoslavia, Sudan or Iraq, the US approved the break-up, not sure it masterminded it like Putin does. Plus, the US bombed Serbia, invaded Iraq -provisionnally. But did not annex any part of these countries or make them the 51st State of the US.
    PS. Apart from this, I am a great fan of your very inspiring website.

  18. I can’t really speak to Sudan or Iraq, but I have quite a good knowledge of the Balkan conflicts and the comparison with Yugoslavia is really facile and ignorant at best.

    There were overwhelming indigenous majorities in Bosnia and Kosovo that desired independence from Serbia, to say nothing of Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia.

    No such majorities exist in the Crimea. The pro-Russian annexationist party had a grand total of three seats in the Crimea Parliament out of 100 before Russian intervention. Putin, of course, promptly installed this party as the new ruling party of Crimea after Russian troops invaded. Also, there was an ongoing genocide being perpetrated in Bosnia and Kosovo by the Milosevic government, there was no such ongoing genocide of Russians in Crimea. The only shots fired there so far have been into the air. To compare the Yugoslav conflicts to Crimea is laughable.

    • Kosovo is almost identical to Crimea. Almost 75% of Crimeans are ethnic Russians. Only difference is they haven’t began shooting at Ukrainians. Your post suggests they have to start killing Ukrainins to get their demands the way Albanians did in Kosovo.

      • That’s nice, but there was a genocide being perpetrated against Albanians in Kosovo. There is no ongoing genocide of ethnic Russians in Crimea. Not even RT would say something that outrageous.

      • “Almost 75% of Crimeans are ethnic Russians.”

        And, despite these numbers. the pro-Russian annexationist party in the Crimean Parliament had exactly 3 seats out of 100 in the Crimean Parliament pre-invasion. Support inside Crimea for Russian annexation was a fringe, kook element, analogous to something like the Alaska Independence Party or Vermont secessionists in the USA.

        That is nothing like the overwhelming support inside Kosovo for independence after the attempted genocide by the Milosevic government.

  19. I can’t really speak to Sudan or Iraq, but I have quite a good knowledge of the Balkan conflicts and the comparison with Yugoslavia is face and ignorant at best.

    There were huge, indegenous majorites in Bosnia and Kosovo that desired independence from Serbia, to say nothing of Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia.

    No such majorities exist in the Crimea. The pro-Russian annexationist party had a grand total of three seats in the Crimea Parliament out of 100 before Russian intervention. Putin, of course, promptly installed this party as the new ruling party of Crimea after Russian troops invaded. Also, there was an ongoing genocide being perpetrated in Bosnia and Kosovo by the Milosevic government, there was no such ongoing genocide of Russians in Crimea. The only shots fired there so far have been into the air. To compare the Yugoslav conflicts to Crimea is laughable.

    I can say a lot about US foreign policy but in the Balkan conflicts the US was in the right.

  20. Let us remember, that Crimea was 60 years ago (in 1954) transferred from Russia to Ukraine in an internal Soviet deal under their Ukrainian leader, who followed that even more famous Georgian Soviet leader. Until 90’s that all was Soviet Union. Crimea was never a part of the old “historical” Ukraine. Crimean Khanate, an Ottoman protectorate, ruled Crimea and Ukraine was part of Poland in the last decades of 18 century. Russians annexed the Crimean Khanate in 1783. Russians , not Ukrainians.

    • And there are large chunks of Russia that used to belong to Poland. “Kalingrad” is historically the German city of Konigsbrug.

      Do we really want to start litigating borders in Eastern Europe again? That generally doesn’t end well.

    • How about Transylvania? Should Hungary be able to annex it from Romania as it is historically part of Hungary?

      What about the western coast of Turkey and Istanbul? “Historically” Greek, yeah? Or for that matter all of Anatolia which the Greeks ruled for far longer than the Turks have.

      You can see why revising borders based on historical claims is a very nasty slippery slope given the history of Europe.

  21. “Explaining US hypocrisy on Ukraine: U.S. government hypocrisy toward the Ukraine crisis has been breathtaking, as has the U.S. press corps’ stubborn refusal to see the hypocrisy (i.e. the Iraq War and many other U.S. interventions). William Blum looks at the reasons behind the double standards”. – link to consortiumnews.com

  22. From Eric Margolis:

    “The US won’t accept that Russia has any legitimate spheres of influence, while Washington’s span the globe. Last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry, who used to be a sensible fellow before becoming corrupted by power, blasted Russia: “you just don’t invade a country under a phony pretext!”

    “I guess Kerry has never heard of the US invasions of the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Libya. Or can’t remember Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin “incident.”

    “Kerry should cut the hypocrisy and get to work on a diplomatic settlement. Two major nuclear-armed powers cannot – must not – be allowed to confront one another.” – link to commondreams.org

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