Russian Annexation of Crimea, Israeli Annexation of Palestine

(By Juan Cole)

Russia’s annexation of Crimea on Tuesday is among the few significant territorial acquisitions since the end of World War II by one country from another, more or less by force. The only clear parallel I can think of in the post-War period is the Israeli annexation of the Palestinian territories in 1967.

Imperialism, or the expansion of territory by force, was common prior to WW II. The US, after all, annexed Hawaii in the 1890s, and did so through a conspiracy of some naval officers and colonial planters in the face of opposition from the Hawaiian royal family, most Hawaiians, and other concerned countries such as Meiji Japan. Axis sticky fingers in the 1930s and 1940s finally gave imperialism a bad name. After the end of World War II, the countries that formed the United Nations forbade in its charter the acquisition of territory by force.

Russia’s actions are illegal in international law. The Crimean assembly that voted to hold a referendum was not representative. The referendum on Sunday was held under conditions of Russian military occupation and cannot be certified as meeting international standards for elections. The statistics put out about turnout and outcome are suspicious. Still, the annexation is ambiguous. Crimea had been Russian territory since the late 18th century and was only attached to Ukraine by Khrushchev in the 1950s, at a time when Russia and Ukraine were part of the same country. Whatever the status of Sunday’s referendum, it seems likely that if Crimeans could vote fairly and freely, a majority would probably accede to Russia.

The major annexations in the post-War period have involved decolonization. Thus, India annexed Goa from the Portuguese empire in 1961, maintaining that it was Indian territory that Portugal had usurped. Morocco annexed the Spanish Sahara when Spain relinquished it.

These post-War annexations involved what was seen by the annexing country as a reclaiming of territory that had long belonged to it. The annexing country bestowed citizenship on the people of the territory (whether they wanted it or not).

Unlike these annexations is Israel’s taking of the West Bank and Gaza. These territories were not awarded to Israel in the 1947 UN General Assembly partition plan. Israel had no legal claim on them. They were taken in a war (1967) in which Israel fired the first shot and so could be seen as the aggressor. Israel did not offer the inhabitants of these territories citizenship in Israel (this is the key difference with episodes such as Western Sahara, which Israeli apologists instance, not to mention that the Moroccan crown had ruled that territory before European colonialism detached it).

Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights and the Shebaa Farms from Syria, and has colonized the West Bank with an eye to incorporating it, or most of it, into Israel. It detached some of the West Bank and annexed it to its district of Jerusalem. Israeli arguments that the Palestinian territories didn’t clearly belong to any other state is disingenuous. The 1939 British White Paper promised Palestine independence as a country by 1949. The UN Charter does not allow territorial acquisition by force, period. These steps are more egregious than Russia’s incorporation of Crimea. No local populations in any of those areas would vote to accede to Israel. The Palestinians are being kept stateless and without rights by the Israelis.

Unlike with Mr. Putin, the US has not imposed sanctions on Israel for its territorial aggrandizement, and instead has de facto supported it to the hilt.


AFP: “Thousands take to West Bank streets to support Abbas”

24 Responses

  1. It seems to me that in saying the Crimea has been Russian territory since the late 18th century, not enough is made of the fact that Russians were a very clear minority in the region until Stalin ethnically cleansed the bulk of the majority Tatar population during World War II (this on top of starving half the population to death between 1922 and 1933). Is this crime being ignored simply because it makes the story too complex to talk about.?

  2. I am not sure I agree that no Palestinians would vote to accede to Israel. I believe a substantial minority have given up all hope of a real two state solution , and favor a single state with citizenship and full political, civil, and human rights for all.

  3. If we start going over population transfers, immigrations, and colonizations, this issue will never resolve. Where is the statute of limitations drawn? A hundred years ago? Ten? Two hundred? Americans better be careful how they define this, since most of North America belonged to Indian tribes not so very long ago. Perhaps the US should evacuate non-Native Americans from the Dakotas, Oklahoma, much of the Great Plains and Southwest, at the least, and return it to indigenous inhabitants? That’s not gonna happen, so the moral high ground here is very murky.

    I recall India absorbing Sikkim; Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and still controls a third of that island via a puppet regime; there have been break-ups of established states into new states (USSR, Czechoslovakia, Bangladesh, Eritrea), sometimes with violence. We may come to see this era of relatively stable borders as an anomaly rather than a new standard.

      • Perhaps. But I can’t help but feel that international law is often a toothless beast when there is no reliable enforcement mechanism. As long as NATO and the UN serve the wishes of American geo-political interests, as I would argue they generally do, international law is too often a smokescreen for the powerful to do as they please, and the weak accept what they must accept. Otherwise, a lot of the Bush II administration would be at The Hague right now in the docket.

      • One says “international law,” and no arguing that there’s a large body of commentary and jurisprudence under that heading. However:.

        There’s a lot of definitions of “law” out there to choose from, here’s just one:

        the principles and regulations established in a community by some authority and applicable to its people, whether in the form of legislation or of custom and policies recognized and enforced by judicial decision.

        A fundamental part of “law” is enforcement, of something that “a community” accepts is applicable and binding. As an aspiration (this from a person who used to belong to international-law groups in less cynical times), the concept is inspirational. In practice, in reality, where’s the community, the body of written or unwritten rules, and the remedies for the manifold and manifest breach of what are at least sort of generally agreed ought to be those rules? No remedy, no rule.

        I wish it were otherwise, and agree with your apparent holding that maintaining even a fiction that there are such limits to arbitrary power is valuable, to the possibility of us humans and our “community” doing better in the future, or to engaging public sentiment and opinion (as much as those have any power over Power any more) in current “cases.” No illusions, though…

  4. Oh, and I just remembered how the Argentines attempted to take the Falklands by force and force the British to accept a fait accompli. The Argentine position seems to be that geographical proximity trumps the rights of the islanders to self-determination. And they evidently have not abandoned that stance. Nor has mainland China forsworn their “right” to conquer Taiwan by force if they so choose.

    • To be fair, China only became two separate nations as a result of their civil war which de facto ended with both sides claiming sole legitimacy as the only governing body of all China.

      Technically speaking, the two factions are still at war over total control of a single Chinese nation.

  5. In his book “The Case Against Israel” Michael Neuman essentially advocated forgetting the law and, instead, focus on the morality of Israel’s actions. There is much to be said for this approach in the case of Crimea/Ukraine and other issues, especially when so many participants pick and choose when and which laws to apply and to ignore.

  6. Israel did NOT annex the West Bank and Gaza, only areas of East Jerusalem and the Golan. That, I think, makes it “worse” than Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Russia will presumably extend citizenship rights to Crimeans, as Israel did with the inhabitants of the territory that they DID annex. But I see Israel ruling the West Bank without giving Palestinians there a say in that rule as more problematical than the Crimean situation.

  7. Difficult…I guess the guys with the bigger guns do as they please..Jordan lost the territory in67..except for Jerusalem,most of the lost land was occupied by non Israeli Arabs…where Crimea is heavy Russian…then again America had zero whites…then one considers the 3000 yr Jewish claim on all Palestine…you have a riddle wrapped up in a puzzle..there is nothing but turmoil ahead..the only real time answer would be Israel running out all of the Arabs…that would solve one problem…but lead to worse ones…so jawboning we are left with

  8. Oh well! Coup De Etat by the USA in Haiti, twice and in Honduras once don’t count? How about the Grenada invasion? Stay in the present Juan: Iraq and Afghanistan illegal invasions and occupations! And Israel even helped S. Africa during Apartheid…enough said. Oh I forgot, NATO=USA pushing and pushing against Russia’s borders should count in the strategic maneuvers for world domination by the USA!!

  9. I would argue that the Isr/Pal analogy is backwards. The Israelis came from Europe into the ME, and took the land from the historical inhabitants. Crimea was only recently ‘gifted’ (some say in a drunken moment) to Ukraine – itself only a recent creation in history. How can you say that this annexation was by ‘force’, when a clear overwhelming 97% majority voted to return to Russia? I remember the voting in Gaza re: Hamas, and that majority was rejected also.

  10. “International Law” seems to be pretty much a term of convenience used to legitimize any stance one wishes to take. In this instance, you (and the West) claim that the Crimean vote to join Russia is ‘illegal’ under “International Law” while, Russia & Crimea insist that the Kiev putsch & resultant coup government (much like that of Honduras some years back) is ‘illegal’ under “International Law”. And, since the World Court hasn’t offered an unsolicited opinion (who’s going to ask and be told it’s their actions that are illegal?), nobody’s convincingly wrong. I will note, however, contrary Juan’s assertion that the Crimean vote wasn’t legitimate, international observers from many outside nations found it to be just that; free, fair, without evidence of coercion or occupation. By the way, outside of assertions by those in the west regarding the ‘Russian Invasion of Ukraine’ has anyone seen a photo or video of demonstrably Russian forces anywhere they’re not allowed by treaty? Seems odd to me, in these day’s of ubiquitous cellphone cameras capable of HD quality video at the push of a button, that nobody’s showing videos of Russian tanks streaming through the Fulda Gap… oops, sorry wrong cold war. And, while there are lots of photos of troops (both regular & otherwise) outfitted in Russian-type uniforms, operating Russian equipment, considering the prior Eastern Block nations still operate Russian equipment, it’s hardly surprising that they all look Russian. Perhaps what we’re really seeing here is another example of NeoCon overreach (they’ve never seen a regime they didn’t think they could change for their better profits) and since USAID & IRI (among others) have been there “promoting democracy” for the six months prior to the revolt and funding nascent ‘democrats’ with millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, what we’re really seeing is another NeoCon plan playing out just like their prior plans (e.g.; Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseum).

  11. Don’t forget Indonesia’s take over of Aceh, Papua(with a deeply flawed UN “vote”), Maluccan Islands, and East Timor. Most of these are analagous to western sahara, except that any claim that Java or an Indonesian state ruled these areas prior to Dutch rule, are specious. Kashmir should also be thrown into the mix. Ethiopia and Eritrea had a border war fighting for territory. South Sudan and Sudan fighting over a border could also be added.

  12. 270,000 Tartars live in communities in Uzbekistan, and western Siberia. Russia could offer the exiled Tartar lands as a swap for the Crimea. Ukraine, like Palestine could exist as a geographically speckled country.

  13. Russia’s actions are illegal in international law.

    No they are not. Crimea’s actions may have been, depending on how you feel about the legitimacy of popular rebellions. Crimea underwent a revolution in which it broke free of Ukraine. The revolution was successful, no violent resistance from the Ukrainian military. Russia redeployed troops legally in Crimea to aid Crimean self-defense forces in their efforts to establish control over military facilities. The latter did violate the terms of their deployment agreement with Ukraine, but that’s pretty small potatoes. After the referendum, the newly independent Crimea asked to become part of Russia and Russia accepted that request. If Crimea had become a legitimate independent state — and who are we to say it’s revolution was illegitimate? — then it can’t be illegal simply to accept such a request.

    The Crimean assembly that voted to hold a referendum was not representative.

    No, it was the elected parliament and 78 out of a 100 voted in favor of holding the referendum and union with Russia.

    The referendum on Sunday was held under conditions of Russian military occupation and cannot be certified as meeting international standards for elections.

    The main ‘occupiers’ of Crimea were its self-defense forces, consisting mainly of former members of the Ukraine armed forces. They were assisted by some of the Russian forces legally in Crimea under a prior agreement with Ukraine. I agree on the standards, but if that’s all you have it’s just quibbling: Crimeans showed their overwhelming desire to unite with Russia.

  14. Juan Cole, what about China’s grab of Tibet, and the genocide that has taken place there? I think this would easily be a third case but it’s often not mentioned, for some reason.

  15. Juan Cole,

    You are missing a couple more too:

    Any thoughts on the Turkish occupation of Eastern Cyprus?

    Any thoughts on the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara?

  16. “International Law” might not have become such a joke if the strongest nation actually respected it. By the standards of foriegn troops invalidating elections, how many Washington puppet regimes would be affected?

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