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Self-determination in Ukraine should cut both ways

Glaring double standards continue to undermine the credibility of Western diplomacy across much of the world

EuropeWar Zones

The Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia, Bulgaria, a day after it had been painted in the colours of the Ukrainian national flag. Photo by Vassia Atanassova/Wikimedia Commons.

There has been an awful lot written in the Canadian and wider Western press since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine about how the Ukrainian people should be able to determine their own future⁠—a future tied with the West, the European Union and NATO. Little has however been written about the ‘right’ of those in eastern Ukraine⁠, and in particular the Donbas and Crimea⁠, to determine their futures. The selective application of the notion of self-determination is just one of many areas in which the West undermines the credibility⁠ of its diplomacy—and the chances of a lasting peace in many parts of the world.

In the recent past the West has proven willing to support the ‘right’ to self-determination of minorities within larger entities where there has been a degree of hostility towards the larger of the two. Here an obvious case would be the ‘right’ of Kosovans to separate from the larger Serbia. However, where the ‘big’ guy is deemed to be the ‘good’ guy, self-determination for the smaller entity can often be all but thrown out of the window, as in the case of Israel and the Palestinians. Such double standards have already undermined Western credibility in the Middle East, but the double standards in play over the war in Ukraine threaten to further undermine a Western credibility on the subject that is tenuous at best.

The issue of self determination is often a little bit like opening a series of nesting Russian dolls. The larger doll is often the entity suppressing the minority—represented by the next doll down in size—but that doll often contains a smaller one that is being suppressed by its larger predecessor. So for example, in the case of Kosovo Serbs, they might see themselves as being subject to repression on the part of Kosovo, where a wider Kosovo saw itself as under the thumb of Serbia. This is also clearly the case in Ukraine, where although many Ukrainians see themselves as being under the yoke of a larger Russian tyrant, there are of course many in eastern Ukraine and Crimea who even before 2014 and the Euromaidan ‘revolution’ or ‘coup’ looked elsewhere to support their way of life and worldview—in their case towards Russia.

We do not have perfect information on the opinions of populations across the globe, but we do have strong evidence that large segments of the populations of Crimea and the Donbas would prefer to be part of Russia rather than a Ukraine that is seeking to distance itself from her. From the Soviet referendum of 1991 on the preservation of the Soviet Union to pre-2014 election results in Ukraine—all the evidence points to a majority of the population in those regions wanting to be part of the Russian world.

Unsurprisingly, back in 1991, 87.6 percent of voters in Crimea voted for the preservation of the Soviet Union—with the figures for Donetsk and Luhansk being 84.6 and 86.3 percent, respectively. The difference between these regions and those in the west of the country was dramatic, with only 18.2 percent voting for the preservation of the USSR in the Ivano-Frankivsk region and, lowest of all, 16.4 percent in the Lviv region. Moving forward in time, pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich received 61.1 percent of the vote during the first round of elections in Crimea in 2010 and an even more impressive 76.0 and 71.1 percent in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, respectively, compared to only 5.1 percent in Ivano-Frankivsk and 5.7 percent in Lviv.

Map showing the 2010 Ukrainian presidential election results. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Ukrainian policies to destroy Russian-related heritage and ban any political party guilty of pro-Russian sentiment—combined with attacks on the Russian language that pre-date the Russian invasion—can only strengthen pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian nationalist sentiment in those areas in which Russophile sentiment has traditionally been strong.

In the unlikely event of a Russian military collapse in Ukraine many Western leaders fully support Volodymyr Zelensky’s war aim to recapture not only that territory lost to Russia since February 2022, but since 2014. With those areas containing as a minimum a majority of sorts favouring close ties with Russia, their incorporation into Ukraine could only lead to a Palestine and Israel-like scenario there.

Given that prior to the Russian invasion Ukraine proved unwilling to grant meaningful autonomy to the separatist regions as part of the Minsk Accords of 2014-5 (and steps taken in Ukraine since then to promote Ukrainian language and culture at the expense of Russian) any re-capture of pro-Russian territory would likely result in local opposition to Ukrainian rule and end in the sort of repressive measures against the population that the West claims is Russia’s forte. Crimea and parts of the Donbas might become something akin to a second Palestine and Gaza strip.

There aren’t any Western leaders of note suggesting that in such an unlikely event the people of the Donbas and Ukraine should have the right to choose their own affiliations. On current reckoning such populations wouldn’t even be able to turn to the supposedly democratic Ukrainian political system since all political parties with even a whiff of connection to Russia (and some others simply on the left of the political spectrum) have been banned outright.

It is very unlikely that Russia will lose Crimea, or those areas of the Donbas that broke away from Ukraine and held off Ukrainian attempts to forcibly re-incorporate them between 2014 and 2022. However, for the West to be supporting the idea that they should be recaptured by and forcibly re-incorporated into Ukraine—without even attempting to find out whether their populations want that—is just another indicator of the sort of double standards than have and continue to undermine the credibility of Western diplomacy across much of the world.

Professor Alexander Hill teaches at the University of Calgary, and is a leading expert on the military and political history of Russia and the Soviet Union since 1917.

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