The Crimean peninsula was in the news in mid-December. Its so-called prime minister, Aksyonov, had traveled with his new boss, Vladimir Putin, to India for some type of negotiations involving economic cooperation between India and Crimea. India remains one of very few countries willing to enter into bilateral relations with Mr. Putin and Russia. The Indian position is that the USSR, and now Russia, have always stood by India in its conflict with Pakistan, so India will support Russia indiscriminately.
Crimea had hardly been mentioned in news stories since its forcible annexation by Russia, save for human rights violations allegations by the Russians against the indigenous Tatar population. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko insists that Crimea will return to Ukraine, but nothing is being done in that regard. Ukraine has its hands full. Enter a bevy of Western problem solvers suggesting that Ukraine consider Crimea irretrievable and abandon any aspirations for its return. Instead Ukraine should concentrate on its military problem with Russia in the Donbas and its economic woes, their thinking goes.
Contrary to the propaganda, Russia does not have much of a history in Crimea. In fact, its initial connection came about only in 1783 when Russia invaded Crimea and annexed it to the Russian empire the following year. Until that time Crimea had been inhabited and ruled by local tribes with people from the Kyivan state transacting trade and settling there until 1239, when it was invaded by the Tatars. In the 15th century the Tatar Khanate became a vassal of the Turkish empire.
With Russian rule in the late 18th century, Crimea first belonged to the Katerynoslav Province, which is presently Ukraine; later Crimea, then known as Tavridia, became its own province as part of the empire. In 1918, when Ukraine proclaimed its independence, Crimea was considered a part of Ukraine. However, as the Bolsheviks overran Ukraine and the USSR was formed, Crimea was annexed to the Russian SSR. In 1944 Stalin directed an ethnic cleansing of Crimea, deporting its Tatar population and settling ethnic Russians there. In 1954, the RSFSR ceded Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR, since Crimea needed substantial economic and administrative attention and the RSFSR was not in a geographic position to provide that. Since then, Crimea was part of the Ukrainian SSR; and from 1991, a part of independent Ukraine.
The Helsinki Final Act of 1975, to which the USSR was not only a signatory but one of its main advocates, lists 10 principles in its “Declaration on Principles Guiding Relations Between Participating States.” Among them are: sovereign equality; respect for the rights inherent in sovereignty; refraining from the threat or use of force; territorial integrity of states; peaceful settlement of disputes; non-intervention in internal affairs; respect for human rights. The Ukrainian SSR was not a separate signatory, but was ostensibly included through the signature of Leonid Brezhnev on behalf of the USSR. The Helsinki Accords did not have treaty status.
In 1997 Russia and Ukraine – now two entirely separate and sovereign entities – entered into a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership. The treaty hearkened back to the Helsinki Accords, “upholding the obligations that have been adopted within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.” Article 3 of the treaty mirrored the Helsinki Final Act Declaration almost word for word: respect for “sovereign equality, territorial integrity, the inviolability of borders, the peaceful settlement of disputes, the non-application of force,… nonintervention in internal affairs, the upholding of human rights etc.”
Which part of Helsinki or the Friendship Treaty did Vladimir Putin not understand or respect? Apparently, all of it. With arrogant disregard, Russia and Mr. Putin flouted international accords, bilateral treaties, international norms and law commonly adhered to by civilized societies.
Yet Mr. Putin has found appeasing accomplices in the West so much so that even Ukraine’s neighbors are fearful. Just ask Poland, the Baltic states and others. Suggesting that Ukraine agree to relinquish its rights under international accords, bilateral treaties and international law, nullifies more that half a century of progress in establishing a civilized world community. Additionally it condemns Ukrainian citizens of various ethnicities, Ukrainians, Tatars and even good Russians, to seek refuge in a life of exile or live in servitude to the Russian oppressor.
Furthermore, it condones the ethnic cleansing of Tatars from 1944 and today’s aggression, killing and a renewed effort at making Crimea Russian at the cost of other nationalities. These are not simply diplomatic transgressions or bad behavior but crimes against humanity. Mr. Putin and the Russians are known for that. Just ask the Tatars, Ukrainians, Poles, Balts, Georgians, Circassians, Buryats, Ingush, Karelians, etc. I could go on.
Askold S. Lozynskyj is an attorney based in New York City. He is a former president of the Ukrainian World Congress.