Selective Interpretations of Declarations of Independence

In February 2008 the ethnically Albanian province of Kosovo declared itself to be separate from Serbia of which it had been part for sixty years.  There was no referendum on sovereignty by its 2.1 million inhabitants. The declaration was greeted with warm approval by the United States.

In March 2014 the ethnically Russian province of Crimea declared itself to be separate from Ukraine of which it had been part for sixty years.  There was a referendum on sovereignty by its 2.4 million inhabitants. The declaration was strongly condemned by the United States.

Six months before Kosovo declared independence from Serbia US President Bush said that “At some point in time, sooner rather than later, you’ve got to say ‘Enough is enough. Kosovo is independent’ and that’s the position we’ve taken.”  Immediately after Crimea declared independence from Ukraine US President Obama stated “We’ve seen an illegal referendum in Crimea.”

For once it seems that Bush had international law on his side, albeit entirely by accident, because in 2010 the UN International Court’s Advisory Opinion concerning Kosovo indicated that “international law contains no prohibition on declarations of independence,” which was clear-cut endorsement of Kosovo’s declaration.  But the US administration has its own priorities regarding potential breakaway territories elsewhere in the world and was at pains to emphasize that “the court’s opinion was closely tailored to the unique circumstances of Kosovo. It doesn’t set any precedent for other regions or states.”  It was not explained why Kosovo’s declaration of independence should not be a model for the rest of the world, in spite of a most important Declaration of July 4, 1776 which stated that sometimes

. . .  in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . .

According to the Obama administration the declaration of independence by Crimea was entirely different to that of Kosovo.  But so far as international justice and practicalities are concerned it is difficult to understand why Washington makes such a claim because the great majority of Crimean people are just as non-Ukrainian as the great majority of people of Kosovo are non-Serb, and separation of both countries from the larger entities to which they belonged was a blessing for the vast majority of their citizens who are now content with their chosen form of governance.

90 percent of the inhabitants of Crimea are Russian-speaking,  Russian-cultured and  Russian-educated, and they decided to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” in order to join Russia.  It would be strange if they did not vote for accession to a country that welcomes their kinship, empathy and loyalty — and, of great importance, is economically benevolent concerning their future.

There were energetic attempts in the west to paint the post-accession treatment of Ukrainian military personnel in Crimea as harsh, but at least there was honesty enough in some newspapers to refrain from deliberate lies, with even the ultra-right British Daily Telegraph recording that “Like many of the Ukrainian servicemen in Crimea, the 600-strong marine battalion in Feodosia has strong local links. Many of the men are either local recruits or have served here so long they have put down roots. Only about 140 of the 600-strong battalion stationed here are expected to return to Ukraine. The remainder, with local family and friends, have opted to remain in Crimea — the land they call home.”

There was no carnage in Crimea, much to the disappointment, vexation and frustration of those in the west who wished otherwise,  and the only death recorded by the vigilant western media was that of one marine officer who was shot in mysterious circumstances. Nor was there a single case of bloodshed in the run-up to the plebiscite, the free vote as to whether the population wished to accede to Russia or support the “status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine.”  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was asked by the government of Crimea to send representatives to monitor the referendum but refused to do so.

The referendum was well-run and even the most critical western journalists could not find anything wrong with its conduct. There were no hanging chads or Afghanistan-style thousands of fake votes, although they did report that some voting booth curtains were colored red, which was apparently considered to be pro-Russia; but this was all the shock horror they could come up with.

Why should there be any objection to two million people voting for independence from a state that loathes them and making it clear that they wished to once again be part of a supportive and culturally-friendly country that would welcome their re-accession?  Surely, in this world in which there are so many groups of ethnic peoples wishing to better their circumstances but are denied the facility to do so, mostly in dire circumstances, it would be reasonable to welcome instances in which such groups can peacefully achieve their desires?

In June 2014 President Obama declared that “we will not accept Russia’s occupation of Crimea” but did not say what he intends to do to reverse the free and open accession of the Crimean people to Russia.  Does he for one moment imagine that his much-publicized goal of  “a Europe that is whole and free and at peace” would be closer if Crimea were to be wrenched from Russia and given to Ukraine?  Does he seriously think that if Ukraine took over Crimea there would be any possibility that its inhabitants would, in the words of his own nation’s Declaration of Independence,  enjoy “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”?

And if Mr Obama “will not accept” the fact that Crimea has acceded to Russia by the popular wish of 90 percent of its citizens, what is he going to do about it?  How is he going to take Crimea from Russia, against the wishes of its people, and give it to Ukraine?   Has he thought about what would happen if two million people who have made it clear that they do not want to be ruled by Ukraine, were suddenly ordered to accept rule by Ukraine?  And who would give such an order?

The ill-advised US-led NATO confrontation with Russia over Ukraine is entirely counter-productive. The West’s anti-Russia sanctions are a farce — and they are costing Europe a fortune.  (There is no adverse impact on the US economy.)

Obama’s aggressively anti-Russian speeches in the UN General Assembly and other forums have been needlessly confrontational — and they won’t be forgotten by the Russian people who don’t appreciate such absurdly bellicose slogans as “the United States is and will remain the one indispensable nation in the world.”  This immature approach to international relations has become the hallmark of administrations in Washington and although regarded with hilarity by many millions around the world is nonetheless patronizing, supercilious and offensive.

America, the great country which taught the world that “in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” has debased itself by selective interpretation of the reasons for its very foundation.  In modern times the US does not support declarations of independence, no matter how morally justifiable and practically desirable they might be, if they do not fit in with its policy of self-appointed indispensability. A spirit of compromise and understanding appears to be as remote in Washington as does willingness to cease its increasingly virulent anti-Russia campaign of invective and confrontation.  If Washington had its way, the citizens of Crimea would be forced to accept rule by an alien nation. All in the name of freedom.

Brian Cloughley is a former soldier who lives in France.


Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.