The West’s Dangerous Game in Ukraine

National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action. . . .

Woodrow Wilson with his famous self-determination speech on 11 February 1918 after he announced his Fourteen Points on 8 January 1918.

Secessionist movements are nothing new to history and have been endorsed in the past, by some great statesmen such as US president Woodrow Wilson. Yet the upcoming Crimean referendum is given much attention by the west, almost as if it were setting some dangerous precedent and had to be interdicted. Or as if it were a unique case, which it isn’t. Why now?  Or why is the west so eager to nip in the bud the potential for the formation of a “break away state” in the Crimean peninsula?  Possibly because Western powers who with vehemence and vituperation (unmatched in shrillness even during the worst days of the cold war) are denouncing the upcoming referendum on the possible formation of an independent or quasi-sovereign region in Ukraine, are themselves, dealing with secessionist movements at home.

For instance, the United Kingdom has to grapple with the unpalatable possibility of Scotland splitting away from the rest of the unitary state later this year.  For its part, Canada (with almost one millions people of Ukrainian decent) is one of the most vocal opponents to the Crimean referendum. Yet it is presently dealing with a revival of a home-grown, separatist threat in Quebec.  The majority French-speaking province is presently immersed in an unexpected election campaign, which might return a nationalist party back to power with a potential majority. If this occurs, then some ardent nationalists might interpret the re-election of the Parti Québécois as a prelude to a third referendum on independence. Ottawa naturally is on high alert to this potential outcome.

The US also one of the loudest voices in the anti- referendum chorus has seen secessionist threats of its own in the past and also in the present. During the 19th century there was the civil war. And we all know how Washington dealt with that situation: it was crushed in a bloody prolonged conflict, which traumatised the nation and scarred its memory forever.  Furthermore, the US today is not totally immune to separatist-nationalist scenarios in the making. Witness the revival of the Puerto Rican nationalist-independence movement.

The referendum conundrum… A glaring hypocrisy, or why is “What’s good for the gander also good for the goose”?

If we look at precedents or precursors to independence or statehood, then referendums are the logical way to go. Kosovo in 1991 had an infamous referendum, which was meant to tear that territory away from Serbia. This move subsequently resulted in the US and NATO-led bombing of Serbia. After the war Kosovo declared independence. The new state was almost overnight recognised by the US, UK and Canada and others such as Germany, which participated in prosecuting the Balkan war; a conflict which resulted in bloodletting not seen since the Second World War in Europe. In the case of Bosnia it also held a referendum, which triggered the break up of ex-Yugoslavia. The US for purely geopolitical gain and in a strategy designed to further Balkanise the region, recognised the new state and even exerted great pressure on its western European allies to do the same, despite some well-founded reservations.

Thus paradoxically, the same Western powers which today adamantly refuse to recognise the right to self-determination (or the right to hold a democratic consultation in Crimea on its sovereign status) were previously, the main actors advocating precisely such referendums before, during, and after the Balkans conflict during the 1990s.  Not to be outdone by it all, Western capitals are now busy fanning the flames of nationalists’ (aka neo-Nazi revanchists posing as moderates) fervour in western Ukraine again, while decrying similar movements in the eastern part of the country. They are playing a very duplicious game indeed.

On the receiving side of some nasty nationalist revivals, and deeply irked by the extremist Russo-phobic rhetoric coming out of the new regime’s mouthpieces (installed and backed by foreign entities), the Russian speaking peoples in Crimea are naturally seeking either more autonomy or a re-unification with Russia. (Which reminds us of German reunification which was supported by the US.) So why not let them decide for themselves instead of meddling in internal matters of sovereign states? To paraphrase an American president and famous cold war warrior: Let the democratic process play out in Crimea, Mr. Obama!

As for the EU, its member states had several referendums on particular treaties. The Irish held such votes after refusing twice in their public consultations to approve the Nice and Lisbon treaties. It took three until they agreed to all EU provisions imposed by Brussels. The French in 2005 voted in a referendum and rejected modifications to the EU’s constitution. The Netherlands did the same thing that year. Hence the EU member states, which are quick to condemn the Crimean referendum, should keep in mind that not only EU citizens have the right to decide on their own future, participation and destiny within the EU, but so too do the Russian speaking Ukrainians as well.

While openly thwarting secessionist forces in Crimea, the west has also fuelled the flames of nationalism in recent memory when it suited the “great powers” to do so. Therefore vocal support of Ukraine’s “territorial integrity and unity” by western leaders rings a hollow or empty echo.

Michael Werbowski is a graduate of post communist studies from the University of Leeds, UK. Read other articles by Michael.