The European Union and the United States have heavily criticised Russia’s involvement in Crimea, ahead of a referendum on the region’s possible secession from Ukraine on 16 March. Valerie Pacer writes that while Vladimir Putin has attempted to justify Russian intervention in Ukraine as compatible with international law, his statements completely contradict his previous arguments on western interventions in countries such as Libya and Iraq. She argues that Putin’s prior perspectives on national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and international law no longer seem to be valid if he feels Russia’s interests are threatened.
With Crimea serving as the headquarters for the Russian Black Sea Fleet and with its large ethnically Russian population, the importance of the Crimean peninsula to Russia cannot be overstated. When then-President Medvedev signed the agreement which extended the stationing of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea until 2042, Putin (then-Prime Minister) stated that ‘it would be possible to build several bases with this money’ but that cooperation with Ukraine was more important.
The current situation in Ukraine whereby Russia has, in the words of an unnamed U.S. official, ‘complete operational control of the Crimean peninsula’, marks a clear shift away from Putin’s long-standing arguments in favour of international law, national sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and shows a new assertiveness in Russian foreign policy. On 4 March Putin stood before the press and shared his perspective on Ukraine. Throughout the lengthy press conference, Putin contradicted many of his old arguments regarding these points in an attempt to support his position on Crimea.
Putin’s justification for action in Crimea
Putin argued that Yanukovych was still president of Ukraine and called what had happened in Kiev ‘an anti-constitutional takeover, an armed seizure of power.’ Although the unconstitutional removal of Yanukovych might justify Putin’s support of him, it does not, in itself, provide a rationale for Russia’s military actions. Later Putin stated that Yanukovych had ‘no political future’. Putin is willing to state that Yanukovych is president, even knowing that Yanukovych is powerless, because it means he can claim Russian actions in Crimea have presidential approval.