On May 9, the Russian-language service of RT published a story featuring comments made by U.S. State Department Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker. Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. on May 7, Volker said:
“We will say one thing, they (the Russians) will say otherwise (regarding the prospects for returning Crimea), but then we’ll see what happens over time. The Baltic States were occupied by the Soviet Union for 40 years, and eventually that changed.”
RT apparently took this to be a direct comparison between the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula and Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the three Baltic states that became independent with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Insisting this wasn’t a valid comparison, RT cited a professor of international law at Moscow’s National Research University Higher School of Economics, Alexander Domrin.
Domrin claimed that the two situations were different, because according to the Soviet constitution, union republics like the three Baltic states officially had the right to secede from the union. By contrast, he claimed Crimea is seen as part of Russia, from which it thus cannot legally secede.
There are several problems with this claim. The biggest is that the overwhelming majority of U.N. member states do not recognize the validity or legality of Russia’s 2014 referendum, which was organized with the help of its military forces. In 2016, the U.N. passed a resolution calling Russia an occupying power in Crimea, with 73 votes in favor, 23 against with many abstaining. The International Criminal Court has ruled that the Crimean annexation was an international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and that Russia occupied the Crimean peninsula.
Domrin’s claims about the referendum’s results are also highly dubious. According to official Russian sources, 96.77% of the Crimean population voted in favor of separating from Ukraine, with a voter turnout of 83.1%. However, the vote was not observed by recognized international election monitors like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Other estimates, including one by the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights, put both the referendum’s results and turnout much lower. It is entirely possible that less than one-third of the peninsula’s population actually voted in favor of the annexation.
Lastly, Domrin actually undermines his own argument when he talks about Crimea not having a legal right to secede from Russia, because the referendum was also illegal under Ukrainian law. Domrin is correct to state that the right of secession existed in the Soviet constitution and that union republics like the Baltic states invoked this right to gain independence starting in 1991. However, no such right exists in the Ukrainian constitution. Therefore, Domrin is saying that the constitutions of the Soviet Union and Russian Federation are valid, but Ukraine’s is not. In addition, the drive for independence in the three Baltic states was the result of mass movements, whereas the Crimean annexation was a military operation, beginning with the seizure of the Crimean parliament building by armed men on February 27, 2014.
Volker told Polygraph that the U.S. refused to recognize the “forcible incorporation” of the Baltics into the Soviet Union and more than 40 years later they regained their independence.
“Similiarily, we will not recognize Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea, and we indeed hope that it will be restored as part of Ukraine,” he wrote in an e-mail.
The vote in Crimea, Volker added, “took place under conditions of Russian occupation…and so this vote cannot be regarded as a legitimate expression of the people of Crimea”.