There is no legal basis upon which to justify Russia’s recent seizure of the Crimean Peninsula. While Crimea had been a part of Russia until 1954, when then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred control over it to Ukraine, a magnanimous gesture on the part of the ethnic-Ukrainian Khrushchev, that act of transferring it to Ukraine made it officially a part of Ukraine in terms of international law. As such, its seizure by Russian military and security forces constitutes a violation of international law. Additionally, the 1994 agreement by which the government of Ukraine handed over its nuclear weapons that had been stationed there while it was part of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union included a guarantee of its territory integrity by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia – and that agreement implicitly included Crimea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for the invasion – protection of the Russian-speaking population on the peninsula (about sixty percent of Crimea’s population is ethnic Russian) – would have enjoyed some measure of legitimacy if there had, in fact, been any threat to those Russian-speaking Ukrainians. No such threat existed, and, in all likelihood, Putin used the crisis over the revolt against pro-Russian Ukrainian leader Victor Yanukovych’s tilt towards Moscow at the expense of the European Union to exercise his diplomatic and military muscle – a theory given wide credence in light of Putin’s subsequent thinly-threats against the governments of Moldova and Estonia.
Russian culture includes a deeply-held notion that any territory once under its autonomy remains forever Russian territory. Because the Soviet Union had annexed the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as other regions that came under Russian control over the past centuries, and because Soviet Russian policies had long emphasized the “Russification” of territories added to its empire, including throughout Central Asia as well as Eastern Europe, through the transfer of Russian citizens to settle these occupied territories, Putin is now using the mantra of protecting ethnic Russian populations in each of those countries as an excuse to threaten them with invasion.
To the extent that the actions of United Nations enjoy broad legitimacy with many people, then the votes in the U.N. Security Council and in the General Assembly would certainly seem to delegitimize Russia’s actions. The Security Council, which alone among U.S. agencies or divisions possesses the political authority to compel compliance with its resolutions, voted overwhelmingly against the legitimacy or the Moscow-backed referendum held in Crimea on March 16, 2014. Of the fifteen members of the Security Council, 13 voted against Russia’s action, with China abstaining. Russia, the fifteenth member of the Security Council, and one of only five with a permanent seat on the council and the power to veto resolutions, exercised that authority in blocking passage of the resolution. Symbolically, however, the U.S. Security Council vote was a diplomatic setback for Putin, although a setback with which the Russian leader can apparently live. To conclude, then, Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula has no valid basis in international law, and was not a legitimate seizure of territory, despite the region – including Ukraine’s – historic importance to Russia.
With respect to nations supporting Russia's actions, the list is short, and entirely predictable. Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Syria all came out immediately in support of Russia. That each of these countries, especially Cuba, Nicaragua and Syria have long been close Russian allies, with Venezuela a more recent entrant into the world of anti-U.S. foreign policies, is no surprise. More surprising is the recent announcement that the so-called "BRIC" nations are supporting Russia's position. China, the "C" in "BRIC" (the others being Brazil, Russia and India) is, as noted, reluctant to appear at all supportive of Russia's actions given its own tenuous relationships with some of its existing and prospective territories. India, in particular, has long maintained a close military relationship with Russia, and tends to adopt positions that place it at odds with the United States, despite efforts by both countries over the past decade to forge closer ties.
Countries opposing Russian actions include most of the rest of the world. As noted above, every independent country bordering Russia and which used to be part of the Soviet Union, like the Central Asian "stans" (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, etc.) strongly opposes Moscow, although they keep their objections muted out of fear of Russia's military and economic might and their dependence on pipelines that cross Russian territory or run near Russia's borders, making them vulnerable to sabotage. The European Union is adamantly opposed to Russia's actions, as is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (and there is a substantial overlap between those two entities).
This is a very difficult question and not one that can be answered objectively. My own view is that Russia probably had a right to the Crimea a long time ago, but they did not have a right to take the Crimea this year.
Beginning in the 1700s, the Crimea was part of the Russian Empire. It continued to be part of Russia until 1954. At that point, the Crimea was transferred to Ukraine. This transfer had very little importance at the time since Russia, the Crimea, and Ukraine were all part of the Soviet Union. However, when Ukraine broke away from Russia as the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, the Crimea went with it. Since then, it has been a part of Ukraine.
If this year were 1954, I would say that Russia had a right to the Crimea. Most of the people in the Crimea are ethnically Russian. Crimea had been part of Russia for over a century. This would seem to give Russia a clear claim to sovereignty. But this is not 1954. The Crimea has belonged to Ukrainie for over a decade and I do not think that it is right for a country to annex an area that is an established part of another country.
For the most part, the Russians are the only people who are very supportive of Russia’s claim to the Crimea. There are people in various separatist movements who support this claim because they hope that it will help them to gain their own autonomy. However, even Russia’s main allies in the world are not very excited about Russia’s actions. They fear that separatism in Crimea will give a boost to the aspirations of separatists within their own countries. Thus, I would say that there are not many supporters of Russia’s claim around the world.
As often occurs on political questions, the answer depends upon the political point of view being presented (either the writer's own point of view or the point of view of the person being interviewed or reported about). The independent Internet news organization, Truthout.com, reports the opinions of Paul Craig Roberts on the Crimea-Russia question. Roberts describes himself as a "former editor of The Wall Street Journal and a columnist at all the major publications" while Truthout describes him as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan and current associate editor of The Wall Street Journal. In an interview with Truthout, Roberts describes his analysis of the legality of the Crimean annexation and the support present for it.
Crimea is on the Tauric peninsula surrounded by the warm waters of the Black Sea, thus has valuable warm water ports critical to trading and shipping. The Crimea has historically been invaded by many peoples through many ages; to the south, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans; to the north, Goths, Bulgars, Huns and the Golden Horde of Khan, to name a few. In more recent history, in 1954, the Crimea was transferred from annexation to Russia to annexation to the Ukraine under the authority of Khrushchev who was general secretary of the Communist Party. In 1991, the Crimea became the Autonomous Republic of Crimea within the newly independent Ukraine. Ultimately, in 2014, the Crimea became the subject of the dispute between the Ukraine and Russia.
Russian military, without insignia on the uniforms, blockaded two Ukraine airports, one in Sevastopol and one in Simferopol; Sevastopol, with the Belbek international airport, is a naval port on the Black Sea. Arsen Borysovych Avakov, a Ukrainian politician, characterized the blockade of Belbek as a "military invasion and occupation [that] ... is a breach of all international agreements and norms." Russia countered by saying the blockade was intended to stop fighter planes from landing in Sevastopol. The week prior, the Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych had been ousted from power by a military coup. The blockades awakened the fear in the Ukraine that the blockades were the first step in deadly retaliation that could awaken an international dispute over the pro-Russia region of the Crimea. One uniformed military man (with no identifying insignia) at Simferopol identified himself as being with the People's Militia of Crimea, saying they were there to protect the smooth operation of the Simferopol International Airport and to prevent an incursion of "radical Ukrainians."
Paul Craig Roberts characterizes the ouster of the Ukrainian President as a coup funded by the United States with the objective of introducing the Ukraine into NATO, in violation of international agreements to leave Eastern European countries out of NATO. With the Ukraine in NATO, Roberts explains, the U.S. can install anti-ballistic missile bases in western Ukraine. Roberts explains that there is a cultural tension between the Russian peoples of the Ukraine, who are centered in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea, and the non-Russians of western Ukraine. In light of the cultural conflicts, Russia has said that they may use military force if violence is unleashed against the Russian peoples living in eastern Ukraine. If military force of this sort erupts, an east-west split of Ukraine is foreseeable. A Crimean peoples referendum elected to annex to Russia since continued annexation to Ukraine presents a cultural threat.
Taken in this light, it is possible to say that, yes, Russia does have a right to incorporate Crimea: grounds are (1) culture and ethnicity based and (2) politically based following the referendum. The Western coalition of powers that support the U.S. generally oppose Crimean annexation by Russia. One reason is that, since the U.S. financed the ouster of the Ukraine president, the idea of an anti-ballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe must be an appealing one.
The three previous answers have done an outstanding job in detailing the facts of the current and historical situation in Crimea. In all honesty, the bigger issue here is not whether or not Russia has a right to claim Crimea, but rather, if Russia can maintain control. History is full of situations where an area or territory has been annexed or invaded by another power with much less of a historical "claim" to the area, such as when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. In almost every situation, the annexing power took action believing that their claim and occupation would go unchallenged, or they did so with a willingness to use force to maintain control of their newly acquired area.
The outcome of this conflict hinges on whether Russia believes their claim to Crimea will go unchallenged and their resolve to fight to defend their claim on the region. Is the greater world community willing to test Russia's resolve to keep control of Crimea? This dispute has the potential to raise the biggest questions of the the twenty-first century.
Controversy over reclaiming countries is clearly part of modern history as many of the European borders were altered throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Currently, in the United States, for instance, there are many Mexican nationalists who would reclaim California and Texas again for Mexico. While this is not the serious possibility that the taking of the Crimean was, nor nearly so complicated in historical context, nevertheless, this desire for the return of these states to Mexico places the situation of Russia's taking the Crimean after all these years (as noted in the previous post) in a darker light for those Americans who may perceive some parallels in history.
Of course, the Crimean history is much more complicated than anything in the Western Hemisphere. But, it was given to the Ukraine in 1954 with Khrushev, and, then, in 1991, after the Soviet collapse, a referendum on independence was held and Crimea voted to be independent from Russia, although by a low majority of 54%. So, twice it has broken from Russia; thus, it would seem that it should remain apart. In addition,Putin's acquisition of the Crimean for Russia raises fears that he wishes to rebuild a Russian sovereign nation like that of Peter the Great by reclaiming old territories.