Crimea’s recent referendum on joining Russia has opened up a broader debate about  sovereignty, political legitimacy and realpolitik in the modern world.

It remains to be seen what implications Crimea's annexation will have beyond Europe. Photo: Reuters 

Until now, the debate over Crimea has primarily manifested itself as a scholarly discourse about the secession rights of individual states, especially within federations that are experiencing intra-state conflicts. This means, however, that what happens in Crimea also has implications for other secessionist movements around the world.

The debate over Crimea also has crucial implications for any discussion of realpolitik within the realm of international relations. This aspect of the debate goes well beyond any academic and political discourses about legitimacy and sovereignty, focusing instead on global priorities and national, regional, and continental interests.

In short, the situation in Ukraine has kicked off a broader debate about a realignment in a new multi-polar world, where competition between various global powers could be transformed as a result of how they respond to new conflicts of interest. 

Crimea’s impact around the world

The triangle of conflicting interests at this stage is between Russia, the United States and the European Union. However, the situation in Crimea could ultimately create a window for reviewing the role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the emerging role of China and India in global politics and a dramatic paradigm shift for the Afghanistan endgame, where global stakes appear to be reaching their climax.

If this situation in Crimea is not addressed appropriately, it will ultimately have some adverse impacts on the highly volatile geostrategic affairs in South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region.

It could also increase the historical distance between Eastern European Slav nations and West European Anglo-Saxon nations, and to a certain extent, between Eastern European and Scandinavian nations.

Precedents for Crimea in international law 

Primarily, the secession of Crimea from Ukraine and its annexation to the Russian Federation falls within the purview of the right of self-determination. However, it also falls within the jurisdiction of several United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions as well as international legal instruments, arrangements and precedence concerning the secession of Bangladesh (1971), East Timor (2002), Kosovo (2008) and South Sudan (2011).

Thus, it would be unsound to reason that the will demonstrated by the people of Crimea as well as the parliament of the Crimea is against international law, particularly when Crimea had special arrangements with Ukraine, according to which Crimea had its own parliament and constitution within Ukraine.

It becomes a further irony that Ukraine, which seceded from the former Soviet Union through almost similar instruments, is denouncing the same measures when they are adopted by Crimea.          

Redefining sovereignty

Around the world, questions related to the ‘sovereignty’ of member states of the United Nations have become a major element of the debate regarding Crimea.

Academically speaking, the term ‘sovereignty’ is not always as easy to define as it might seem. The discussion and use of the term “sovereignty” in this case, as we saw in earlier cases, can distort the debate. It is, quite simply, a simultaneously difficult and ambiguous concept to define. 

Sovereignty is not - and can never be - absolute. In so many ways, it is a relative concept and reality. For example, the concept of sovereignty in federations around the world has an entirely different connotation than for individual nations and states. The sovereignty of Japan, for example, is highly different from the sovereignty of Pakistan.

In a federation, sovereignty fundamentally is rooted within the federating states, which voluntarily (or, in some cases, involuntarily) is given to the Federation through the instruments, agreements and arrangements of joining the Federation. Sovereignty, either directly or indirectly, remains a principal part of the constitutions of Federations.

Sovereignty forms the basis (both in concept and principle) for thinking about military institutions in a federation, where federating states can create their own military regiments. It also determines the domains of coastal and international water rights between Federations and the Federating States.

And, in some cases, it defines issues related to borders, ports and use of air space. Therefore, the secession of Crimea might be legitimized in accordance with international law, geopolitical precedence and the political principles, philosophy and practices relating to sovereignty, especially within federations.

Lessons learned from Crimea

The Ukraine crisis has increased the chances of destabilizing the peace and security environment around the globe. It also threatens to turn the current geopolitical order upside down, or at least, result in new conflicts of interests between global players. 

The situation potentially will not only put the Afghanistan issue at high risk, but also may give leverage to the elements of destabilization around the world, whether in Asia or the Middle East, to take advantage of the new emerging situation. Besides, it also involves a new need for both the European Union and the Eurasia Economic Union to revisit their policies and strategic priorities.

It is essential that the U.S., EU and Russia sit together at a round table and resolve this issue appropriately before it gives new impetus to disruption and conflict elsewhere. They will need to consider how the U.S. and Russia can reach a compromise, how Russia can assure the rest of the world that it will not intrude into other Eastern European countries, and what should be the role of India and China in resolving similar types of conflict around the globe.

After all, any false step at this stage can open up a new Pandora’s Box of militarization and armed conflicts around the globe.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.