Crimea: Compromise, Not Sanctions, Is The Way Forward

Pro-Russian Crimeans celebrate in Sevastopol on March 16, 2014 after partial showed that about 95.5 percent of voters in Ukra
Pro-Russian Crimeans celebrate in Sevastopol on March 16, 2014 after partial showed that about 95.5 percent of voters in Ukraine's Crimea region supported union with Russia. Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to join former political master Russia as tensions soared in the east of the splintered ex-Soviet nation amid the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War. AFP PHOTO/ VIKTOR DRACHEV (Photo credit should read VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Lord Owen is a former UK Foreign Secretary; EU peace negotiator in the former Yugoslavia 1992-95 and has business interests in Russia.

LONDON -- Crimea has for centuries long had an association with Russia. In 1945, having defeated the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine, Stalin hosted a meeting at Yalta in Crimea with Churchill and Roosevelt.

In February 1954, drunk or sober, nobody knows which, Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to mark the 300th Anniversary of a 1654 Treaty, but this was a purely symbolic transfer in the eyes of Moscow.

It had been established in 1946 that both Belarus and the Ukraine could have independent status as UN member states while, to all intents and purposes, be part of the USSR. That status changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the USSR in 1990/91. But for all this time the Russian Black Sea fleet operated from Sevastopol in Crimea under special arrangements, the most recent signed in 2012 between the Ukrainian and Russian Federation governments.


A somewhat parallel arrangement is the U.S. treaty with Cuba in relation to the U.S. naval base on the western and eastern banks of Guantanamo Bay. A base was first established in the late 19th century following the Spanish American war. A perpetual lease was entered into in 1903 with Cuba's first president in the Cuban American Treaty for the purposes of operating a coaling and naval station which gave the U.S. "complete jurisdiction and control" while the Republic of Cuba was recognized as retaining ultimate sovereignty. In 1934, a new treaty reaffirmed the lease but made it permanent unless both governments agreed to break it or until the U.S. abandoned the property and the annual lease payment was increased. After Fidel Castro came to power only one payment was cashed, but the U.S. government claimed that the new regime had thereby ratified the agreement. The U.S. has always made it clear to Castro that any interference with the base would be taken as an act of war.

In the Spring of 1962, Khrushchev was extremely foolish in his own extravagant language to, "put the ants in the pants of Uncle Sam" by starting to clandestinely deploy missiles and eventually nuclear weapons into Cuba. This rightly, when discovered, provoked President Kennedy, under the Monroe Doctrine of spheres of influence, to demand their removal in tense negotiations in the autumn of that year. Kennedy could never accept USSR missiles within range of being able to destroy a large number of US cities.

Today, Russia asserts, not without historical justification, that it regards Crimea as part of its sphere of influence and will not risk the new Ukrainian government, which it regards as illegitimate, controlling so much of Crimea that it could render the naval port inoperable.

In this situation, the U.S. and U.K. have a special position in relation to maintaining the "independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine" -- the words contained in the Memorandum on Security Assurances in connection with Ukraine's accession to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons signed by both countries, along with the Ukraine and the Russian Federation in Budapest on Dec. 5 1994.

We are bound to consult with fellow signatories and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague are, I hope, albeit privately, urging the Guantanamo option for negotiation in this forum, if Russia continues to refuse to negotiate directly with the Ukrainian government as part of a contact group of nations involving Germany.

Russia's suspicion of the contact group procedure stems from the German, French and Polish foreign ministers' compromise which was witnessed by Russia at the end of February, signed by the then Ukrainian president and people representative of the protest movement on the streets of Kiev and other western cities in Ukraine. This was swept aside within hours with the EU powerless to uphold their own diplomacy. The absence of the U.S. and to some extent the U.K. was a grave error. The EU was once again shown to be a paper tiger.

The referendum in Crimea that took place on Sunday has no standing in international law but it cannot just be brushed aside. Referenda are used by all governments to buttress their positions under self-determination when they are pretty sure it will give them majority support. Britain has done this for years over the Falkland Islands and is attacked for doing so as a means of circumventing the territorial claim on the Maldives by Argentina. That territorial claim is supported by many countries within the UN and evokes some sympathy, even in the U.S. It is not uncommon over territorial disputes across the world for there to be such a conflict between two perfectly legitimate determining factors -- maintaining self-determination and respecting territorial claims. Such disputes, however, must be resolved by negotiation not unilateral political and military action.

It ought to be a salutary lesson for NATO countries that NATO's bombing of Serbia -- without UN Security Council authorization, for their humanitarian intervention over Kosovo -- has resulted 14 years later in only 108 out of 193 UN member states recognizing Kosovo's independence. Fortunately in April 2013 Baroness Ashton, on behalf of the EU, following persistent and persuasive diplomacy helped Kosovo and Serbia to reach an agreement to normalize relations. Serbia is now negotiating full membership of the EU.

It ought to be a salutary lesson for Russia, too that the two entities that emerged after Georgia started fighting to recover territory, now described as South Ossetia and Abkhazia, have only been recognized by a risible number of countries. A somewhat similar pattern will follow for Crimea unless by negotiation the issue is resolved along the lines of Guantanamo.


The lesson is clear. Territorial disputes are only solved after long, hard negotiations. The only recent exception in Europe has been the very successful velvet divorce conducted without referendums or threats of violence by politicians in what was Czechoslovakia. Let us not forget either that that was achieved in the teeth of opposition from European governments and the Russian Federation who wanted no change in boundaries.

The fears of those who live in cities and towns in eastern Ukraine that have a clear majority of Russian speaking and Russia-orientated people must also be resolved by a negotiated settlement involving safeguards but wholly within Ukraine.

For G8 heads of government to indulge, until this highly sensitive issue is resolved, in tit-for-tat sanctions and boycotts is below the level of events and everyone can see that. There is no substitute for nitty, gritty compromise which, if successful over Crimea and East Ukraine, should extend to all those other boundary disputes which have the potential to spark conflict in Georgia, Kosovo, Nagorno Karabakh and Moldavia.