Responding to a question concerning Russia’s occupation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine during an October 24 press conference, Ksenia Sobchak, a celebrity TV host and the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, the late St. Petersburg mayor and Vladimir Putin’s former boss, said that Crimea belongs to Ukraine, not Russia.
Sobchak made the comments just days after declaring her intent to run in Russia’s March 2018 presidential election. It is widely believed that President Vladimir Putin will seek reelection, although he has not yet officially announced his candidacy, and few analysts believe Sobchak would pose a real challenge to the incumbent.
In fact, some believe Sobchak’s candidacy will help the Kremlin portray the presidential election as more competitive than it actually is, given the fact that opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was banned from running for president because he was found guilty of embezzlement in February.
On the issue of Crimea, Sobchak stated that Russia violated a diplomatic memorandum pledging to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty: “I will be straightforward in my answer and tell you what I really think of this issue – I won’t dodge or evade a question. From the standpoint of international law, Crimea belongs to Ukraine. Period. … We did not keep our promise. We breached the Budapest Memorandum of 1994.”
Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances in 1994, during a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Ukraine, which at the time had the third-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons after the United States and Russia, pledged to give up its nuclear weapons and join the Nuclear Non-Nonproliferation Treaty.
In return, the parties to the memorandum reaffirmed their commitment to respect Ukraine’s existing borders, independence, and territorial integrity; refrain from the threat or use of force; refrain from economic coercion; and not use their weapons against Ukraine, among other assurances.
Twenty year later, in late February 2014, Russian forces invaded Crimea following popular anti-government protests in Kyiv and the ouster of then Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych, who was backed by Moscow.
Authorities in Crimea held a referendum on the Black Sea peninsula’s status on March 16, 2014, just a few days after they declared its independence from Ukraine. According to the Russian state news agency TASS, 96% of those who voted in the referendum supported Crimea’s accession to Russia. Turnout for the referendum was 80%.
Ethnic Russians make up roughly 58% of the Crimean population, Ukrainians -- 24%, and Crimean Tatars -- 12%.
Following the referendum, the UN General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution invalidating the change in Crimea’s status, with 100 member states voting in favor, 11 against, and 58 abstaining.
Russia denounced the resolution and voted against the measure.
A short time later, during the April 2014 “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin,” an annual televised program during which the Russian president answers questions from citizens across the country, Putin denounced Yanukovych’s removal as an “unconstitutional coup, an armed seizure of power” that had threatened the Russian-speaking population of Crimea and the rest of Ukraine.
Residents of Crimea had asked Russia “for help,” he said, and the goal of the Russian troops in Ukraine was “to ensure proper conditions for the people of Crimea to be able to freely express their will.” He added: “And so we had to take the necessary measures in order to prevent the situation in Crimea unfolding the way it is now unfolding in southeastern Ukraine.”
John B. Bellinger III, a former legal adviser for the U.S. State Department, challenged this version of events.
“The Ukrainian constitution requires that any changes to the territory of Ukraine be approved by a referendum of all of the Ukrainian people,” he wrote. “The requirement is consistent with general principles of international law, which respects the territorial integrity of states and does not recognize a right of secession by a group or region in a country unless the group or region has been denied a right to ‘internal self-determination’ (i.e., its right to pursue its own political, economic, social, and cultural development) by the central government or has been subject to grave human rights violations.”
The factors legitimizing the “right of remedial secession” were not present in Crimea, Bellinger wrote, adding that even if Yanukovich’s ouster was questionable, “this would not trigger any right under international law for Russia to intervene in the Ukraine or for Crimea to secede.”
According to Barry Kellman, a professor of law and director of the International Weapons Control Center at DePaul University's College of Law, while the Budapest Memorandum (as well as the CSCE treaty and the UN Charter) underpins Ukraine’s territorial integrity, its lacks any means of enforcement.
In a report on nuclear proliferation for the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, Mariana Budjeryn, a PhD candidate at the Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations at the Central European University in Hungary, wrote that the Budapest Memorandum “failed to deter Russian aggression because it imposed no immediate cost for its violation.”
Budjeryn concluded: “The political assurances it provided rested on the goodwill and self-restraint of the guarantors, an arrangement that can work between allies but not potential adversaries.”