Crimea Vote: Putin Cites Kosovo ‘Precedent’

Patrick Goodenough | March 16, 2014 | 8:32pm EDT
Font Size

Russian President Vladimir Putin applauds during the closing ceremony of the XI Paralympic Winter Games, in Sochi on Sunday March 16, 2014. (Photo: Kremlin/RIA Novosti)

( – Russian President Vladimir Putin told President Obama in a phone call Sunday that Crimea’s referendum was in line with international law, and tellingly cited Kosovo’s 2008 unilateral declaration of independence – which Moscow bitterly opposed.

According to a Kremlin read-out of the conversation, which it said was initiated by the White House, Putin stressed that the vote in Crimea “fully conformed to the norms of international law and the U.N. Charter and took account of the precedent set by Kosovo, among other things.”

The White House account of the call said Obama had told Putin that the referendum – in which Crimean voters overwhelmingly favored seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia – “would never be recognized by the United States and the international community.”

“He emphasized that Russia’s actions were in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and that, in coordination with our European partners, we are prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions,” it said.

Russia earlier defied multiple U.S. appeals for it to end its military intervention in Ukraine and to withdraw support for the referendum – including a last-ditch effort by Secretary of State John Kerry who met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in London on Friday.

The White House statement said that Kerry remains prepared to work with Lavrov and the Ukrainian government “to find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.”

Russia has rejected all previous proposals by Kerry, because it does not recognize the legitimacy of the interim authorities in Kiev.

The White House readout of the phone call did not mention Putin’s reference to Kosovo, which Crimean separatist leaders themselves cited in their “declaration of independence” on March 11.

Ironically, the same government now invoking a Kosovo “precedent” led the international opposition to Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) from Serbia, a close Russian ally, six years ago.

At the time Moscow warned the move it would embolden separatist movements everywhere; the U.S. insisted that Kosovo was a unique case, and that it set no legal precedent.

The U.S. and most European countries led international recognition of the newly-declared entity, while Russia and dozens of other countries refused to endorse the move.

In 2010 the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion saying the Kosovo UDI did not violate international law, but tied its non-binding ruling to Kosovo-specific circumstances. (Kosovo declared independence nine years after NATO went to war to end Serb aggression against the province’s ethnic Albanian Muslim majority. Russia strongly opposed the NATO action.)

“This was a set of facts unique to Kosovo,” then-State Department spokesman Philip Crowley  said on the day of the ICJ ruling. “The court was applying these facts. We don’t think it’s applicable to any other situation.”

Kosovo is today recognized as independent by 108 out of 193 U.N. member-states. Not coincidentally, many of the countries withholding recognition are themselves grappling with separatist movements to varying degrees.

They include China (Tibet, Xinjiang), Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh), Indonesia (Aceh, Papua) and Georgia (South Ossetia, Abhkazia); as well as five members of the European Union Spain (Basque region, Catalonia), Cyprus and Greece (Northern Cyprus), Romania and Slovakia (ethnic Hungarian minorities).

Ahead of the Crimea referendum senior Russian lawmaker Mikhail Margelov observed drily, “The Kosovo precedent was planned and endorsed by the West, so it was not Russia that let the genie of self-determination of nations in Europe out of the bottle.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry meet to discuss the Ukraine crisis, in London on Friday March 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Sean Dempsey, Pool)

International monitors

Judging from the two summaries of Sunday’s phone conversation, about the only apparent common ground between Obama and Putin was the need for international monitors to deploy to Ukraine, in a bid to prevent violence between people of different ethnicities or political persuasions.

The White House readout of the call said Obama asked Putin to “support the immediate deployment of international monitors to help prevent acts of violence by any groups.”

The Kremlin statement said the two had “discussed a possibility” of sending monitors, and that Putin said the mission should cover all the regions of Ukraine.

“Putin called Obama’s attention to the inability or unwillingness of the powers that be in Kiev to bridle the outrage of ultranationalist and radical groupings, which are destabilizing the situation and terrorizing peaceful residents, including the Russian-speaking population and our fellow-countrymen,” it said.

Russia claims that ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine have been victimized since the ousting of the country’s Moscow-backed president, Viktor Yanukovich, last month.

The U.S. says there is no evidence to support the allegations. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, speaking shortly after Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution on the Ukraine situation on Saturday, accused Russia of trying “to fool the world with a false narrative about extremism and the protection of human rights.”

mrc merch