Will secession seal Putin’s doom?

March 20, 2014

Russian President Vladimir Putin chose a referendum on secession, attended by 15,000 menacing troops, as the means to pry Crimea away from Ukraine. This choice runs directly counter to his long-held beliefs about the need to maintain the integrity of his nation at all costs.

With the results in, it may seem that Putin has achieved exactly what he set out to do: restore Crimea to Russia after 60 years as part of Ukraine. But promoting the principle that secession can be legitimate on the basis of a single hastily-arranged plebiscite in the middle of a military occupation provides a precedent that may prove Putin’s ultimate undoing.

Until Putin annexed Crimea, secession was the dirtiest word in his playbook. He watched, appalled, as one after another former Soviet republic opted for independence from Russia. He has repeatedly punished those brave dissenters who dare advocate leaving the Russian federation.

By legitimizing secession, however, Putin has opened the door to all those nationalists, Chechens, Muslims and other minorities who believe their future prosperity and human rights are best served by detaching themselves from Russia’s centralizing grasp.

For a short term gain, Putin has inadvertently legitimized the right of minority communities to go their own ways with the help of a foreign government. When former Soviet republics like the Baltic republics escaped their Russian masters by voting to secede from the old Soviet bloc, the Western powers cheered that after 70 years of colonization, the people had chosen self-determination over satellite status.

But Putin believes that the secession movements that followed the ignominious collapse of communism brought Russia low. He considers the “near abroad” republics’ decision to abandon the ruins of the Soviet Union as nothing less than “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the century.”

Putin insists that the West took advantage of communism’s demise when the interests of Greater Russia fell into the hands of the drunken Boris Yeltsin. As soon as he succeeded Yeltsin in 1999, Putin tried to put a swift end to former Soviet republics abandoning the embrace of Mother Russia. While Chechnya had slipped Yeltsin’s grasp during the First Chechen War of 1994-1996, Putin spent 10 bloody years taking Chechnya back in the Second Chechen War of 1999-2009.

Putin’s use of brutal force in Chechnya made it clear to all other republics considering independence that as long as he was in charge, there would be no further crumbling of the borders of the old empire.

Putin is no communist. His fierce nationalism was inspired by the romantic vision of an eternal Russia conjured up by, among others, one of the Communist Kremlin’s most virulent and outspoken critics, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Putin sees his first duty — as any president might — as maintaining the integrity of the borders of old Russia.

Which is why, paradoxically, Putin has promoted a secession movement in Crimea. Even though there was little evidence that anyone wanted to leave Ukraine and forge closer ties with Russia before the January revolt in Kiev forced out the Russian-leaning President Viktor Yanukovich. The Crimea voters have spoken and, given a Hobson’s choice, have asked to return to Russia.

Unless Putin ultimately agrees to a more generous arrangement between Crimea and Ukraine, he will have succeeded in winning back a piece of Russia that was thought permanently lost. It has been part of Ukraine since 1954, when the Communist leader of Ukraine, Nikita Khrushchev, awarded Crimea to the Soviet republic as a parting gift.

Putin’s victory may be short lived, however.

Secession is the most debilitating threat to a nation. Few countries are entirely homogenous. Sentimental notions about place, language and lineage often coagulate into a nationalist movement that threatens to wrench away part of a larger nation. Because secession movements cut to the heart of a nation’s existence, they are invariably resisted by those who govern the central state.

Secession movements can be found all around the globe. In places such as the Basque country in Spain or Republican areas of Northern Ireland or South Sudan, force is met by force. Running battles over secession can often tip into civil war.

Few countries have witnessed the horrors of a secessionist war more than the United States. Between 1861 and 1865 the U.S. North and South took up arms against each other. By the end of the war, slavery was deemed to be the cause. At the start, however, it was a theoretical debate about whether states that had voluntarily joined the Union had the right to secede. By the time Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House in April 1865, a total of 359,528 Americans had been killed — the most Americans killed in any war.

Some Americans do not appear to have learned the lessons of the Civil War. Since the election of President Barack Obama, 20 states have petitioned him requesting they be allowed to secede from the union and form their own separate government. Yet there is still no genuine threat to the integrity of the United States, even when popular leaders such as Governor Rick Perry of Texas bandy around secessionist language.

Russia is different. Without true democracy, without rule of law, and without prosperity — Russia has an economy about the size of Italy and it is largely dependent on energy exports to the West — the Russian confederation is highly vulnerable to breakaway states that think they would fare better on their own.

So what lesson should those states considering a divorce from Russia take from Putin’s actions in Crimea? The first is that force can be justified if independence from a central state is the object.

The second is that inviting outside countries to help facilitate secession is legitimate.

The third is that a single rushed referendum offering two poor alternatives, held at gunpoint without extensive debate and without a free press or freedom of speech is enough to establish a separate state.

Those who live by secession die by secession. Putin’s unilateral action in Crimea, unanimously condemned by the Western powers, is an open invitation to the peoples living in his own land that secession by any means is legitimate and desirable. It is a signal to Islamists, for example, that the principle of self-determination they are fighting for has been conceded by Putin.

Back in the days of Russian Communism, the Kremlin set great store by its consistency. It had ideologists, high priests of Marxism-Leninism, who decided conflicts over the way forward for the Soviet state. Now Russia has returned to a form of monarchy, in which a single man and his acolytes rule the roost.

No doubt Putin is proud to have made himself a 21st century tsar. But, like the last tsar, Nicholas II, who was murdered in cold blood at the hands of revolutionaries, Putin lives in constant fear of a coup that will oust him from power.

His embrace of secession as a weapon against his foreign enemies has let Putin’s internal opponents know that they no longer need to rely on legitimacy and ordered protests. No rules apply anymore.

All gloves are off.


PHOTO (TOP): Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attends the closing ceremony of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, March 16, 2014. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A Ukrainian naval officer (C) passes by armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, as he leaves the naval headquarters in Sevastopol, March 19, 2014.  REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn at the Nobel laureate’s mansion in Moscow, September 20, 2000. REUTERS/Itar Tass

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Members of a “Maidan” self-defense unit stand guard in front of a Ukrainian parliament building in Kiev, March 17, 2014.  REUTERS/Alex Kuzmin




We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I’m thinking he’s smarter than you Mr. Wapshott.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Though if we look back a little further it was the US as the leader of NATO that opened the succession pandoras box with the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and then helping Kosovo to split from Serbia

Also didn’t we have armed troops “menacing” in Kosovo for their elections? So would that not make the vote there illegitimate (or elections in Iraq and Afghanistan) if that is the basis for the Crimean vote not being free and fair… unless of course the argument is that “Ah but they were our troops, so it is ok”.

Posted by SRG21 | Report as abusive

To us sitting comfortably in the West, this may seem like a good point – and if Mr Putin had any respect for the rule of law, it would be.

But Voice of Russia has already started in on long-winded explanations of why the Crimean referendum was “more legitimate” than that in Kosovo, and you can bet that one held in Chechnya or Dagestan would receive short shrift. The results of such a referendum would only be honoured if the Chechens or Dagestanis were able to find an external ally able to defeat Russia in a shooting war. Which seems no more likely to day than it did two weeks ago.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

Good article. Clearly, Vladimir Putin is untrustworthy. He took advantage of the weakness and the divisions among the West (including the USA) to carry out his plan. Just look at the weakness of the little sanctions that are being brandished at barely 3 dozens Russians, as a punishment on Russia for grabbing Crimea away from Ukraine. Some European countries are even reluctant to impose those sanctions. Some here in the USA, like Thom Hartmann and his far left-wing listeners, are saying that we shouldn’t even get involved in this or sanction Russia. Note that Mr. Hartmann is doing business with RT (Russian Television). What will he say if Putin’s Russia decides to invade for example Lithuania or Poland, both are members of NATO? After all, there are more than 170,000 ethnic Russians living in Lithuania. Will he say that the US and NATO have no business booting Russia out of those countries?

“…No doubt Putin is proud to have made himself a 21st century tsar. But, like the last tsar, Nicholas II, who was murdered in cold blood at the hands of revolutionaries, Putin lives in constant fear of a coup that will oust him from power. …”

If that happened, it would be a very good thing for Russia and for rest of the world.

Posted by Molluta | Report as abusive

But of course the West did not encourage or help or instigate NO secession AT ALL during these last 3 decades!

I detect a Bozo-writer on Reuters! Another one.

Just absolutely plain hilarious!

Posted by mcanterel | Report as abusive

A very long wapshot from the truth!

Posted by mcanterel | Report as abusive

I’m sure Putin thought all this through beforehand. If he chose to invade Crimea anyway, it’s because he deems the spread of democratic values from the West to be a far greater threat to him than that posed by ethnic nationalists. Secessionists can always be crushed like Chechnya was, but if democratic values “infect” the minds of ordinary Russians, then Putin is doomed.

Posted by delta5297 | Report as abusive

Delta, maybe Putin fears the democratic values of the west. We are trying to push back his buffer zone. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice if our government and business leaders were trying to “infect” the minds of the ordinary americans with democracy instead of this facist corporate socialism. That would be awesome.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The flaw in your argument is that Putin himself has already proven himself to be ruthless. The only way any of these potential breakaway states will be successful is if they fight and win. It was that way before Crimea. Nothing has changed, except for the rhetorical statements the rebels can make as they fight and die. Being morally correct doesn’t mean a damned thing.

Posted by canadianeh65 | Report as abusive

Actual when I first scanned the title I thought maybe we were finally going to be rid of Texas. So what is up with the Texas secession plans? They gonna grow a pair and do it, or do we have to listen to their insanity for the next millenium? My ideal situation is that Governor what’s his name gets every simpleton numbskull to move to Texas and then they secede. That would isolate one large moron colony and we would have a source for all our reality TV shows, without the legal and medical issues.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

this is spot on. thanks. obviously an article…let alone an entire book…on the word “Crimea” would stand out as well.

as much as “sentiment” may exist in the Kiev Rus…such is not the case with “Crimea”…truly one of the most unsentimental places on earth. It is ironic that it is considered a “vacation paradise”…was that the purpose of the invasion? “time on the beach”?

in an ironical sense “that actually would make more sense” than the need for irrelevant and decrepit naval bases or a “strategic presence” which Russia already had/has.

Now “Kiev Rus is angry.” Will they take Moscow back to “get their Crimea”? Clearly it would be interesting to hear from the folks on all sides of this complex issue now that the “West” is “all in” here.

Posted by lkofenglish | Report as abusive

Wow, I hope he is not coming for Alaska. That’s one former Russian territory he can’t get back.

Posted by Farhad | Report as abusive

What type of democracy is the US that 20 states who want to secede can’t!? If it is a democracy, why would the 20 states want to secede in the 1st place!? So what’s the difference between Putin and the US Democrats including journalists like Wapshott who want to impose their liberal agenda on other Americans?

Posted by Farhad | Report as abusive

“Chechens, Muslims and other minorities who believe their future prosperity and human rights are best served by detaching themselves from Russia’s centralizing grasp”

Author, my congratulations to you for you zero knowledge.

Posted by vp1117 | Report as abusive

That is why China abstained from voting to support Putin in the UN Security Council resolution. Approving of secession would have provided a pretext for Tibet.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

The truly surprising thing about the Russian takeover of Crimea is how inept it has been.

The reality is the Russian strategic interests place a high value on Crimea, because it is the location of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet, which is really its Mediterranean fleet. By contrast, Western countries don’t really place any value on Crimea at all, except when it becomes a problem, as it is today. It’s a place on a map.

Ukraine is a pretty unstable place, and the current government of Ukraine does not inspire a huge amount of confidence. They talk a lot of trash about how they are going to oppose the Russians, but the reality is that the government in Kiev does not have the expertise or the military infrastructure to prevail militarily against Russia. When the terrific Ukrainian military personnel were engaged a couple of weeks ago in those non-violent, unarmed standoffs with armed, out-of-uniform Russian military personnel, the mid-level Ukrainian officers on the ground could not get any guidance from their superiors in Kiev — even when they called on their mobile phones from the scene of a standoff against the Russians.

The Ukrainian government appears to lack credible leadership, especially military leadership. The Russians place a far greater value on the Crimea than does the West (or Kiev). The Crimeans probably would have voted to leave the Ukraine and join Russia if they had been given the chance to vote in an internationally sanctioned referendum, conducted without the presence of an occupation army.

In view of all of those factors, Putin acted ineptly because he could have had Crimea with the blessing (or, at least, the acquiescence) of Brussels and Washington if he had been willing to wait 12 months to make it official.

An inept Putin is, of course, less scary than a skillful Putin. Therefore, the one cause for concern is whether Putin made a calculated decision to approach the Ukraine in the way he did because he wanted to test the waters for similar actions against other territory in former Soviet republics and/or satellites.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

“It is a signal to Islamists, for example, that the principle of self-determination they are fighting for has been conceded by Putin.” Has the author of this article been sniffing glue? Isn’t the good ‘ol USA supposed to be the champion of self-determination?
So now if Putin is the defender of self-determination AND the provider of sanctuary for whistle-blowers (such as Snowden)…what exactly does that make the USA then?

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

I think Wapshott is missing something here. The current state of the international community, at least w/r/t the USA and Europe, poses absolutely NO barrier to Putin’s continued expansion. Obama has clearly stated that military action is off the table. While that may be of relief to many of us in the West, it also tells Putin that any substantive push-back from the West is a long ways off. He has already stated he believes Russia is within its rights to intervene militarily if ethnic Russians are being treated “improperly”. Now he’s making noises about Estonia’s ethnic Russians. It matters not what effect his legitimizing of secession may or may not have, if his intention is to take back many of Russia’s former buffer states as he has the Crimea. . .and at present, I see NOTHING standing in his way.

Worse yet, as other powers in the world see his actions un-resisted, they too will start to push their boundaries.

The West has fallen asleep again, as it does whenever it lacks an existential threat for any length of time. I suspect we’ll see more aggression from Putin’s Russia before it (and the USA) even starts to wake up again.

Posted by Yashmak | Report as abusive

After reading both the article and the comments related to it, I have to say that I am some what stunned by the lack of true understanding of the situation. The bias of the western press and the embarrassing behaviour of western politicians is nothing short of incredulous. People are being terrorised in Ukraine by a so called government that was placed in power by the USA. all of this could have been avoided if the western governments believed in true democracy which there don’t. The rush to legitimise the coup and ignore the facts was blatant.
One has to assume that the USA has manufactured the whole situation to further establish its hold upon the free world. You just have to look at recent events were the west has used double standards to achieve its ends. I don’t support Putin but can understand that he has been manipulated by the USA for the long game. And again it will be innocent people that suffer in every part of the world except America.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

This piece is annoying in what is now standard line of blasting Russia and Putin. Would be good to pay some attention and rebuking the Russian narrative. The Russian narrative is oriented towards geopolitics and playing chess on the world map. In this game Russians feel they are being encircled and they cite facts supporting this. A small example is the famous telephone talk between Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Kiev about selecting prime minister there. Take this into context from another talk of Nuland in which she reveals the US spent 5 bln dollars in the last twenty years to promote democracy in Ukraine. Add the US think tanks and hard liners which are devising strategies how Russia as a federation might be breakable to pieces. No doubt Russians have tons of intelligence material what is being talked in cabinets and what kind of strategic plans are discussed in the shadow world of NSA-type of agencies. Decisivness of their action in Crimea and Ukraine provides strong clues something is going on behind the scenes. The real question worth discussing is if all this is just Russian paranoia or not.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

You mean Occupied Crimea?

Posted by Woltmann | Report as abusive

I’m sure that Mr. Wapshott knows that there is a very long history of close relations between Russia and Ukraine. After all, Ukraine is considered the mother of Russia by Russians and many others around the world. The fact that Mr. Wapshott left this fact out makes the rest of his fulminations unbelievable.

The 1991 separation of Ukraine and Russia seemed like a simple mistake in the crash of the Soviet Union. It was much too sudden and undemocratic, to really believe in. It appeared to be just another bunch of usurping demagogues taking advantage of the chaos. But, since it did not seem to change the relationships and trade between the peoples of the two countries, there was little protest.

And, does anyone think that the West did not do its best to destroy what was left of Russian power in the early 1990s under the alcoholic President Yeltsin. In fact, how DID such an incompetent as Yeltsin come to power?

We know that Harvard economist Larry Summers and Robert Rubin were heavily into setting up the privatization system which transferred so much of Russian treasure to oligarchs. What else was the US doing TO Russia?

The big event in the secession of Crimea, virtually a Russia province for hundreds of years, was the Western sponsored putch government illegal takeover of the legal Kiev government of Ukraine. The right wing Ukrainian nationalist parties from Western Ukraine led an armed coup. Immediately, laws were being promulgated to outlaw Russian as an official language. Russian-related monuments to overcoming the Nazis in WWII were torn down. The right wing parties are descendents of Ukrainian Nazis who fought against Russia in WWII. There was, and remains, much reason for the ethnic Russians, particularly in the South and East of Ukraine, to fear the illegal Kiev putch government. The Crimeans and Russians acted on that fear, and accomplished the full democratic transfer of Crimea back to Russia. Crimeans were obviously joyous.

And Mr. Wapshott’s description of a Russian occupation army in Crimea again leaves out the critical fact that 25,000 Russian troops are in accord with the Ukraine-Russia treaty on Crimea, to protect the Russian Black Sea navy, and most accounts have that much smaller numbers were in Crimea. Moreover, the Kiev putch government had immediately disbanded the 6,000 strong Berkut riot police force. These people could have formed the core of the alleged Russian forces.

This opinion piece is just the usual, trite anti-Russian hit piece we get from Reuters. I suppose every Reuters opinion writer has to throw himself on the self-disemboweling sword of such pieces. But, I had hoped for better from Mr. Wapshott. What a shame!

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

An eye-opening article that explains what’s probably really going on behind the scenes in the Ukraine crisis: “Texas, Crimea, Catalan, and What’s Really Driving the New “Cold War” With Russia” http://jackworthington.wordpress.com/201 4/03/25/texas-crimea-catalan-and-whats-r eally-driving-the-new-cold-war-with-russ ia/

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

That secession has been “legitimised” has little bearing on the situation; Russia, even post-Soviet Russia, doesn’t care about that. Putin claimed Crimea on the logic of “might makes right” – the secession claim was merely a way to stave off international intervention.

Let Chechnya try to secede, as indeed it has. Who’s going to give it the muscle to get away with it? Putin will just say “that’s a different situation,” not especially caring whether the world believes him. Because Russia needs Chechnya too much to let it go, whether it wants to or not. And at this point, it’s highly unlikely anyone’s going to intervene to give Chechnya (or any other Russian territory, Chechnya just being the most notable) military support. If that situation pops up, Putin will be able to say “I did it to you, and you can’t do it back.” Proving that, militarily, no other country in the world can match his resolve.

What Putin has done here is make himself look strong in front of his own people. He’s added territory to Russia, and by the standards of most of the Russians who care about these things he’s brought back a little of the pride the country had before the collapse twenty-five years ago. He certainly hasn’t /weakened/ himself.

Posted by Hurocrat | Report as abusive