An article in the German Council on Foreign Relations’ journal Internationale Politik by the journalist Elizabeth Pond stated boldly that, “This week will go down in history as the moment when the Post World War II attainment of a long peace on the bloody European continent was shattered.” The volte face presented by Crimea is such that German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is reportedly questioning his longstanding beliefs derived from Ostpolitik. This is significant, as one would have expected the SPD to be less enthusiastic about sanctions aimed at the Russian Federation. Strong German support is essential for an effective sanctions regime to take effect

The fact that the actions in Crimea were carried out by a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council underscores the gravity of these actions. The provisions of the UN Charter on territorial integrity are the cornerstone of the current world order and will be rendered virtually meaningless if Crimea is annexed by Russia under a slapdash plebiscite conducted under de facto military occupation and the massing of 220,000 Russian soldiers on the border with Ukraine. The international community should be particularly chastened if the type of behavior that led to war in 1914 and 1939 is allowed to stand on the centenary and seventy-fifth anniversaries of those tragedies. In addition to the UN Charter, Russia’s “unmarked” soldiers will have also trampled on the Helsinki Final Act, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the 1997 Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation between Russia and Ukraine, and numerous related agreements respecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Dispelling Equivalences

Of course, it would be better if the hands of the West were themselves completely clean, but any shortcomings in that regard are of a far lesser magnitude than forced annexation. For starters, it would have been preferable for President Viktor Yanukovcyh to have been removed in strict observance of the Ukrainian Constitution not only to uphold the rule of law, but also to deny Russian President Vladimir Putin the legal fig leaf on which he claims his actions rest. In addition, although the condemnation and concerns for the Tatar minority in Crimea enunciated by Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu are appropriate, the words would have more impact had Turkey—a NATO member state—not itself invaded and then declared an independent state in North Cyprus.

The most glaring sore spot, however, is the unilateral declaration of independence on February 17, 2008 of an independent state of Kosovo in the presence of KFOR troops and followed by almost immediate recognition by France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany. Although Chancellor Angela Merkel is correct to point out that the situation on the ground in Kosovo—widespread ethnic cleansing—can and should be differentiated from that in Crimea, the recognition of a unilateral right of secession, which was never and is still not considered a right under the UN’s principle of “self-determination,” cannot. The advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice that Kosovo had no “precedent” value looks like blatant hypocrisy to Russia, which later cited Kosovo in recognizing the breakaway Georgian regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia has not played its hand at all well either. Just over half—58 percent—of the Crimean population is Russian and, other than a mindless and unnecessary resolution on the official status of the Russia language by the putative government in Kiev—later retracted—the Russian speaking majority population in Crimea was neither mistreated, nor under any threat whatsoever. Unfortunately, there are now disturbing unconfirmed reports of Russian covert forces, the so-called Spetsnaz, fanning out even into eastern Ukraine to foment clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Kiev groups that might be used as pretexts for wider action. There are now very real concerns—felt primarily by the Muslim Tatars—about the treatment of other large minorities in Crimea should there be annexation. One of the reasons that those with Russia identity are so prevalent in this region is due to the so-called Sürgün, when Stalin ordered the forced relocation of the Tatar population in 1944.

Prior Russian objections to the recognition of Kosovo are also unhelpful to its actions in the present instance. One of Moscow’s primary complaints about Kosovo’s declaration of independence was precisely that it was unilateral and not achieved through negotiation with and the consent of Serbia. Yet, the Crimean parliament, acting contrary to the Ukrainian Constitution, asserted a right to hold a hastily called referendum that took place under the shadow of the Russian military. The referendum had the further defect in not having the option of saying “no” on the ballot. Secession is possible under international law, but it requires a lengthy process of consultation with the national government, as the current examples of Quebec and Scotland attest. Then again, Kosovo became independent, it was not annexed. The international community should recognize the fact that Russian interests in the stability of Crimea do exist and the autonomous status of Crimea within Ukraine and of the leases to Russian naval bases and airfields should be affirmed. Ukraine should have equal and open trade and political relations with both Russia and the EU. That could still be the basis of a diplomatic solution to this crisis and it is in Russia’s long-term interest as well that this be the ultimate result.

The Wider Implications of a New Precedent of Succession

Russia’s actions in Crimea, if ending in annexation, will encourage a Balkanization process elsewhere in the world in places such as Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. Those games should be a vestige of the past. Russia also placed its frequent Security Council partner, China, in a very difficult position as China’s abstention on the Security Council resolution condemning the referendum attests. While China and Russia generally support one another in challenges to the West, the current crisis runs counter to one of the basics tenets of Chinese foreign policy: sovereignty within recognized territorial boundaries. Of even greater potential importance, should the right of unilateral succession emerge from this crisis as an international norm, is its potential on China itself. The people of Inner Mongolia might someday want to be annexed by Mongolia or those in China’s Xinjiang Province by Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. The precedent that comes out of Crimea may well someday have repercussions in Tibet or Taiwan. On the other hand, China might wish to have its cake and eat it, too, in places such as the islands of the South China Sea and Arunachal Pradesh. To many Americans and those in the West who are weary of over a decade of two wars, the events playing out in Crimea seem like a small problem in some distant corner of the world. In reality, the current crisis has the potential to unleash a whirlwind.

David W. Wise is a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law of Diplomacy at Tufts University and is a member of  The International Institute of Strategic Studies.