Vladimir Putin, the Crimea, and Double Standards

Charles Crawford


On 18 March Russia’s President Vladimir Putin delivered a major speech to Russia’s political elite aimed at explaining Russia’s policy towards Crimea and Ukraine. Plenty of commentators have analyzed it (and attacked it mercilessly) on points of substance. See for example this brisk piece for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.


It is nonetheless worth looking at the speech as a piece of rhetoric. How did Vladimir Putin structure his various arguments and address many different audiences simultaneously?



Putin and his speechwriting team faced a difficult problem: how to explain to Russian opinion and to Ukraine and the wider world Russia’s plan to transfer Crimea from Ukrainian to Russian sovereignty, when international law rules that Russia has upheld sternly in the case of Kosovo go so clearly against what he is trying to do?


International law depends upon peaceful relations between states. States need to know where their rule runs. International borders therefore can be changed only under closely defined circumstances, above all with the explicit consent of the states involved. Thus the British government in Westminster has accepted a referendum in Scotland that could lead to Scotland breaking from the United Kingdom and becoming an independent country. This echoes the precedent set by Canada for Quebec, a world standard in how such issues should be managed.


Moves to separate Crimea from Ukraine do not meet that standard. The rest of Ukraine has not given its consent to transferring Crimea to Russian sovereignty. Hence Russia’s humiliating defeat in the UN Security Council on 16 March. Not one Security Council member voted on Russia’s side. No state wants to see new precedents that call into question its own control of its own territory.


President Putin’s bluntly (or brazenly) opened by asserting that international law was on his side:


A referendum was held in Crimea on March 16 in full compliance with democratic procedures and international norms. More than 82 percent of the electorate took part in the vote. Over 96 percent of them spoke out in favor of reuniting with Russia. These numbers speak for themselves.


He rehearsed some of the deep historical ties between Russia and Crimea, noting that during the Soviet period Crimean Tatars had been treated ‘unfairly’:

Millions of people of various ethnicities suffered during those repressions, and primarily Russians… it would be right – I know the local population supports this – for Crimea to have three equal national languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar.


This bland description of what happened to the Tatars is appalling. In May 1944 the whole Tatar population of Crimea was rounded up in days and transported to gulag-style slave labor in the eastern USSR: ethnic cleansing and genocide perpetrated by Stalin against fellow Soviet citizens.


A Russian President truly concerned to address the countless crimes committed by the former communist regime in Moscow would demand that the moth-eaten remains of Lenin be removed from Red Square, and the other former communist leaders be dismissed from their place of honor in the Kremlin Wall. That, of course, is not on Vladimir Putin’s agenda. His seemingly sincere words in this speech about former communist excesses insult the memories of communism’s millions of Russian victims.

President Putin claimed that Crimea had been transferred improperly to Ukraine during the Soviet period:


This decision was made in clear violation of the constitutional norms in place even then. The decision was made behind the scenes … But on the whole – and we must state this clearly, we all know it – this decision was treated as a formality of sorts because the territory was transferred within the boundaries of a single state.


He tried to present Russia as some sort of victim in this murky transaction, although he did note (an important point) that the later collapse of the USSR had been triggered by Russia’s own actions:


We have to admit that by launching the sovereignty parade Russia itself aided in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders …


We had to proceed from the existing reality and build our good-neighborly relations with independent Ukraine on a new basis. Meanwhile, our relations with Ukraine, with the fraternal Ukrainian people have always been and will remain of foremost importance for us. 


It’s notable that the official Kremlin version of this speech marks this passage alone as having received noisy approbation. Later in the speech Putin again emphasized that despite this Crimea problem Russia wanted excellent, close relations with Ukraine:


We want to be friends with Ukraine and we want Ukraine to be a strong, sovereign and self-sufficient country. Ukraine is one of our biggest partners after all. We have many joint projects and I believe in their success no matter what the current difficulties. Most importantly, we want peace and harmony to reign in Ukraine, and we are ready to work together with other countries to do everything possible to facilitate and support this. But as I said, only Ukraine’s own people can put their own house in order …


I want you to hear me, my dear friends. Do not believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that.


A signal that Moscow plans to ring-fence the Crimea issue and (subject to Ukraine’s own reactions) to start to de-escalate the crisis, having made a ruthless but controlled demonstration of Russian power in this region?


President Putin then looked for arguments to explain why separating Crimea from Ukraine would be politically justified. After claiming to understand why many Ukrainians had been disgusted by their corrupt government, he insisted that “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites … ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II” had executed a coup:


It is also obvious that there is no legitimate executive authority in Ukraine now, nobody to talk to.


Most countries around the world are happy to engage with the new interim political authorities in Kiev, the more so as they are doing the right thing in Ukraine’s miserable circumstances, namely aiming to hold new elections as soon as possible. The speech said nothing on this vital point.


President Putin then talked about the Kosovo precedent, cleverly quoting from legal arguments submitted by the United States to the International Court of Justice


“Declarations of independence may, and often do, violate domestic legislation. However, this does not make them violations of international law.” They wrote this, disseminated it all over the world, had everyone agree and now they are outraged. Over what? The actions of Crimean people completely fit in with these instructions …, things that Kosovo Albanians (and we have full respect for them) were permitted to do, Russians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in Crimea are not allowed.



These passages articulate the new Russian position on these international legal questions but in an obviously tendentious way. If the Kosovo precedent is so awful in itself, yet also so powerful and convincing for Crimea, does that mean that Russia is going to recognize Kosovo as an independent state? Seems not. Double standards.


Putin gave a long tough list of complaints about US and wider Western policies, asserting that they amounted to “amazing, primitive, blunt cynicism” aimed at Russia itself:


We understand what is happening; we understand that these actions were aimed against Ukraine and Russia and against Eurasian integration … But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.


Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from. If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard …


Today, it is imperative to end this hysteria, to refute the rhetoric of the cold war and to accept the obvious fact: Russia is an independent, active participant in international affairs; like other countries, it has its own national interests that need to be taken into account and respected.


Putin knew that his Crimea policies were going to more than unpopular around the world. He made the best of a bad job and thanked China and India for their ’understanding and objectivity’. He also made a direct appeal to Washington and Berlin, urging them to see events in Crimea in democratic terms as applied when Germany was reunified:


Today, I would like to address the people of the United States of America, the people who, since the foundation of their nation and adoption of the Declaration of Independence, have been proud to hold freedom above all else. Isn’t the desire of Crimea’s residents to freely choose their fate such a value? … I expect that the citizens of Germany will also support the aspiration of the Russians, of historical Russia, to restore unity.


Putin concluded by insisting that Russia’s public massively supported the decision taken by people in Crimea:


Obviously, we will encounter external opposition, but this is a decision that we need to make for ourselves. Are we ready to consistently defend our national interests, or will we forever give in, retreat to who knows where?


… We will never seek confrontation with our partners, whether in the East or the West, but on the contrary will do everything we can to build civilized and good-neighborly relations as one is supposed to in the modern world.


Conclusion? A good Western political speechwriter working on a speech of such import includes some easy-to-kick straw men for lively knockabout rhetorical effect, but also works in passages that tackle fairly the strong counter-arguments against one’s own position. It’s not enough to be powerful and eloquent. One also has to be convincing, and that means acknowledging that other points of view have real substance.


Kremlin speechwriters do not favor that approach. They pile up insinuations, assertions, exaggerations, special pleadings, belittlings, irrelevant details and all sorts of other banal ploys aimed at creating an overall mood of world-weary sardonic reasonableness behind which Russia can do whatever it feels like doing. One particularly exhausting tactic is to rummage in the grubby bran tub of history to ‘prove’ that others are being hypocritical and showing ‘double standards’: Russia by contrast is invariably principled and consistent. Tell that to the Tatars.


That said, this speech was unusually full – and important. It is no exaggeration to say that Russia’s actions in Crimea challenge the whole post-World War II global legal order. Not because they are uniquely malign or unprincipled – President Putin indeed can highlight examples of stupid ‘Western’ international policies that have backfired or just made things worse.


The key fact is that Russia’s actions in Crimea undermine in a dramatic way the most basic principles of modern global order, namely the circumstances under which international borders are changed. It’s one thing a Kosovo under UN supervision making a democratic decision to break away from Serbia (whatever you think about the merits of that) to become an independent country. It’s absolutely another to intervene in a sovereign state and manipulate a trivially unsatisfactory political process aimed at grabbing some of your neighbor’s territory. As leading UK legal pundit Carl Gardner put it on Twitter:


What’s wrong is to occupy part of someone else’s country, then “respect” its “wish” to be annexed … by you


Putin has neither law nor principle on his side. He is claiming a nonexistent crisis in Crimea then asserting that only Crimea joining Russia can solve it, a specious position that ignores the many other options for using peaceful negotiation according to countless European modern principles, all of which Russia itself has accepted.


The question now is simple. Does the Kremlin plan to extend this policy into other parts of Ukraine and/or other parts of the former Soviet Union, including countries now in both the EU and NATO? This speech seemed to be open to drawing a line under the Crimea episode, albeit taking it for granted that the issue was now solved on Russia’s terms alone. If that turns out not to be the case and Russia is emboldened to try to grab more territory from its neighbors, this speech may be seen by history as the text that led to a generalized disaster. 


Author Bio:

Charles Crawford served as FCO speechwriter in the 1980s and then as British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw before leaving the UK Foreign Service in 2007 to start a new career as speechwriter, communications consultant and mediator. He can be reached via his websitewww.charlescrawford.biz.



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