The Sovereignty Dilemma in Ukraine

The situation in Crimea is testing the international norms that define sovereignty, says Andrew Reddie.

By: /
20 March, 2014
By: Andrew Reddie
Former Managing Editor,

The recent conflagration in Crimea has captured worldwide public attention due largely to its geostrategic implications for the relationship between the United States and Russia as well as the future of the sovereignty norm that we have long taken for granted. The heated discussions over the appropriateness of self-determination, self-rule, and sovereignty from the Ukrainian, American, European, and Russian perspectives have provided fodder for an argument that has continued for as long as statehood has existed: what is sovereignty and what is its place in our interdependent world.

As explained by Hedley Bull, sovereignty means that a government may a) exercise ultimate authority over a given territory that constitutes a state (internal sovereignty) and b) embark upon relations with other states without interference from a higher source of authority (external sovereignty). For Ukraine, this means Russia cannot violate its territorial integrity or take any action that impinges upon Ukraine’s ability to govern. With that said, the Crimean referendum voting for secession from Ukraine and accession to Russia presents its own challenges.

To explore the sovereignty issues in the context of Ukraine, it is necessary to look to the past for historical context. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there have been increasing calls to revise sovereignty norms on the basis that the international community shares a collective responsibility (often conceptualized as the “responsibility to protect”—R2P) to protect populations regardless of the state to which they belong. Action upon this responsibility, however, requires unanimous agreement in the UN Security Council, which has only occurred in rare instances. Libya represents the most recent case of R2P being used as a justification for an intervention (Resolution 1973) that received UNSC support. In the months following that intervention, however, China and Russia both objected to the expansive nature of international action that Resolution 1973 excused. Indeed, both China and Russia have nominally supported noninterference rather than intervention. In Ukraine and Georgia before it, however, Russia appears to have changed its tune.

But while sovereignty is enforced by norms of the international community, conceptions of sovereignty also have internal dilemmas. The most significant challenge is that a modern, sovereign state often harbors multiple ethnicities, or nations. Indeed, some nations have states (e.g. Azeris in Azerbaijan) while others do not (e.g. Catalans in Spain or Kurds in Turkey). Subsequently, disagreements concerning statehood often occur as nations attempt to create their own state, split apart an existing state, or redraw borders. Moreover, states with multiple ethnicities, rampant corruption, or autocratic regimes also face challenges to their continued viability from forces within. In Crimea and other eastern regions of Ukraine, the unity government in Kyiv and its ostensible support for EU accession rather than turning toward Moscow has led to proponents of the former Yanukovych regime in Crimea to mobilize and now agree to accession to Russia.

While the United States has nominally supported protests to bring down the democratically-elected Yanukovych government in Ukraine, it rejects both the idea that Russia can impinge on Ukrainian sovereignty by stationing troops in the country or “annexing” Crimea—even via a referendum. But while the United States and the European Union have dismissed the referendum as illegal, there is no international legal procedure or norm to guide secession arrangements in the event that they should succeed. It is for this reason that procedures surrounding Kosovar, South Sudanese, and Scottish independence are handled differently in their respective contexts and by regional and international organizations. Kyiv appears unlikely to accept the results of the referendum supporting Crimean secession, but faces limited options in abrogating the results without asserting their control in the region—an option that Russia, in particular, will oppose. The armed forces of both sides will likely to continue to eye one another as the situation develops.

As an aside, the mooted Crimean secession would have fundamentally altered the domestic political dynamics in Ukraine itself and made a Party of Regions (the Russophone party of former President Yanukovych) win in national elections increasingly unlikely.

Russia, for its part, denounced the protestors over the past three months and continues to recognize Yanukovych as head of state. It justifies its intervention around its naval base at Sevastopol via comments from the former President. Moreover, Russia points to violence against ethnic Russians in other regions of eastern Ukraine to justify the mobilization of troops along Ukraine’s eastern border on the grounds with the very same “responsibility to protect” logic that it rejected in Syria. It will also likely come out in support of the recent election in Crimea with references to “self-determination.”

Importantly, Ukraine represents a test case for Russia to demonstrate its willingness to discard the norm of noninterference that it claims to hold dear. In the coming weeks, the major question is whether President Putin will hold off on a fully-fledged military operation in the hopes that a pro-Russian government will once again be voted in at the ballot box in Kyiv or in other regional referenda, or whether Moscow effectively annexes the regions of Ukraine that are ethnically Russian. For Ukrainian minorities, most notably the ethnic Tatars, such a move could prove uncomfortable given their tacit support for the anti-Yanukovych protests in Kyiv over the past three months.

As the situation unfolds, it is important to note that the variety of domestic and international stakeholders struggling to communicate and compromise with one another will only continue to make the situation more complicated. One of the biggest casualties of the conflict, however, will be the clarity of each state’s position with regard to the concept of sovereignty and what this means for the appropriateness of intervention either from individual states or international coalitions moving forward.

A version of this piece first appeared on the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs on March 19, 2014.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Open Canada is published by the Canadian International Council, but that’s only the beginning of what the CIC does. Through its research and live events hosted by its 18 branches across the country, the CIC is dedicated to engaging Canadians from all walks of life in an ongoing conversation about Canada’s place in the world.

By becoming a member, you’ll be joining a community of Canadians who seek to shape Canada’s role in the world, and you’ll help Open Canada continue to publish thoughtful and provocative reporting and analysis.

Join us