Both sides in the conflict will be invoking the United Nations Charter, which enshrines the inviolability of sovereign states and their borders – unlike the League of Nations, which was surprisingly active at redrawing borders after Versailles. The root of the problem is the weird West European notion of the nation state – a Procrustean construct in which populations had to be cut or stretched to fit homogeneously into a frame predetermined by nationalist ideologues. The French probably invented it – at a time when more than half their population did not speak French.
Looking at the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs almost leads to nostalgia, albeit with many qualifications. In their different ways, they at least provided for linguistic and ethnic diversity within one polity, which the European Union (despite its failings) also offers.
Boris Yeltsin’s power grab in Moscow led to the chaotic dissolution of the Soviet Union, leaving far too many questions unanswered, not least of which were the rights of minorities. A shared EU style citizenship, dual nationalities, linguistic rights should all have been negotiated – not to mention open borders.
Decolonisation in both Africa and the former Soviet Union led to many absurdities based on respect for existing boundaries whether drawn up by tipsy District Commissioners in Africa or playful commissars in the Soviet Union following Stalin’s. One of Stalin’s little jokes, Nagorno Karabagh, stranding an enclave of Armenians in Azerbaijan, is a classic unresolved issue that cannot be solved without adjusting borders.
So what of Ukraine? During the Balkan Wars, Bogdan Denitch, who represented the Democratic Socialists of America at the Socialist International, often quoted the Balkan formula: “Why should I be a minority in your country, when you could be a minority in mine?” It seems to be doing sterling service in the Ukraine now.
If only Putin were as sedulous about the rights of, say, Chechens, as he is about Russian speakers in the Crimea. Or if Moscow had shown any respect for the rights of the Crimean Tartars. But then the respect for Iraqi sovereignty shown by George W Bush and Tony Blair is hardly a good example. Experience suggests that people believe in their own right to self-determination but are less convinced about the rights of others. Ask a typical Indian about Kashmiri rights, an Argentinean about Falkland Islanders, or a Moroccan about Western Sahara, and the chances are you will hit a mother lode of patriotic taurine excreta.
While many at the time would agree that the Sudeten Germans had been deprived of their right to self-determination, there is a consensus that Hitler’s “liberation” of them broke all the rules. It was the Nazis flouting of the rules against aggression and conquest that led to the UN Charter’s emphasis on sovereignty – which has been reasonably successful so far in averting a third world.
There are more questions than answers in the Ukraine. Its capital, Kiev, was the core of what became the Russian state. There were Polish, Lithuanian and Russian states on what is now Ukrainian territory but until 1917 there had been no independent Ukrainian polity. Ironically, Ukraine owes its present territory to Stalin and his joint invasion with Hitler in of Poland in 1939.
But the Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, with their anti-Russian language moves, are not exactly paragons of toleration. If Ukraine has a right to national self-determination, then why don’t the constituent parts also have the same right? There is nothing in the UN Charter to stop boundaries being changed – but not by force. There are other ways. One is negotiation, from first principles with consultation and protection for all the parties on the ground. The other is the EU approach, which has been remarkably successful in making the borders meaningless for all but administrative purposes. If Britain and the new Europe can remain economically part of the EU while grovelling politically to Washington, Ukraine can join the EU without joining Nato and while maintaining the close political relations it needs with Russia. After all, those Ukrainian nationalists still want Russian gas to keep them warm.