American reaction to Crimea situation is based on principle or expediency?

I’m still bewildered by the news coverage of the situation in Crimea and our politicians speaking confidently about the situation over there. Now it seems that the Crimeans (about as many as live in Pittsburgh, Denver, or Baltimore) will vote on whether or not they wish to secede from Ukraine (nytimes). If they do vote to secede, does American have a principled reaction ready or will we decide whom to support based on expediency or something else?

Let’s review where we’ve stood on issues of secession…

  • 1776: British subjects in 13 colonies decided to secede from the British Empire. We were for it.
  • 1830s: A majority of people in Texas wanted to secede from Mexico. We were for it.
  • 1940-present: People in Taiwan wanted to secede from China. We were for it but lately our support has wavered.
  • 1861: Southerners decided to secede from the U.S. We were against it.
  • 1974: Some people in Northern Cyprus wanted to secede from Cyprus. We are against it (official State Department page).
  • 1990s: Albanians in Kosovo wanted to secede from Serbia. We were for it.
  • 2010s: A majority of people in South Sudan wanted to secede from Sudan. We were for it.

Are we decided to be for or against these secessions based on a single high principle, based on competing principles, or based on expediency and self-interest?


  1. David Walker

    March 6, 2014 @ 11:52 pm


    It turns out that at least one jurisprudential scholar, Hans Kelsen, has developed an interesting framework for how to deal with these issues. Discussion at:

  2. prime interest

    March 7, 2014 @ 12:25 am


    Corporate Interest.

    Ukraine is the second wheat producer.
    Crimea has gas fields and access to rest of oil rich fields.
    The original home of Oil and Rothschilds.

    West believes it owns the rest of the world.
    problem only arise when others forget their place in the world.

    Americans only believe in Democracy within their borders.
    rest is just resource grabbing and taxing without representation.

    US tried overthrow in 2005 with color revolution.
    with Ukraine in debt and running out. It was time
    for billionaire in Ukraine to take over. It just that Russia
    gets in the way of their plans.

  3. Fazal Majid

    March 7, 2014 @ 3:53 am


    You are forgetting:

    – Panama seceding from Colombia (the US instigated it)

    – Tibetan independence (the US officially is against it)

    – Puerto Ricans who want to declare independence

    – Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan (the US sent in an aircraft carrier group to intimidate the Indians and deter them from helping Bangladeshis, even though the Pakistani army and its allied militias were waging a campaign of genocide, with an estimated 300,000 to 3 million killed)

    Not to mention that the Russian basing rights in Crimea bear a troubling resemblance to the US’ own situation vis-a-vis Cuba on Guantanamo Bay (the “host” country doesn’t want it, but a pliable dictator can be found to extend the lease for decades).

  4. SK

    March 7, 2014 @ 4:19 am



    Strangely many people assume that Putin wants to join Crimea to Russia. It is, however, unlikely: Crimea is poor region, and it will be expensive to support it (unless there are recent natural resource discoveries we don’t know about). Most likely he wants:

    1) Keep NATO from spreading to Ukraine.
    2) Keep military bases.
    3) Control pipeline.
    4) Leave Crimea on Ukraine’s balance sheet.

    And it appears he has a good chance to be successful on all objectives. Note that referendum in Crimea doesn’t fit these objectives (what if they decide to join Russia?), and most likely is not going to happen. I.e. once agreement on first 3 points is reached, it will be “wait, we promised to keep Ukraine whole, no referendum”.

  5. Walter Mitty

    March 7, 2014 @ 8:23 am


    Americans sometimes conflate US national interests with the global interests of humanity, as seen through the prism of an American world view. I’m reminded of the Open Door policy towards China in the nineteeenth century, or US policy in the aftermath of World War One.

    As to our opposition to secession in 1861, I have to echo what Tonto is supposed to have said to the Lone Ranger: “what do you mean, ‘we’?”. A lot of Americans supported secession. And it took the descendants of the losing side a hundred years to come to terms with the Union victory.

    I don’t believe that many Crimeans suddenly considered themselves Ukrainians in 1954, when Crimea was moved from one Soviet Republic to another. And I don’t believe that many Crimeans adopted Ukrainian ethnicity when Ukraine seceded from the collapsing USSR.

  6. Walter Mitty

    March 7, 2014 @ 9:22 am


    For over a year, the Ukrainian crisis was about some fairly dry subjects. Ukraine was buying natural gas from Russia at a high price but on easy credit terms, and selling it at a much lower price internally, for hard currency. The IMF was considering huge loans to Ukraine but would impose an austerity program opposed by most Ukrainians. These were real crises, but not attention getters in the US. The media spotlight just didn’t shine on this kind of thing.

    Then the dramatic videos started coming. We were treated to the sights of barricades of burning tires, riot police arrayed like Roman legions, and fireworks being used like bombs bursting in air. That got our attention.

    How much attention did we pay when Czeckoslovakia split in two? How much attention are we paying when Belgium might split in two, or Scotland might secede from the UK?

  7. Alex

    March 7, 2014 @ 10:03 am


    The extent to which most Americans “believe in Democracy” within our own borders is somewhat debatable, too. Note that whenever a broad majority of Americans, or residents of a particular state, believe one way about an issue, the other side starts looking for reasons why their opponent’s views are unconstitutional.

    As regards the Ukraine/Crimea/Russia situation, I’ve been wasting a lot of time recently reading Mencius Moldbug ( On the one hand, his formalist ideology suggests that international borders should remain fixed. If there was anything like a truly sovereign world government, with an international court that actually had the authority and power to enforce these kinds of disputes, the correct ruling would be “Crimea has been a part of Ukraine for years now, never mind how, and stability and order are more important than any other consideration. Crimea remains part of Ukraine.”

    On the other hand, and far more practically, he believes in the principal of classical (not modern) international law, and argues for a return to neutralism regarding foreign policy (i.e. USA’s foreign policy should be to have no foreign policy at all). We recognize all sovereign nations as sovereign. We don’t get involved in disputes between other sovereign nations. Not only will this save the US a lot of headaches, it’s certainly less hypocritical than our current policy positions (for example, I think most Americans would consider the notion of Russia and China having some stance on whether or not California should return to Mexico is being extremely arrogant and annoying).

    The other interesting Moldbug-triggered line of thinking about the Crimea situation is that “violence equals conflict plus uncertainty”. The Crimeans can only rationally attempt to break away from Ukraine if they have some reason to believe they can win. Given what USA’s policy position seems to be (Crimea stays with Ukraine….I think. Maybe the main thing that pisses off the State Department is that Russia started intervening without consulting with us “like they should have”, and we don’t actually care about the Crimea at all), maybe the Crimeans only recently decided they could get away with making a break because 13 years of misadventure in Afghanistan has shown everybody just how impotent the US actually is?

  8. Sergy

    March 7, 2014 @ 11:49 am


    I was born in Crimea. Some of my relatives there pro-Russia (most of them), some don’t. Those that don’t are not gonna vote. They scared of Russian army and do not trust this election. Everyone who against Russia are sitting home now scared. All Crimean tatars are also not gonna participate (at least Medzhlis saying to not participate).

  9. Vince

    March 7, 2014 @ 12:55 pm


    Sergy is making the point that occurred to me. It doesn’t seem plausible that there can be a fair referendum next week with the Russian army and various self-organized militias running around the peninsula.

    There was a somewhat similar issue in 1861. A large portion of the population, the slaves, were not able to participate in the process that led to secession.

    Also, you could also add Scotland to your list. They have an independence scheduled for later this year. I assume that the U.S. government is not taking a position.

  10. Mark Hurst

    March 7, 2014 @ 4:52 pm


    How about the folks in Silicon Valley who want to secede? The extremists want to secede entirely from the U.S., while the moderates merely want to carve out their own U.S. state. Will be interesting to see how the feds react to that one (and how campaign contributions from Google, Facebook, et al will feed into it).

  11. patrick

    March 8, 2014 @ 12:12 am


    Principle vs. expediency is a false dichotomy. The state is not a charity. The purpose of a democratically elected government is to represent the interest of the people who elected it. Therefore the principle should be rational self-interest, which is executed by whatever action is most expedient. If individuals wish to be charitable, may the Lord bless them, but that is not the proper rôle of the state.

  12. Alexey

    March 8, 2014 @ 10:09 am


    Some thoughts:

    1. De-facto Russian military occupation of Crimea makes the referendum not very legitimate. Russian government is very experienced in faking elections.

    2. The date has been moved several times. First the end of May, then March 30, now March 16. As someone said: “I think tomorrow will be announced that the referendum has already taken place yesterday.”

    3. The Crimea parliament has already voted to join Russia before decided on referendum.

    4. The ballot text is biased. The choice is basically between “yes, now” and “yes, later”. [1, 2]

    5. Putin may not stop at Crimea. His goal may be the whole territory of Ukraine. Signs? A. Very hostile rhetoric towards current Ukraine government. B. Military exercises near Ukrainian borders. C. Provocation attempts in South-Eastern regions of Ukraine. D. Unprecedented propaganda on (all) Russian media, against Ukrainian government. Here in Russia the smell of war is in the air…


  13. Alex Masa

    March 10, 2014 @ 9:11 am



    Your list of “issues of secession” appears to give the impression that the United States is really no better than Russia. I’m pretty sure that somebody as well read as you are knows that this relativistic approach is simplistic, so I don’t understand why you do this. Comparing the barbaric regime of today’s Russia, and their ambitions to dominate other territories through brute force (of the medieval kind – let’s remember the poisoning of their enemies, for example!), with the United States’ desire to support things such as democracy, free will of the people, freedom of assembly, speech and religion, rule of the law, respect for the private property etc etc etc is outrageous.

    Yes, sometimes the US government gets it completely wrong (it is a *government* after all) but do tell me where things stand with regards to the freedoms above, in the following cases:

    – the 13 colonies which decided to secede from the British Empire, in the
    – Texas or Mexico
    – Taiwan or mainland China
    – Southern United States vs Northern of United States, in the 1800s
    – Northern Cyprus vs rest of Cyprus
    – Kosovo vs Serbia, in the late ’90s
    – South Korea vs North Korea
    – East Germany vs West Germany, 1950-1990

    I was born and raised behind the Iron Curtain and I saw with my own eyes the consequences of having the Kremlin primitives crushing people’s freedoms. Those thugs were not and are not the equivalent of the United States government and they have never represented the free will of the Russian people either.

  14. philg

    March 10, 2014 @ 3:57 pm


    Alex: It is not for me to judge whether or not the Russians are better or worse than Americans or anyone else. If it were possible to get a fair vote from the Crimeans (Alexey makes some good points above suggesting that it is not possible) then presumably they would have weighed the pluses and minuses of being subject to Putin’s government. I was asking “What if the Crimeans in a fair vote did say that they wanted to be part of Russia?” The reason that’s an interesting question to me is that American governments have tried to justify their foreign policy positions with high moral principles and I can’t figure out which one our current government could use to justify opposition to a Crimean secession.

    You’ve made a convincing case that Crimeans would enjoy more political freedom if they all moved to Brooklyn (though some might grumble that paying 50 percent of their income in taxes instead of 13 percent was not an increase in freedom). But the choice instead seems to be living under either Ukrainian rule or Russian rule. Can Americans make an informed decision regarding those alternatives? Should Americans make that decision for Crimeans?

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