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Can Secession Be Legitimate? | Insight

Though it’s of international consequence, a domestic rift is at the heart of Ukraine’s troubles.

What would you say if California voted to leave the United States? What about South Carolina? In general,  should one region simply be allowed to leave a country?

This is one of the key questions at hand in Ukraine’s current tumult, although it’s not likely that we in the US will hear much about it. Instead, with the arrival of Russian troops at Ukraine’s border, it’s almost a guarantee that the national conversation will revolve around what the US should do.

In the case of a Russian invasion, hawkish figures in the American national security establishment assert that the United States should provide weapons to Ukraine and impose hefty economic sanctions on Russia. Some other prominent voices suggest that the US should focus on pressuring both countries to implement a currently-dormant peace agreement.

These are heavy matters, and surely the mainstream media will cover them with the responsibility and analytical rigor it’s known for. But it’s also worth examining Ukraine’s internal dynamics—and that opening question—more closely. Ukraine has been an independent nation for just over thirty years, after decades in the Soviet Union and centuries under the Russian Empire. Ukrainians interpret that history as either participation in a proud ethnic-national tradition or a legacy of subordination. Since independence, it’s been torn between those competing narratives. In the western part of the country, staunch anti-Russian sentiment prevails, while in the East, many long for those old bonds with Moscow.

In 2013, these competing national visions came to a head when then-President Viktor Yanukovych decided against deepening Ukraine's relationship with the European Union. Widespread pro-western protests broke out, and Yanukovych was forced to leave office. In response to his forced abdication, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and Ukrainians in the eastern region of Donbas instigated an armed separatist conflict which has been ongoing for the past seven years.

Russia has played a major role in facilitating Eastern separatism, but it’s undoubtedly the case that there is genuine popular dissatisfaction in the region with the national government’s western turn. That’s the rub of the situation—for both practical strategic and political-philosophical reasons, separatist demands cannot be simply written off as Muscovite meddling. There’s a truly thorny question for those of us who believe in democracy; is it legitimate for a national minority, concentrated in some region, to decide unilaterally to secede from a nation?

There have been some attempts to settle this matter. In the early years of the civil war, the national Ukrainian government, separatist leaders, Russia, and a number of European nations signed on to the Minsk Protocol. That agreement stipulated a ceasefire and the eventual establishment of an autonomous eastern republic in Ukraine: still part of the country but self-governing in most respects.

In theory, the Minsk Protocol is a middle ground that confers legitimacy on separatists while maintaining the Ukrainian nation. But in practical terms, the ceasefire shattered quickly, and the agreement has not come close to being implemented. None of the parties, either domestic or international, seem enthusiastic about the provisions. Even if it were put in place, it’s hard to imagine that the possibility of a full break between Ukraine and Donbas wouldn’t rear its head again in the near future.

Ultimately, it seems the Minsk Protocol is a sort of off-ramp in the direction of some new, independent political entity aligned with Russia. If it can be implemented slowly and peacefully, that might be the most appropriate path forward. But conferring separatists with a collective right to exit the national project can be dangerous.

Nation-states have their problems, but for stability’s sake it makes a great deal of sense that the bar for secession is either extremely high or non-existent. Were it possible for groups to easily pursue secession or the establishment of autonomous regions, global stability could quickly evaporate. Simply put, national politics doesn’t work if we come to see our political communities as merely the sum of their parts, to be abandoned the moment participation begins to appear distasteful or disadvantageous. Even in a democracy, a majority of a minority can’t reasonably have the unilateral power to reshape the country. National divorces may at times be necessary in the case of absolute last resort, but we probably don’t want them to become the norm.

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