Now that a referendum in Crimea has supported union with the Russian Federation and Russia is taking steps to annex the peninsula, the U.S. and other nations face a tricky question: to recognize or not to recognize? 

Leaving aside the question of the right thing to do, what is likely to happen?  Will the new status of Crimea be recognized and the territory become a nice, normal, uncontroversial part of the Russian state?  Or will it remain mired in an ambiguous legal and political limbo, contested and unresolved for decades?

After Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for the nonrecognition of “any alteration of the status of Crimea on the basis of [the] referendum”, President Obama told President Putin that the Crimean referendum “will never be recognized by the U.S. and the international community”.  Is this plausible? 

First, what’s the point of not recognizing a transfer of sovereignty over Crimea?  The most plausible argument for collectively withholding recognition from forceful secessions or violent annexations is for nations to reassure each other that we are not reverting to the dog-eat-dog world of the pre-WWI era.  The draft UN Security Council resolution explicitly stated that “no territorial acquisition resulting from the threat or use of force shall be recognized as legal.”  Without the visible consensus of the international community that grabbing and keeping the spoils of war is immoral or unacceptable, the prohibition on aggression might very well wither away. 

If the Crimean annexation is seen as naked aggression by the international community, then it will surely be resisted and its results not recognized.  This dynamic was seen clearly in the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was reversed by a multilateral coalition.  South Africa’s occupation of Namibia from 1966 until 1990 was also rejected as illegitimate and not recognized.  Arguably, the Israeli-Occupied Territories, illegal under international law and widely unrecognized, are another example.

However, states often try to legitimate their use of force with reference to other norms.  Sometimes, even if a military action is pretty obviously aggressive, the results of that action can be justified by reference to self-determination. 

Will the international community see Crimea as self-determination?  Standards have shifted.  After WWII, self-determination was often defined in terms of decolonization.  India invaded and annexed the island of Goa in 1961.  Despite Portugal’s 450 year history of government in Goa, the international community accepted the argument that European colonialism was illegitimate and so recognized India’s sovereignty over the island.  Similarly, in 1969, Indonesia forcibly annexed what had been known as Netherlands New Guinea and is now the Indonesian province of West Papua.  In both of these situations, invasion was seen as legitimate because it was justified under the banner of decolonization. 

More recently, self-determination has been defined in terms of democracy.  This means that the details of the referendum and any electoral process will be critical to the international community’s recognition or nonrecognition of the Crimean annexation.  Historically, the presence of the troops of the invading army has also been a problem.  The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was the result of a Turkish invasion of the island in 1974 and remains unrecognized, 40 years later, by any state except Turkey.  A sticking point in the debate has been the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Cyprus.  On the other hand, after India invaded East Pakistan in 1971, India agreed to withdraw its troops, after which the new state of Bangladesh was universally recognized. 

This seems likely to be a critical issue in Crimea as well.  Spokespeople for the US, the UK, and the EU, among others, have condemned the referendum on the basis that Russian troops mean that “voters will be casting their ballots under the barrel of a gun.” 

It thus looks like the attempt to frame the Crimean actions as self-determination by means of a referendum has failed.  One way to dismiss suspicions of intimidation, voter fraud, and other challenges to the legitimacy of a vote would be to invite in outside election observers, preferably from an international organization like the UN.  If the Crimean referendum were carried out under that kind of scrutiny and still attained high votes for union with Russia, then it would be embarrassing or hypocritical of the international community not to recognize it.

So, unless Russia can find some other way of legitimating the annexation, we will see long-term nonrecognition.  Crimea will join South Ossetia, Western Sahara, Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish Cyprus, the West Bank/Gaza/Golan Heights, and others in the purgatory of nonrecognition. 

O'Mahoney is assistant professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations.