Russian Envoy: Crimea Referendum Like America's Move for Independence in 1776

By Patrick Goodenough | March 14, 2014 | 4:26 AM EDT

Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin. (UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras)

( – As Russian forces deployed near Ukraine’s borders for “exercises” ahead of Sunday’s referendum in Crimea, Moscow’s ambassador to the United Nations on Thursday said the decision before the inhabitants of the Black Sea peninsula is similar to the one faced by the 13 American colonies in 1776.

Speaking during an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council, Vitaly Churkin fended off criticism from council members about Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and its support for the referendum in which the people of Crimea will vote on whether they want the region to join the Russian Federation.

“[In the] Declaration of Independence of the United States, there was a reference to a situation where it becomes necessary for a people to cut the political links which link it to another people,” Churkin said, speaking through a U.N. interpreter.

“Let us look what the view of the people of Crimea is on this, during the upcoming referendum.”

(Churkin was referring to the opening words of the Declaration of Independence: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another …”)

The Russian envoy said it was important to find “the right balance between the principles of territorial integrity and the rights to self-determination.”

Any referendum to secede was an extraordinary event, he said, but in the case of Crimea the context had to be taken into account.

“When it comes to Crimea such a case arose as a result of a legal vacuum, which arose as a result of the unconstitutional, violent overthrow of the legitimate government, which was carried out by the national radicals in Kiev,” Churkin said, citing the ouster last month of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich.

Apart from the allusion to 1776, he raised more recent episodes, including a 1975 referendum in which the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean island of Mayotte decided to remain an overseas department of France rather than be part of a newly-independent Comoros.

Churkin also cited Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, which Russia opposed and still does not recognize.

Some countries now criticizing Russia’s actions in Crimea had rushed to recognize the independence of Kosovo, he said, even though it was carried out not after a referendum but through a simple parliamentary vote – “against a backdrop of an illegal military operation by NATO countries.”

NATO forces in 1999 expelled Serb troops and ended a violent crackdown by then Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic on ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo. The province was secured by NATO peacekeepers and administered by the U.N. until it declared independence in February 2008.

The U.S. and most E.U. member states quickly recognized it, while insisting it created no precedent that could be invoked elsewhere. Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the time made it clear the U.S. regarded the situation as unique.

But Moscow disagreed, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warning that the Kosovo example would doubtless be taken into account in other separatist situations, such as those in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Six months later Russia invaded Georgia and has effectively controlled Abkhazia and South Ossetia – which it virtually alone recognizes as independent – ever since.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power told reporters after the Security Council meeting that “while I appreciated my Russian colleague’s lesson and lecture in geography and history, I missed the day in law school where self-determination was defined as Russia-determination.”

Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting with Lavrov in London on Friday, in a last-ditch attempt to resolve the dispute and avert the Crimea referendum.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow