Column: Who wants another Crimean War?

careyAll in the valley of death
Rode the six hundred.
Someone had blundered:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the jaws of death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

So wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

The 600 were British soldiers. Why were they in Crimea at the Battle of Balaklava? Britain and France had declared war on Russia and landed in Crimea in September 1854. A year later, Sevastopol, headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet, fell. It was in Crimea that the British nurse Florence Nightingale tried to improve the care of the sick and wounded.

Russia even today has a rented naval base in Crimea and now clearly wants to occupy the entire peninsula. President Obama has pointed out use of force in another country against its wishes violates international law. Force has been legal against another country since the adoption of the UN Charter only in self-defense or with approval from the Security Council.

Security Council approval of the use of force to stop Russian occupation of Crimea is clearly out of the question. This is because Russia is one of the five permanent members of the council and therefore could veto any such proposal.

There is, however, a seldom-used alternative procedure called “uniting for peace,” available when the Security Council is deadlocked, in which event voting would take place in the General Assembly where there is no veto.

Under established international law, no title to, or sovereignty over, territory can be obtained by conquest. Therefore, Russia is not gaining the right to rule in Crimea just by being present there with overwhelming force. What the Russians might well do to fortify the legality of their occupation would be to encourage a campaign by friendly Crimeans for secession from Ukraine.

Russia might be able to win a referendum on the issue of Crimean independence, since a slight majority of Crimeans are of Russian ethnicity. The rest of the population, being mostly ethnically Ukrainian or else Tatar, the latter having suffered at Russian hands in the past, would likely vote against independence of Crimea from Ukraine.

Fearing a near-deadlock in a referendum on Crimean independence, Russia might prefer simply to stay put and exercise indefinite dominion over Crimea, invalid but effective. I doubt that anyone today wants to reenact the charge of the light brigade, into the “valley of death.”

Of course, the constant danger in any situation of such enormous tension is that a miscalculation might be made, leading to armed hostilities commenced without due deliberation, but in the onward rush of events. There would be plenty of zealots on either side crying out for blood in the name of patriotism. Cooler heads would suffer all manner of derision for lacking courage or patriotism.

In my respectful view, the less talk the better about undefined but inevitable “consequences.”