Personally I’m big on self-determination. I think if the majority of a people of a given area, if they also legitimately own majority of the privately-held land in that area, want to secede and find a new country or join a neighboring one they have the right to do so.
Now that isn’t actually international law. Under the existing international law legal seccesion is only possible with the blessing of the central government. That is, there isn’t a law saying an area can’t hold a vote on independence or declare secession, but it is illegal for 3rd countries to recognize that secession and act as if it is legally valid.
So when Crimeans in 2014 voted overwhelmingly to declare independence from Ukraine and ask Russia to incoroporate their republic they were doing someting completely within their rights. However it was clearly a violation of international law for Russia to actually accept their plea.
That of course, is not the same as saying that Russia should not have done it — the freedom and self-determination of 2 million people is worth more to me than arbitrary positive law. In one sense that is a shame however. As callous and abritrary the rule against redrawing borders can be, it is one of few things capable of putting at least some breaks on great powers, and particularly the world’s hegemonic power, from lording it over weak powers even more.
However, it is not Moscow which begun the process of weakening international law by unilaterlay redrawing borders. For 25 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union Russia did not lift a finger to remedy the situation that 20 million ethnic Russians were now living outside Russia. Many of them in compact Russian-majority areas on its border.
It was the US and the West which did so in Yugoslavia. There the West ruled that Yugoslavia’s internationally-recognized borders were not actually inviolable and that its constituent republics could secede and have their independence recognized albeit they had not followed the constitutional procedure to do so. However the borders of the newly independent republics *were* deemed legally inviolable so that the Serbs of Croatia, and the Serbs and the Croats of Bosnia, were not allowed to secede from these new self-proclaimed states and the West intervened, including militarily, to make sure they could not. However, even though the old Communist-drawn internal Yugoslav republican borders were now deemed sacred by the West, including then Serbia’s own, that same West then again intervened to tear out Kosovo from Serbia and guide it into secession as an ethnic-Albanian state.
Having by 2008 nursed Kosovo into quasi-independence (independent from Belgrade but a protectorate of the West) the West finally completed the process begun in 1991 of laying waste to international law.
One consequence was Russia’s later recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia (but only after Georgia tried re-incorporating them by force in a surprise military offensive which killed Russian peacekeepers) and the re-incorporation of Crimea from Ukraine (but only after the West aided the violent rise to power of an anti-Russian government in Kiev).
Another is that now Trump can move to declare Syria’s occupied Golan Heights as now lawfully part of Israel and that isn’t even seen as that much of a big deal. Pompeo recently defended this upcoming move saying it was in fact nothing like what Russia had done in Crimea:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday that President Trump’s move on the Golan Heights does not amount to a double standard. He made the remarks when asked about the U.S. stance on the Syrian territory that Israel officially seized in 1981 compared to U.S. policy on Russia regarding its annexation of Crimea.
“You imposed sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea,” Hiba Nasr of Sky News said to Pompeo Saturday at the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. “Now you are going to recognize the sovereign — the Israeli sovereignty over these territories. Isn’t this a double-standard policy?”
“No, not at all,” Pompeo said.
“What the president did with the Golan Heights is recognize the reality on the ground and the security situation necessary for the protection of the Israeli state. It’s that – it’s that simple.”
Pompeo clearly is making no sense, but the two are different in at least one sense. The reincorporation of Crimea was unlawful but it was at least legitimate, it was what the people who live there actually wanted.
In the Golan however, the people to whom it belongs are not even allowed to return back to their land:
Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 war, and most of the Syrian population fled or were driven out. Where over 100,000 Syrians had been, only 7,000 from the Druze Syrian community remained. The story of the Golan refugees was largely erased from history, partly due to Israeli efforts and partly because the refugees were resettled in Syria. As a result, the occupation of the Golan Heights has not had the same global resonance as that of the Palestinian territories. But it is still an occupation.
Even the now 25,000-strong Druze community which still remains in Golan (now alongside 20,000 Israeli settlers) regularly protests against the occupation and demands their home reverts to Syria.