Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Sovereign Power in the Crimean Peninsula: Approaches from International Relations and Law

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The Crimean Peninsula was annexed by Russia in 2014 after a referendum was conducted in Crimea.[1] Crimea was then formally incorporated as two federal subjects of the Russian Federation.[2] However, Ukraine and the majority of the international community still recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine and do not consider the annexation as legitimate.[3]

There have been controversies over this case in academia, especially in the disciplines of Law and International Relations (IR). The status of Crimea and the debates around it concern governments, professionals and the public. This chapter will examine Russia’s annexation of Crimea from the perspectives of law and IR (specifically the realist school), and discuss the tensions between these two disciplines.

International Relations

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Realism in the context of IR theory can refer to a wide spectrum of theories, but with the overarching view that states prioritise their own power and survival over all other interests, including morality.[4]

Russia’s annexation of Crimea is in line with John Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism that great powers “look for opportunities to alter the balance of power by acquiring additional increments of power at the expense of potential rivals".[5] Russia saw the annexation of Crimea as an opportunity to expand its power despite the international backlash and negative economic impacts it would cause.[6] The annexation would give Russia more territory in the region, along with strategic military benefits of Crimea’s location.[7]

As Mearsheimer wrote, “great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power”.[8] Russia is threatened by the increasing US influence in Ukraine due to the expansion of NATO and the Ukrainian bid to become a member state.[9] From a realist strategic standpoint, Russia saw one of its greatest rivals extending power and influence right into its backyard, which was a major security threat.[9] Russia thus decided to take action to curb this perceived encroachment of its security by seizing power in Crimea.[9] The annexation also helped Russia signal its position as a great power to the international community.[10] As such, the realist idea of states pursuing security at all costs can be a useful way to understand Russia’s actions.

A classical realist theorist would also point out that Russia’s actions showed blatant disregard for the people of Ukraine and their self-determined government. The more powerful Russia acted upon its power as it liked, knowing that the weaker Ukraine could not do anything. This is in line with Machiavelli’s idea that IR is unconcerned with morality, especially when there is an imbalance of power.[11]

Legal academia examines the Crimea case in terms of its legality and legitimacy in both international and national law.[12] Similar to other inter-state cases, the law can be invoked in favor of and against the secession of Crimea by the parties in the conflict,[12] making the case a contentious one. Many debates arise from the topic of self-determination as Russia’s argument for its activities was to help the Russian population in Crimea exercised their right to self-determination.[13] However, most legal professionals share a consensus that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was nonetheless illegal.

The principle of self-determination is itself controversial. There have been disagreements among international lawyers on whether the right of self-determination of people includes a right of secession, and if so, in what situations.[12] Public international law does not recognize specific eligibility of the application of the right to self-determination.[12] Judging from previous practices, the premises of secession are that firstly, a group identified as people had been excluded by a state from the exercise of self-determination; and secondly, there is no other way of securing their human rights than seceding from the state.[12] However, according to political experts, neither of these premises existed in Crimea. According to the Constitution of Ukraine, Crimea was an autonomous entity that possessed some administrative power. This indicated that the Crimean population was not excluded by the Ukrainian government from participating in the state's politics and prevented from exercising internal self-determination.[12] Therefore, the first premise was proven false in the Crimea case. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who had visited Crimea in April 2014, the alleged violations of the rights of ethnic Russians appeared to be "neither widespread nor systemic”.[14] Hence, both of the premises were refuted. Therefore, the exercise of self-determination in the Crimea case did not conform to the international rules and regulations.

Tensions Between International Relations and Law

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The disciplines of IR and Law focus on completely different elements and aspects in this case. The realist school of IR highlights the motivations of Russia and the imbalances of power, while legal academia argues about legality.

Legal academia realizes the role of politics in the practice of legal rules and the vulnerability of the principle of self-determination to politicization.[15] They propose international law should aim to improve objective legal thresholds of applicability and criteria to leave smaller spaces for subjective political motives to manipulate law, and set the boundaries of the exercise of external self-determination.[15] However, realist IR theorists may hold that laws, no matter the principles they are based upon, mean nothing if they cannot be enforced and/or are mere political tools.[16]

The realist school recognizes the existence of international law, but rejects its power. In their analysis of international law, politics is viewed as the supreme issue of importance.[17] The law is simply a tool to be deployed in a more important political game.[17] This also applies to the role of morality. This approach has come under significant criticism. For example, E.H. Carr stated that realism excluded four essential aspects of effective politics: ‘a finite goal, an emotional appeal, a right of moral judgement and a ground for action’.[18] To put it another way, the unfeeling approach of realism may not be the most appropriate for dealing with conflicts that ultimately stem from human nature.

Stakeholders, such as diplomats looking to craft foreign affairs policies, might look somewhere in the middle to find a more balanced and perhaps more realistic view of how normative judgements can shape inter-state conflicts and how it can be taken into account in their policies.


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While IR seeks only to explain the motivations behind a country’s actions without judgement, international law serves to balance the power of states and maintain peace through normative judgements. The tension between IR and Law exists for this very reason. Russia, in its attempt to circumvent this tension, chose to use constructivism in IR to legitimize the annexation instead. Russia speaks of the strong Russian identity in Crimea and Crimea’s shared history, pride, and culture with Russia to justify the annexation.[19] Russia uses this, along with the referendum, to claim that the annexation of Crimea adheres to international law.[19] Russia is thus attempting to exploit the grey areas in the discipline of law by presenting their justification behind the annexation using constructivism in IR. This marriage of the disciplines attempts to recognize alternative moral judgements that are more compatible with realist goals. However, this argument is still rejected by most of the international community, which shows the tension between IR and Law may be inevitable.


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  1. Soldatkin, V., 2015. Putin Says Plan To Take Crimea Hatched Before Referendum. [online] Reuters. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 December 2020].
  2. BBC News. 2014. Ukraine Crisis: Putin Signs Russia-Crimea Treaty. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 9 December 2020].
  3. Akinyemi, A., 2014. Ukraine Crisis: World Leaders React To Unfolding Disaster In Crimea. [online] International Business Times. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 December 2020].
  4. Antunes, S. and Camisão, I., 2018. Introducing Realism In International Relations Theory. [online] E-International Relations. Available at: <> [Accessed 9 December 2020].
  5. Mearsheimer, J., 2001. The Tragedy Of Great Power Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, p.18.
  6. Tandilashvili, D., 2015. Classical Realist and Norm-Based Constructivist Analysis of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and Annexation of Crimea. Towson University Journal of International Affairs, XLIX(1), p.7.
  7. Cohen, S.F., 2014. US reaction to Russia in Ukraine: Time for Realism and Common Sense on Ukraine. The Nation.
  8. Mearsheimer, J., 2001. The Tragedy Of Great Power Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, p.18.
  9. a b c Mearsheimer, J., 2014. Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault. Foreign Affairs, 93(5), pp.77–89.
  10. Freire, M.R. and Heller, R., 2018. Russia’s Power Politics in Ukraine and Syria: Status-seeking between Identity, Opportunity and Costs. Europe-Asia Studies, 70(8), pp.1185-1212. doi:
  11. Tandilashvili, D., 2015. Classical Realist and Norm-Based Constructivist Analysis of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and Annexation of Crimea. Towson University Journal of International Affairs, XLIX(1), p.8.
  12. a b c d e f Nikouei, M. and Zamani, M., 2016. The Secession of Crimea: Where Does International Law Stand?. Nordic Journal of international Law, 85(1), pp.37-64. Available at (Accessed: 13 December 2020).
  13. Hilpold, P., 2015. Crimea and New International Law: Balancing International Law with Arguments Drawn from History. Chinese Journal of International Law, 14(2), pp.237-270. doi:
  14. Grant, T.D., 2015. Annexation of Crimea. American Journal of International Law, 109(1), pp.68-95. Available at: (Accessed: 13 December 2020).
  15. a b Nikouei, M. and Zamani, M., 2016. The Secession of Crimea: Where Does International Law Stand?. Nordic Journal of international Law, 85(1), pp.37-64. Available at (Accessed: 13 December 2020).
  16. Steinberg, R.H., 2002. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law), 96, pp.260-262.
  17. a b Sinclair, A., 2010. International Relations Theory and International Law: A Critical Approach. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 13 December 2020).
  18. Carr, E.H., 1939. The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939. London: Macmillan Press.
  19. a b Putin, V., 2014. Address By President Of The Russian Federation. [online] President of Russia. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 December 2020].