A more important Western goal than the protection of human rights in Crimea is curtailing the right to self-determination. Yes, you heard that right. We don’t like all human rights, and we particularly dislike the right to self-determination, although it is enshrined in numerous treaties. Although we might sympathize with Crimeans, Catalonians, Scots, or Québécois who want to leave their countries and either join another or start their own, we care even more about our relations with the governments that rule them. We also worry that the right to self-determination, taken to its logical conclusion, may result in chaos from the proliferation of microstates that can’t manage their affairs. In Crimea, for example, what if the Tatars wanted to start their own state by carving out a piece of territory for themselves? Thus, the worry is that if Crimeans are allowed to leave Ukraine, then separatist movements around the world—and they exist in nearly every country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe—will be encouraged to declare independence as well.
Governments oppose separatist movements for numerous reasons, both good and bad. The good reason is that the minority seeking separation may deprive the majority in the rump of access to the ocean, or valuable resources, or a broad tax base that can be used to pay for public goods that benefit everyone. Moreover, separatists sometimes turn from a beleaguered minority to an oppressive majority as soon as they obtain their own territory, as occurred in Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs have suffered under ethnic Albanian rule. The bad reason is that minorities can be exploited, even in democratic countries, where, after all, majorities rule. Separation may be the only remedy where the majority loathes the minority and the minority dominates a particular region.
The equities in each case are complicated. But the secession of Crimea, good or bad, is now an accomplished fact. Sanctioning Russia will not discourage other minorities from seeking independence. Indeed, it is doubtful that Crimea’s secession will encourage other separatist movements to redouble their efforts to carve out new countries. Crimea seceded only by agreeing to be gobbled up by another state. This is not the goal of other separatist movements, which seek independence, not annexation by a foreign country. They may think twice about pursuing separatist aims in an increasingly dangerous world where little countries are bullied by big ones.
A more straightforward reason for sanctioning Russia is to deter it from attacking other countries. But most countries don’t invade others. Crimea was uniquely vulnerable, with a majority ethnic Russian population that welcomed the invaders; existing Russian military bases; and historical ties to Russia. Putin grabbed Crimea to avenge Ukraine’s defenestration of his puppet, Viktor Yanukovych. Russia’s other neighbors are either already compliant or extremely hostile, like Ukraine itself. Rather than occupy hostile territories, powerful countries prefer to exert influence from across the border while letting the foreign population misgovern itself. It’s just too much trouble to invade a country and be forced to govern a restive population, as the United States recently learned, to its sorrow, in Afghanistan and Iraq. An invasion of Ukraine—at least, beyond a few marginal regions in the east—would offer Russia nothing but a guerilla war on foreign territory.
In the unlikely event that Russia tries to conquer Ukraine or Estonia, there will be good reasons to respond with significant economic sanctions, military aid, or force. Estonia is an ally, and Ukraine is an important country. But if Russia stops with Crimea, it is hard to see what could be accomplished from sanctions. And for that reason, we can be sure that Russia will not expect sanctions to last long, and so will wait them out. That means that sanctions will hurt both the West and Russia without accomplishing any good.
Putin’s annexation of Crimea gave him a short-term political boost at home that will eventually dissipate. In the long term, Russia gains nothing from the annexation but an arid peninsula of no economic or military importance, and the distrust of its neighbors. Putin’s foolish move will be its own punishment.