Russia claims to have annexed four oblasts Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson of Ukraine after holding referendums despite Ukraine not giving it permission to do so. Naturally neither Ukraine nor anyone else in the West has recognised this annexation, but it is nevertheless significant. Russia can now say as with Crimea that it is defending the territory of the Russian Federation, with lurid threats of using nuclear weapons if its rule is threatened just as if Moscow were threatened.
There is clearly something absurd about this method of gaining territory. It is the equivalent of Germany holding a referendum in France in 1940 as to whether France should become part of Germany. Such a referendum would be obviously unfair under those circumstances with the French people under threat of violence if they voted the wrong way.
But there is something even more deeply wrong with the Russian referendums. Elon Musk has put forward a so-called peace plan which would allow UN supervised legal referendums in the four regions of Ukraine under dispute and one assumes also in Crimea. Volodymyr Zelensky reacted with fury.
Why indeed should Ukraine reward Russian aggression by giving it the legal chance to annex parts of Ukraine?
Well one reason might be if Ukraine were to follow the example of Ireland with regard to Northern Ireland and Scottish nationalists with regard to Scotland.
The reason is that if legal plebiscites were to be held in Ukraine and indeed many other European countries there is little doubt that there would be border changes.
If we believe in the self-determination of people like the Irish Government does and the SNP too then we need to point out that there are areas of Kazakhstan with Russian majorities. There are areas of Latvia and Estonia too where Russia could expect to win referendums on annexation.
But the problem is not merely with Russians. Hungarians form a majority in parts of Ukraine and Slovakia. German speakers form a majority in South Tyrol in Italy and Swedes form majorities in parts of Finland. Are we to give all of these groups and others the rights to self-determination?
If legal referendums were to be held in all of these places, then there is little doubt that Russians would win majorities in some of them especially Crimea and most likely in northern Kazakhstan too.
But this would not merely encourage places like Russia to grab territory from its neighbours it would most likely also encourage war and ethnic cleansing.
When Germany lost much of its territory after the Second World War the countries that gained Poland, Russia and Czechoslovakia drove out their German populations at the point of a bayonet. They did so partly because of their previous experience with German minorities e.g., in the Sudetenland, but also because they realised that Germany would have a claim on the territory it lost if a significant proportion of Germans continued to live there. The Croats did the same to much of its Serbian population during the war in Yugoslavia.
If Russia began seriously to claim parts of Estonia and Latvia because of Russian majorities living there the Estonians and Latvians would naturally do their best to discourage the Russians from continuing to live there.
The only way that there can be peaceful relations between Russian and Hungarian speakers in Ukraine is if they are not seen as being threats to the territorial integrity of Ukraine. This goes for everywhere else where there are mixed populations.
But while this argument applies to Ukraine and while everyone accepts that Ukraine has the right to maintain its territorial integrity even if there are linguistic or ethnic majorities in parts of its territory, strangely the logic of this applies to the whole of Europe except the UK.
If the Russian Republican Army had for thirty years bombed and murdered the population of Ukraine in order to reunite Crimea with Russia, it might have been the case that Ukraine and Russia on Good Friday proclaimed a peace Treaty in Kyiv. Such a peace treaty might have put forward the idea that there could be a border poll if it ever appeared likely that a majority of Crimeans wanted to reunite with Russia. At the latest census the people of Russia might have celebrated because Russian speakers in Crimea outnumbered Ukrainian speakers. But it would still be tasteless in the extreme to base your hopes on annexation a peace treaty that followed a terrorist campaign, which you claimed to disavow. It would look rather as if you were taking advantage of terrorism.
But of course, Ukraine would never sign such a peace treaty. Ukrainians are fighting against secession because they believe they have the right to maintain the territorial integrity of their country even if parts of it want to leave. It doesn’t matter if the majority in Crimea want to leave and become either independent or join Russia, they cannot do so because Ukraine is a sovereign nation state.
But the United Kingdom is equally a sovereign nation state with a history rather longer than Ukraine. Every other state in Europe would go to war to prevent the loss of territory even if a majority wanted to leave. Italy would not allow South Tyrol a referendum on rejoining Austria. Slovakia would not allow its southern part to rejoin Hungary. But the UK allows its territorial integrity to be continually threatened both by Ireland and the SNP. Oddly we even treat Ireland as friendly ally while it does this.
It no more matters that there is a majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland than it matters that there is a majority of Russian speakers in Crimea. Ireland can no more morally base its claims to annexation on this than can Putin base his claims to annexation on majorities in Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. The UK has exactly the same right to defend its territory as Ukraine does and should respond to Ireland in the way that Zelensky has responded to Elon Musk and indeed Putin. If Ireland threatens a bombing campaign, then that would make still clearer the nature of the argument on which it relies.
The UK is no different from any other nation state, but we have allowed ourselves to be manoeuvred into thinking that arguments about self-determination apply to places like Scotland and Northern Ireland in a way that they don’t apply to Crimea and the Donbas. It matters not one little bit that a place that is not a sovereign nation state is called a country. There are endless formerly independent countries in the world that no longer have the rights that go with sovereignty. There is nothing unusual about Scotland.
The UK must assert and then promise to defend its territorial integrity in just the same way Ukraine has been doing so bravely. We must give no more legitimacy to those who wish to annex parts of the UK than Zelensky gives to his enemies.