Let's Not Yield to Putin on the Truth

03/11/2014 07:42 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2014

On the subject of the Ukrainian crisis and the possible kidnapping of Crimea by the Russian Federation, we have been hearing two very strange arguments that are in urgent need of rebuttal:

1. Why should the Crimeans be denied the right to decide their fate? If they feel they are the Russians' brothers because they speak the same language, and if they feel greater affinity for the country of Putin than for the Europe of Robert Schuman and Vaclav Havel, why on earth should we object?

2. Bosnia, Kosovo. Are those not two recent cases of self-determination blessed by the international community? And how can the same people, including this author, who 20 years ago asserted the right of the Bosnians and Kosovars to take their own destiny in their hands, now deny the same right to Crimea?

In response to the first argument one would have to respond that to begin by invading a territory that is supposed to be free to decide its own future, to deploy 30,000 troops there, to surround its military bases and terrorize the population is an odd conception of self-determination.

One would have to point out that organizing a referendum is a complex logistical operation that assumes polling stations, electoral lists worthy of the name, and possibly observers or, at least, a campaign period. To pretend to do all that in a week under the authority of a puppet government and at the point of bayonets amounts at best to farce and at worst to a coup. And one would have to conclude that even without the coup, even without the occupying forces, and even if time were taken for campaigning and debate, such a referendum, if Europe were to go along with it, would have dire consequences. What answer could we then give if, emboldened by this precedent, the Basques of Spain and France were to demand unification or if the Hungarians of Transylvania, the Albanians of Macedonia, the Turks of Bulgaria, the Russian speakers in the Baltic states, and the Flemings of Belgium, relying on this example, were to demand to change countries?

I could go on citing other examples that are far from trivial.

Because linguistic nationalism is the most insidious of all nationalism's forms.

It is nationalism based not on civic values but on the evil demons of differentialism.

And even without invoking Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland on the basis of the very same linguistic nationalism, which occurred just before Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, it is clear that to give in to Putin on Crimea would send out a shockwave that would ensure that no border in Europe would remain secure or recognized, thereby eating away at the continent's equilibrium.

The second argument is even more absurd than the first and, in the mouths of observers and commentators of good will, even more inexcusable.

I will pass over the case of Bosnia, which I fail to see how anyone can invoke as being even remotely relevant in light of the fact that ever since the Big Bang that was the collapse of communism in all of Europe, and perforce in Yugoslavia, the whole challenge was and remains to prevent what we are now being asked to swallow in Crimea -- namely the secession of the Serbs of the Republika Srpska and their annexation by their Serbian "big brother."

In Kosovo, by contrast, it is accurate to say that the same people who are arguing today against the Russian coup and in favor of the integrity of Ukraine accepted and even encouraged Pristina's desire for independence. But how dare one compare the two situations?

How can one ignore the fact that the international community came around to the cause of independence for the Kosovars only after a decade of ethnic cleansing, of large-scale massacres of civilians, and of the deportation of almost 800,000 men and women whose sole crime was to be born Muslims? In other words, what relation is there between Milosevic, who, at the time of his death, was facing the punishments reserved by the International Criminal Court for those who commit crimes against humanity and the leaders of a new Ukraine whose unarmed soldiers we witnessed, in stirring images that have rocketed around the world, peacefully confronting the heavily armed rabble that had just landed in Sebastopol?

For Europeans in free Europe, the distinction is clear.

And that distinction enjoins us to take a stand not, of course, for one form of nationalism over another, but, once again and very simply, for the right of peoples not to be massacred and against the putative right of despots, under cloak of sovereignty, to massacre their people.

There are only two possibilities.

Either the danger exists. Let me rephrase that. Either the massacre has begun and, as in Kosovo, forces have begun to mutilate, decapitate, and execute with a bullet in the back of the head the populations of entire villages. In which case, yes, an intervention to stop the carnage would be justified.

Or the danger does not exist. That the Flemings reside in Belgium and the Crimeans in Ukraine poses no threat whatsoever to their physical integrity or their liberty. Further: It is precisely by leaving the Ukrainian fold that some Crimeans -- one thinks immediately of the Tartars -- run the risk, in the elegant words of the Russian president, to find themselves "kicked into the crapper." And our duty, as well as our self-interest, lies in doing everything we can to ensure respect for the borders that protect people's rights.

Yes to the protection of peoples.

No to Putin's imperialist project to torch Europe's house.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy