Can Russians' Seizing of Crimea Be Legalized?

03/28/2014 05:57 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2014

For a few months, media and politicians in the U.S. and Western Europe were cheering the populous upheaval in Kiev, triggered by the decision of then-President Victor Yanukovich to abandon negotiations about a potential agreement with the EU last November. Even innocent-sounding words of moral support were perceived in Moscow as an attempt to change the delicate political balance in the region. Russians worry about Ukraine not only because of their imperial traditions and aspirations, as the West would like to see it, but also because Ukraine, with its territory cutting deep into Russia's underbelly, and with deep economical connections with Russia, is too large and too close to be ignored in Moscow. To top it off, the Russian navy port in Sevastopol is one of the very few that Russia has, and the only one in this part of the world. When, in Russians' perspective, things in Kiev went out of control, Moscow decided to take Crimea.

Theoretically, Moscow could achieve the same by playing by the rules. It could provide political support to the ethnic Russians in Crimea, encouraging them to use the Ukrainian legal process to separate themselves from Kiev. This might take months or years and could give Kiev a chance of luring ethnic Russians back, with the promise of a better economy in a Ukraine that is more closely associated with the EU. Russian leaders could not allow themselves this margin of error and went with the policy of the fait accompli.

This land grab is reminiscent of 1938, and if left unanswered, it creates a precedent that the international laws that were so carefully crafted to keep peace in the world after World War II do not always apply. This is too much risk for the worldwide leaders to swallow; sanctions have been imposed, Russian leaders ostracized. However, Russia is not Cuba; it cannot be kept on the sidelines for long. The world has too much to lose by cutting Russia off; new risks may arise from this as well. Russia can be brought back as an equal and respected partner of the worldwide community only if the West will recognize that the recent change in Kiev shifted the political balance in the region and impeded Russia's vital security and economic interests. World leaders need to acknowledge that, if they were in Mr. Putin's shoes, they would try to accomplish the same but might do it differently. Hence, condemning the methods used, they need to give Russia and its president a chance to legalize the grab of Crimea.

The simplest way of doing this would be by brokering the sale of Crimea from Ukraine to Russia. No one seems to question that the Russian majority in Crimea prefers to be in Russia, not in Ukraine. That desire was amplified by the nationalistic overtones of the changes in Kiev; hence, for Ukraine, giving up Crimea might be an acceptable price to pay. The deal should be crafted in such a way as to give all parties concerned a long-term guarantee of stability. In particular, Russia might pay for Crimea in a form of discounts in Ukrainian payments for natural gas, spanning the next 20 or 30 years. Brokering the deal, world leaders would assure Russia that Ukraine will not join NATO, and Russia would relinquish any claims to any other parts of Ukrainian territory.

About 1,000 years ago, Kievan Rus' was a cradle of what later became Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. As the most successful of the resultant nations, Russians want to own this tradition, and Russian nationalists see Ukraine as a younger sibling, maybe deserving some recognition, but not the status of the independent nation and state. It is time to give up this notion.

The Ukrainian national identity first manifested itself in the 17th century in the revolt against Poles. The Ukrainian language can be traced back to the times of Kievan Rus', but it matured as recently as the 19th century. There were ephemeral attempts to create a Ukrainian state before, but Ukraine as we know it since 1991 is the first Ukrainian state. The word "Ukraine" reaches back to medieval times, and in both in Russian and Polish it meant literally "on the edge" and was used to describe territories on the boundaries. In the past, Poles have had a hard time accepting Ukrainians' right to self-determination; now it seems that it's the Russians who are having difficulty with this issue.

Ukrainians themselves should see their country for what it is and what the name used to say: a land on the boundaries between Russia and the rest of Europe. Ukraine can only prosper by accepting this reality and becoming a bridge between the two, not a pawn pushed back and forth in the struggle for political influence. Drafting a contract converting a grab of Crimea into a sale gives an opportunity for reiterating the interests of all parties concerned, thus forming a treaty resolving the current crisis and outlining the future peaceful cooperation.