Why the Golan and Crimea Aren’t So Different

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Both allies of President Vladimir Putin and critics of President Donald Trump are playing up a supposed connection between U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel and an acknowledgment of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The parallel is tenuous.

The superficial resemblance between the Golan and Crimea situations is clear: Both were seized from neighboring countries (respectively, Syria and Ukraine) using military force. Both were annexed for strategic reasons.

Israel took the Golan Heights in 1967, after the Six Day War, to prevent attacks from Arab nations  from the elevation of the plateau. The topographic superiority allows a small Israeli defense force to repel attacks by large armies; in 1973, 177 Israeli tanks in the area stopped the onslaught of 1,500 Syrian ones.

Putin took Crimea fearing that a new Ukrainian government would shut the Russian military bases in the peninsula and allow the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to establish a presence right next to Russia’s Black Sea ports, effectively shutting off the country’s warm sea access.

Comments by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last weekend, meant to deny the Golan-Crimea connection, only served to reinforce the comparison. “What the president did with the Golan Heights is recognize the reality on the ground and the security situation necessary for the protection of the Israeli state,” Pompeo said. “It's that simple." If it is, then the U.S. should also recognize the situation on the ground in Crimea, as well as Russia’s security interests there. Taking note of this, Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, wrote on Facebook that Crimea recognition should “follow automatically” from Pompeo’s remarks. 

Indeed, a superficial argument can be made that if one strategic annexation can be recognized, as Trump suggested last week, then so can the other, and not doing so makes the U.S. look hypocritical. Russian politicians, of course, haven’t missed this opportunity. “On one case they apply one set of principles, in another one the principles are different,” Sergey Tsekov, a Russian legislator specializing in foreign policy, told the state-controlled outlet RT. “It's a policy of double standards, traditional for the U.S.”

But, in an apparent self-contradiction, the official Russian argument isn’t that Trump should recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli and therefore Crimea as Russian. It’s that the Golan Heights annexation shouldn’t be recognized because it violates international law. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s official commentary on Trump's tweet and on Pompeo’s subsequent remarks refers to the 1981 United Nations Security Council resolution, which designated the Golan takeover as illegal.

Of course, there’s no such resolution about the Crimea annexation, simply because Russia blocked attempts to pass one. There are, however, UN General Assembly resolutions declaring the land grab illegal. And the Security Council decision on the Golan Heights is as fitting a precedent for Crimea as the resolutions adopted when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 or when the Republic of Northern Cyprus was proclaimed in 1983. These decisions affirm on an international level the so-called Stimson Doctrine, according to which the U.S. shouldn’t recognize the involuntary border changes of countries with which it has signed treaties.

From this point of view, Russia’s official reaction is correct and the unofficial comparison with Crimea isn’t. The U.S., as well as everyone else, should refrain from recognizing annexations. That encourages territorial wars regardless of the justice of the cause.

Unless that is the general rule, it’s easy to slide into discussions about the specific differences between the Golan and Crimea situations. For example, in the war that led to the takeover of the plateau, Israel was attacked first, and with what was meant to be overwhelming force; Russia was the bully and the attacker in Crimea. Israel’s strategic advantage is real and necessary, as proven during the 1973 Syrian attack; the threat to Russia is imagined: It would take a long time and lots of additional conditions for NATO to move into Crimea, and even then the danger to Russia would have been theoretical.

On the other hand, Crimea had been part of Russia, and at least a visible part of its majority Russian-speaking population backed the annexation in an illegitimate 2014 vote. Israel took the Golan Heights without any historical justification or references to the population’s will.

By the time such arguments start getting kicked around, though, it means there are no firm rules and, in the end, anything goes. The post-World War II rule against recognizing land grabs is perhaps the most important one in the current international order. It’s a key reason wars of conquest are extremely rare today. This is one case where the Russian Foreign Ministry’s official line on the Golan is correct; it should apply to Crimea, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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