Scott Alexander posts a very interesting discussion of the question of “self determination” on his blog. This is a topic that has fascinated me for my entire life, but, as Alexander observes, defies simple answers.
Suppose that we concede that Ukraine has a right to self determination. Then so does Crimea, right? And also, Donbas. But then… so does that one Ukrainian-majority town within Russian-speaking Donbas, too, right? And if that one Ukrainian-speaking town within Donbas has a right to self determination (i.e. the right to not be incorporated into Russia), what about that one Russian lady in that Ukrainian-speaking town?
Self determination suffers from a kind of fractal defect, that washes up against concepts of personal autonomy and individuality on the one shore, and up against principles of universal humanity and world government on the other shore.
I think there are no easy solutions, but I tend toward what might be termed the “Quaker response” which is that although self determination might be an unresolvable question, it is violence that should be avoided, condemned, and prevented. This especially works if we are sure to include an opposition to structural violence as well (i.e. oppression).
I think there is no denying that there was structural violence that Russians found objectionable in pre-invasion Ukraine. Specifically, the government’s efforts to “Ukrainize” the Russian-speaking population through enforcement of language laws and such. But that fact does not justify or legitimate the actual violence of Putin’s regime in response to that. Illegitimate violence begets more illegitimate violence, ad infinitum.
The only place a person can take a consistent moral stand is against violence, not on something nebulous like “self determination.”