Some talk about the annexation of Sudetenland by the Third Reich these days. In his speech yesterday however, Putin made the analogy of the reunification of the Bundesrepublik and the Demokratische Republik. I guess both analogies are as valid as they are not, and both are heavily laden. As a historian man should know that history can help you understand the present, but that it doesn't predict the future. Moreover, it doesn't repeat itself. Therefore, some extra historic examples to relax the discussion.
In 1846 Texas joined the United States. It wasn't a great success; after seventeen years Texas wanted to be independent again. Too late. Know what you choose for.
After gaining independence from Spain as part of the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata (present day Argentina) in 1811, Uruguay became an independent state only four years later. In 1816 the territory was invaded by Portuguese troops though, and became part of the Portuguese empire in 1817 and five years later independent Brazil. After civil war and intervention of Argentina and Great Britain Uruguay became independent again in 1828. This warring great powers might be a 'perfect' analogy for the present Eastern Europe.
Egypt and Syria are the core Arab states, and in also the sixties they shared some revolutionary spirit. They united as the United Arab Republic in 1958. But Egypt's President Nasser still gave the Syrians the idea they were ruled by Egyptians, not by fellow Arabs, and the project failed in 1961. Just a warning for the Russian authorities.
From 1958 to 1962 Ghana and Guinea formed the Union of African States. Pet project of Ghanaian President Nkrumah, he hoped that it would be the start of an united Africa. French Sudan and Senegal united as Mali after independence in 1960. Not long thereafter the union dissolved and the French Sudan part joined the Union of African States as Mali. In 1963 the Union dissolved without anybody paying attention. Personal ties and ideology are not enough to keep a state together.
In 1963 Singapore became part of the Federation of Malaysia, which existed since 1945 as an union of British North Borneo (Sabah), Sarawak and Malaysia. It was no success, and in 1965 the city-state was expelled. I'm sure they regret this monkey-balls in Kuala Lumpur. I'm sure Khrushchev regretted giving Crimea away in 1954 as well.
In 1964 Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged after a popular revolution overthrew the Arab dynasty ruling Zanzibar. Some Zanzibaris found this a mixed blessing, but President Nyerere of Tanganyika happily accepted the unification bid. Sounds familiar?
Somalia could be a school example of failed unification. British and Italian Somaliland were united after decolonization. The Somali Republic was declared in 1969. French Somaliland never joined and became Djibouti in 1977. Since the civil war started in 1991 Somaliland, Puntland and Galmudug are virtually independent. Therefore, ethnic and linguistic bonds aren't enough, and shared history shouldn't go back in time too far.
The unification of the Yemen Arab Republic and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1990 was something of a success if you consider that they weren't really part of the same country since long. It took some civil war, but the country is still together, 24 years later. I see analogies. For example that there was an 'idea' that they were and should be together, and it took some military force to convince everybody afterwards.
Saddam Hussein was convinced that Kuwait was actually a province of Iraq. Seems legit, with some shared history, shared language and shared ethnicity. But Saddam forgot the referendum, plus it was probably the only time in history when the world powers were united: the Soviet Union was part of the coalition of the willing. Unfortunately, the world powers today aren't as united.
In the Spring of 2008 my lecturer Rick Fawn wrote an article called 'The Kosovo and Montenegro effect'. It shows how referenda can or cannot make independence bids legit, how the international community treats different states different in different contexts, and, therefore, how there is no jurisprudence or precedents in international law. He wrote: 'state creation is seen by Western powers as a means of managing and preventing conflict, but the effects could be deeply destabilizing for both the Post-Communist region and for Russian-Western relations'. Point taken.
Montenegro became independent from the Serbian rump of Yugoslavia in 2006, after a referendum agreed by both sides and monitored by all UN Security Council permanent members, including Russia and China. Russian media urged the Transnistrian de facto state in Moldova to follow in Montenegro's footsteps. The leader of the de facto state of Abkhazia in Georgia declared that there was no need for a referendum, as he considered the one from 1999 still legit.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, after being a virtual UN protectorate for nine years. Serbia still doesn't agree, but many countries recognized the Kosovar independence since then. This might be a result of the brutal war Serbia waged against the statelet. Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Abkhazia and South Ossetia (both in Georgia) stated that they suffered in the same way. Moreover, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria learned that great power intervention is allowed.
All parties drew different conclusions from the 'precedents' in Montenegro and Kosovo.
Some Sovietologists predicted a Bosnian style civil war in Crimea after the independence of Ukraine, because of the complicated history and ethnic composition. Nothing happened, and after more than twenty years nobody expected something to happen any more, moreover.
However, Russia learned in 1999 that outside intervention can be justified, and in 2006 how: by a referendum. Man can argue that both lead to the Russian involvement in the August War in Georgia in 2008. Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared themselves independent afterwards, and Russia recognized this. South Ossetia even wants to join the Russian Federation, but they aren't allowed, as for now.
Only if we look at the present situation in Ukraine and the Crimea, we might find a clue how the 21st century state system should or shouldn't react. Let's not forget that we aren't in 1938, and we aren't in 1990. The Soviet Union isn't there any more, the Cold War is over, and Putin is just himself, not some reincarnation.