This Thursday, Scotland will be holding a referendum on independence. Polls predict that it may go either way; a narrow victory for those who want Scotland to become an independent nation or for those who want it to remain a part of the United Kingdom. While in most European capitals, governments are hoping that the 'No' side will win the day, Russian president Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin has several reasons to cheer if the Scots decide to go their own way.
Scottish independence would be a disaster for NATO. The Scottish nationalists have made it very clear that they want all British nuclear weapons to be removed from Scottish soil. This will put the UK nuclear deterrent in jeopardy. But Scottish independence is also likely to bring national borders into question all over Europe, including the fragile boundaries of the Ukraine.
The United Kingdom flag, flag of Scotland, and European Union flag flying outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons/Calum Hutchinson)
Last week, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier broke with Germany's postwar policy of not interfering in British domestic politics. In an unprecedented statement, he made clear that Berlin hoped that the Scots would vote 'No' and Great Britain would remain together. Yet, as an interesting article in the London Daily Telegraph pointed out last Thursday, Germany is one of the European countries that will be least affected by the repercussions of a Scottish 'Yes' vote.
Next November, the Spanish region of Catalonia wants to hold its own referendum on secession. The Catalan separatists will be greatly boosted by a Scottish "Yes." If, on Thursday, Great Britain unravels, then Spain is almost certain to follow. The next domino might be Belgium, where last June a party of Flemish regionalists became by far the biggest party in the country. Scottish and Catalonian independence will pressure Flanders to follow. And that will probably not be the end of it. France has separatist movements in Brittany and Corsica. Italy has a problem with German-speaking South Tyrol, where the majority in the region feels more affinity with Austria than Italy. There are Swedes in eastern Finland and large Hungarian minorities in most of Hungary's neighboring countries. And there are the Russians in the Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin is a shrewd Machiavellian, who aims to reunite all Russian ethnic minorities in former Soviet republics with the Russian Motherland. While NATO has refused to recognize the separation of Crimea from Ukraine, Scottish independence from Britain following a referendum deprives NATO of an important argument.
Peace and stability in Europe since 1945 is built on the sanctity of the postwar boundaries. Although the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia broke up following the fall of Communism in 1989, the principle is still adhered to. The Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were three relatively young federations, all of them created after 1918, which broke up along the existing borders within the federation. The only exception to the rule so far, was the independence of Kosovo from Serbia in 2008. It is significant that Kosovo's independence was opposed by both Spain, which feared a precedent for Catalonian independence, and by Serbia's traditional ally Russia, which cited the sanctity of postwar boundaries as one of its arguments. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even warned in 2008 that Kosovo's independence "would be the beginning of the end for Europe." It was clear that Russia would not hesitate to use the precedent to its own advantage when the time would be ripe to do so.
And so it did. Crimea's recent secession from Ukraine was justified with a reference to "the Kosovo precedent," which, as Putin pointed out when signing the treaty to incorporate Crimea into Russia, "our Western partners created with their own hands."
There is little doubt that if this week's referendum allows Scotland to become independent from Britain, the West loses the argument to deprive Crimea or Eastern Ukraine of the right to become independent after referendums. Kiev, obviously, will have to accept such referendums, because if London has allowed a referendum, what argument could Kiev invoke to refuse it?
If the Scots vote 'Yes' on Thursday, the repercussions will be felt as far as Donetsk. Putin will certainly use the Scottish precedent in an attempt to try to gain the moral high ground in the conflict over Russian ethnic minorities in Eastern Ukraine.
Along with the Russian threat to retaliate to Western economic sanctions by reducing gas supplies to countries such as Germany (which is dependent on Russia for 40% of its gas supply), Poland (54%) and Finland and the Baltics (100%), a Scottish precedent would seriously handicap European governments in their attempts to convince public opinion of the need for a strong stance against Russia.