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Crimea votes to secede from Ukraine as EU considers sanctions against Russia

Crimeans have voted by a huge margin to secede from Ukraine. According to early reports released after 50% of the ballots had been counted more than 95% of votes were in favour of joining Russia. EU foreign…

Triumph or charade? Pro-Russian supporters celebrate in Simferopol. EPA/Yuri Kochetkov

Crimeans have voted by a huge margin to secede from Ukraine. According to early reports released after 50% of the ballots had been counted more than 95% of votes were in favour of joining Russia.

EU foreign ministers will meet to consider a parcel of sanctions against Russia, said to include visa bans and the freezing of assets of a number of Russian officials.

The Crimea referendum has been hailed in Moscow and Simferopol as an opportunity for the people of Crimea to express their preference for the future status of the peninsula and, equally, has been derided as illegal and illegitimate in Kiev, Washington, and across the EU. Following talks on Friday in London with his US counterpart, the Russian foreign minister said that Russia would respect the will of the people of Crimea.

While the problems extend well beyond the legality and legitimacy of the referendum, these issues are good points to start. Under the Ukrainian constitution, a referendum about questions affecting the country’s internationally recognised borders must be nationwide. In this sense, the referendum was clearly in breach of the constitution and any result would be null and void. Voters only had two options: to back an earlier resolution of the Crimean parliament to seek accession to the Russian Federation or reinstate the Crimean constitution of 1992 (subsequently abolished by the Ukrainian parliament).

This absence of a status quo option, and the increased presence of Russian troops in the peninsula, puts a big question mark over the degree of choice that Crimeans really had in this vote. That said, a strong traditional affinity to Russia and Russian culture is a reality in Crimea, as is the fact that many deep-seated social and economic problems in the peninsula have been ignored by successive Ukrainian governments.

Shock waves

The timing of the referendum, and the choices on offer, are hardly conducive to constructive crisis management. Whatever the result, the referendum will not be the end of the story. Crimea is divided politically and ethnically, depends on Ukraine for supplies of water and electricity, its economy is all but thriving, and recent developments have almost certainly “killed” this year’s tourist season.

Much like the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, it has also sent shock waves across the region, from the Baltic states to Moldova and the South Caucasus, leading US senator John McCain to propose the integration of Georgia and Moldova into NATO.

Thumbs up: Ukrainians have flocked to volunteer for the newly formed National Guard. EPA/Robert Ghement

While the US secretary of state, John Kerry, in a statement before the House of Representatives, recognised Russian interests in Crimea, rhetoric in the West has nonetheless hardened and sanctions have been credibly threatened by the US and EU, crucially receiving backing on Thursday from Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel.

Great power ambitions

One possible explanation for holding the referendum, denied by Lavrov, is that Putin’s ambition was and is to get control over all of south-eastern Ukraine with its industrial base and Russian-speaking population. This would secure the Sevastopol naval base and make Russian control over Crimea a less costly logistical and military proposition. It also serves Putin’s domestic popularity as the man who brought about Russia’s rebirth as a true great power.

Such a calculation, however, would have been in part predicated on significantly higher popular support in eastern Ukraine. This has not been forthcoming so far, but with the Ukrainian economy in a deep crisis now with significant structural reforms likely to be required by international donors, many enterprises in the eastern part of Ukraine will suffer, unemployment will increase, and economic power brokers currently more aligned to the new government may change sides. This crisis is likely to intensify over the coming months and more pro-Russian protests could occur in eastern Ukraine.

Military muscle: pro-Russian troops have been deployed. EPA/Yuri Kochetkov

Russian military exercises at the borders of Eastern Ukraine, however, could be a sign that Putin is unwilling to wait until the autumn for the crisis to escalate and offer a pretext for further Russian intervention.

As these battle lines are drawn, not all hope is lost, though. While Moscow may never get a formal acceptance of the February 21 agreement now, one of its key provisions – new elections at the end of the year rather than the end of May – may still offer an acceptable compromise. It would allow Moscow to build up a more desirable candidate, most likely Yulia Tymoshenko, whose electoral support is below 10% at the moment.

Tymoshenko has a track record of being able to work with Russia and, while pro-Western is less anti-Russian than other Maidan hopefuls for the presidency. Having been in jail throughout the Maidan protests, she is also less directly implicated in the anti-Russian direction that events have taken in Ukraine.

Keeping the status quo in Crimea until then would allow Putin to negotiate from a position of strength with a new president, enable him to push for Ukraine’s federalisation, and lock a new government into a deal that secures Crimea and puts serious brakes on any further westward move of the country.

Postponing elections would potentially also be useful for the new government in Kiev: there is no likely candidate at the moment who represents the eastern part of Ukraine and Crimea, thus making an election boycott there more likely and crucially undermining the legitimacy of any new political regime.

What comes next?

This brings us back to the referendum. It is difficult to see Moscow or Simferopol back down and ignore what appears to be an overwhelming vote in favour of joining Russia. Nor can the new government in Kiev and its Western partners not maintain that the referendum is illegal.

However, neither side needs to act immediately. Russia is under no pressure to annex Crimea, given the hold that it already has. If Russia does not push ahead with breaking Ukraine apart, the West is not obliged to impose sanctions.

With the long-term future of Ukraine and east-west relations in mind, both sides could still acknowledge, as they have maintained throughout, that all sides have legitimate interests that need to be respected and dialogue is the only way forward from the current impasse. The Kerry-Lavrov talks in London, described as constructive by Lavrov, could be an indication that this has been understood.

The purpose of the referendum, then, would have been strategic ploy not for the break-up of Ukraine, but for securing long-term Russian interests in the eastern part of the country and in Crimea.

Join the conversation

29 Comments sorted by

  1. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Somehow, I feel the authors are beating around the bush and the one with a capital B is long past.
    Now we have a capital P for Putin Power.

  2. Elena Berwick


    Quote: “While the problems extend well beyond the legality and legitimacy of the referendum, they are a good point to start. Under the Ukrainian constitution, a referendum about questions affecting the country’s internationally recognised borders must be nationwide”

    I trust under the Ukrainian constitution it is not allowed to use force and throw out a democratically elected president, irrespectively whether he was bad or good. Therefore, talks about Constitution do not make sense.


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    1. Georg Antony


      In reply to Elena Berwick

      What best demonstrates the disconnect from international reality by Russia and its supporters is the continuing use of arcane Soviet propaganda slogans in defence of vintage Soviet-style aggression.

      "Fascists", "reactionary elements", etc, to label those not keen to sign up for the reconstitution of the Soviet empire work for the Russian audience still stuck in Soviet nostalgia, but sound pretty false to independent international observers. Especially if the latter still remember the same justification trotted out every time the Soviet Union invaded another "ally" that wanted out.

    2. Peter Williams

      Retired and still kicking

      In reply to Georg Antony

      You may regard them as"arcane Soviet propaganda slogans" but the consequences of the Great Patriotic War are still felt by Russian families today. May 9 Victory days parades are held in every town and villages to the many war memorials. (Bit like Australia on Anzac Day.) Children carry photos of the grandfather, great- grandfather, uncle, great-uncle they never met, and thank him for saving Mother Russia for them. The word fascist "фашист" still carries real meaning. It describes the Nazis, Italians, Romanians and others who invaded the Soviet Union and who were ultimately defeated.

      Since many members of Svoboda and Pravy Sektor proudly wear the "Wolfsangel" symbol and the black and red colours of the OUN and Bandera, don't you think that self=associate with fascism and deserve to be called fascists?

  3. Robert Tony Brklje
    Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.


    It is pretty clear Russia only has interest in the Crimea and as for the rest of the Ukraine, Russia is quite content to dump that problem along with it's neo-nazis, debt and Chernobyl on Europe.
    Sanctions against Russia will likely force Russia, China and partners to drop the US dollar and this will lead to an economic collapse in the US, which in turn will lead to major economic losses in Australia. That Russia, China and other countries will inevitably drop the US dollar for trade exchange is inevitable but all at once and right now is not very desirable.
    Major economic collapse in the US could help to drive Christian fundamentalists into power so, global thermonuclear warfare, happy yet ;).
    How far can corporate propaganda go to hide a US funded coup, in a foreign country bringing radical and dangerous elements to power and threatening world peace go before people wake up to the stupidity of following the "Corporate States of America" into anything.

    1. Robert Tony Brklje
      Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Georg Antony

      Seriously the Washington Post as an information, you have got to be joking, in point of fact I find it rather intellectually insulting that someone would attempt to reference such a site as a reliable news source, how gullible do you think I am.
      I will remind that US mainstream news sources quite sickeningly cheered on the slaughter in the Iraq war like it was some kind of sporting event, seriously a sporting event.
      Here are so more reliable sources.
      I would ask that you never again aim a US corporate media web site at me, I find it insulting to think people would believe I am that gullible and it really does waste both our time.

  4. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    What a crock. Who cares about a bit of warm-lettuce slapping from the "EU"? It is none of their business. Flapping about "international law" is also irrelevant. Russia IS "international law", as it is a permanent member of the UNSC, which is after all, the ONLY "international law" that matters. Crimea was never an indelible part of the just as dodgy "sovereign nation" of Ukraine. I don't blame the Crimean people - go with the strength.

  5. Val Yule

    logged in via Facebook

    The Crimea was part of the Russian Empire in the 18th to 20th centuries,and of the Soviet Republic and within the Soviet Union part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Only in 1991 it became part of independent Ukraine. Russia has some justification in claiming it - as well as needing it for its eastward sea access.
    The West has some justification in opposing other Russian land claims - perhaps it could be less stick-waving about this one. The analogy with Nazi claims to its neighbors does not always hold.

    1. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Val Yule

      And the audacity of Communists getting all holier than thou over fascism!

    2. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to Val Yule

      Thank you Val for some history which should have been in the article.
      Also "Under the Ukrainian constitution, a referendum about questions affecting the country’s internationally recognised borders must be nationwide”
      Clearly the authors of the constitution, written only 22 years ago, could see this coming- Crimea wanting to go. In the UK of course there is no constitution so Scotland can ask the same question.
      And there are 3 options to vote - tick one of two boxes or spoil the paper.

  6. Gennadi Kazakevitch

    Deputy Head, Department of Economics at Monash University

    Dear colleagues,

    Thank you very much for your detailed and informative consideration of the legal aspects of the referendum in Crimea. However, neither of those legal considerations matter just because the referendum was conducted at presence of foreign (Russian) military forces.

    Suppose (just a ridicules assumption) British special forces land in South Australia and conduct a referendum on that state to leave Australia for joining the UK. This is exactly what is happening in Crimea at the moment.

    Very best regards,

    Gennadi Kazakevitch

    1. Elena Berwick


      In reply to Gennadi Kazakevitch

      At least the referendum was conducted when people voted and by the way could vote however they liked. Nobody stayed behind voters with the automatic gun dictating how to vote.

      On the other hand, nobody voted for the current Ukrainian government and the president. These people came to power by force and this force was represented by trained fascists from Western Ukraine.

    2. Robert Tony Brklje
      Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Gennadi Kazakevitch

      The would depend on whether it was an internationally monitored secret ballot or not.
      It is really rather quite silly to say people would vote the way you claim in a secret ballot, quite dumb indeed and I would deeply suspect your claim as being of extreme bias.
      In am internationally monitored secret ballot people would vote against occupying forces but the reality is they would also vote for forces protecting them from neo-nazi aggression.
      So would I prefer Ukrainian brown shirts with ski masks with swastikas or British special forces, I personally would have no qualm about going with the British Special forces.

  7. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    me gain. you two talk sense - that's why i like reading your stuff.

    there is no future for ukraine as a unitary state.

    the possibility of a viable unitary state governed from kiev has been squandered, wasted by:- (1) the coup in the first place, (2) the inclusion of fascists in the provisional gov't, (3) the attempt to repeal the language law, and (4) the banning of (a) party of regions, and (b) the communist party.

    these actions to my mind bespeak contempt for the minority, as if to "rub…

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  8. Michael Ekin Smyth


    Well, the 'What comes next?' predictions were wrong. Putin has pressed ahead and sanctions are now in place. What does come next? Will Putin try to grab Eastern Ukraine? Or will he, convinced the West is weak and unable to stop him, try to grab the whole country?
    He certainly has some strong motivations to grab the heavy industry in the East. The engines for Russia's best helicopters are made there - between 250 and 270 a year - and Russia doesn't yet have the capacity to replace them. Without sufficient helicopters, Russia's combat power is strictly limited.
    West European investment in defense in recent decades has been derisory.
    Putin's new Russian imperialism is, of course, based on weakness. He is losing the old Soviet periphery - and he knows that if he doesn't do something, the Russian Federation will be next. But where does that leave an indecisive and virtually leaderless EU? What is Merkel doing?

    1. Andrew Gilmour

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Ekin Smyth

      Re: Will Putin try to grab Eastern Ukraine? Or will he, convinced the West is weak and unable to stop him, try to grab the whole country?

      Putin will not do this as an open confrontation with the Ukrainian military would happen in this instance. Despite the Ukrainian military is much weaker, such open confrontation would have casualties from both sides and Putin is smart enough to avoid that. Please don’t underestimate him.

      Re: He certainly has some strong motivations to grab the heavy industry…

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    2. Michael Ekin Smyth


      In reply to Andrew Gilmour

      I think you underestimate the importance of close air support for ground units.
      The Russians certainly have a lot of troops and some good equipment. But, as ever, they are poorly motivated, behind the front line the logistics are poor, and the Russian economy isn't strong enough to support any long-term military campaign.
      Putin has many opponents and, although he has place men controlling most organizations, if he got them into a real shooting war, that opposition would grow quickly.
      The Kremlin…

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    3. Michael Ekin Smyth


      In reply to Andrew Gilmour

      George Friedman of Stratfor, a Texan of Ukrainian descent, seems convinced that Putin, while in a weak postion, is going to keep pushing.
      He writes: "Moscow’s options are varied, but its most likely strategy is three-pronged: bring pressure to bear on eastern Ukraine with limited military incursions; create unrest in the Baltics (now part of NATO and the European Union) and the Caucasus, and prevent anti-Russian movements from coalescing in eastern Europe."
      And, that puts all the pressure on the…

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    4. Andrew Gilmour

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Ekin Smyth

      This old Cold war logic from George Friedman and the Western politicians driving the EU at the moment will fail in the current situation for a very simple reason. The EU (I am not talking about the US, they are a bully) does not understand that it is required to live in peace with neighbours. The EU should stop pushing Russia to the corner. The EU spent the last 23 years since 1991 pushing the ex-USSR and then Russia to the corner and this policy worked for some time but eventually there would be…

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    5. Andrew Gilmour

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Ekin Smyth

      I do estimate that troops on the ground need a proper air support but the issue is that nobody is capable in Ukraine to do anything in the air. I saw a documentary recently which showed that out of 20 or so Ukrainian military planes staying at one spot only one is capable to fly :). You just underestimate how much stuff was stolen from the Ukrainian army during the years of independence. In this situation even the old MI-24 The Crocs from the Russains can do a job, not mentioning more modern systems…

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