Ukraine Primer III: Crimea’s Secession Vote

by Derek Davison

Crimeans voted “overwhelmingly” to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a March 16 referendum. The Obama administration declared shortly after that “the international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law.”

Crimean secession proceeds

Exit polls taken during Sunday’s referendum suggested that around 93% of voters supported the option to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia over the option to assert Crimean sovereignty under the terms of the 1992 Crimean constitution. There was no option in the referendum to maintain the peninsula’s status quo with respect to Ukraine. Crimea’s Tatar community planned to boycott the vote, though recent Russian efforts to reach out to the Crimean Tatars, through representatives of Russia’s related Volga Tatar community, may be easing the concerns that Crimea’s Tatars have around union with Russia. Large pro-Russian crowds reportedly gathered in the Crimean cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol to celebrate the results of the vote.

Diplomatic condemnation of the referendum from the United States and Europe was swift. On Saturday, before the referendum, the United Nations Security Council considered a resolution declaring Crimea’s referendum illegal, which was vetoed by Russia after China abstained and every other Security Council member voted in favor. On Sunday, President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone, and according to the White House read-out of the call, “[h]e emphasized that Russia’s actions were in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and that, in coordination with our European partners, [the United States is] prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions.” Top Obama advisor Dan Pfeffer told reporters that the US is preparing to impose sanctions against Russian officials, including asset freezes and visa bans. The European Union seems prepared to consider similar actions, and EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Brussels later this month to discuss next steps. Putin countered that the legal framework for Crimea’s secession was established by Kosovo’s secession from Serbia in 2008, and reportedly insisted to Merkel that the referendum was “in full compliance with international law.”

What happens now?

Amid concerns that the referendum’s outcome would quickly lead to a military confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian forces, it seems a temporary pause may have been achieved. According to Reuters, Ukraine’s acting defense minister told reporters on Sunday that “[a]n agreement has been reached with (Russia’s) Black Sea Fleet and the Russian Defence Ministry on a truce in Crimea until March 21.” It’s unclear what a “truce” means in this situation, when there have yet been no sustained acts of violence between Russian and Ukrainian forces, and when the Russian government officially continues to deny the presence of any Russian troops in Crimea beyond those stationed at its Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol.

Russia has yet to formally agree to annex Crimea, and leading Russian politicians have given verbal support to Crimean independence, but Putin has previously said that Russia has “no plans” to annex the peninsula. A decision to annex Crimea would bring with it an immediate crisis, given that the peninsula is almost entirely dependent upon the Ukrainian mainland for its electricity, fuel, and fresh water. If Russia does elect to annex the region, it may have no choice but to engage in negotiations with the new Ukrainian government, whose legitimacy it has thus far refused to recognize, over maintaining those services in Crimea until Russia can build the infrastructure to provide them instead.

Russia may also attempt to seize other parts of Ukraine outside of Crimea, which could render Crimea’s utility vulnerabilities moot. On Saturday, for example, Russian forces seized a Ukrainian natural gas terminal just north of Crimea, and Ukrainian forces reportedly surrounded the terminal in response. Russian media declared that Crimean “self-defense forces” had seized the terminal in response to the Ukrainian government cutting off the supply of gas to parts of Crimea. Pro-Russian demonstrators clashed with Ukrainian security forces in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, and two eastern Ukrainian cities carried out informal referendums similar to the one in Crimea; these events raised the possibility that Russian intervention could spread from Crimea to the eastern part of mainland Ukraine. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and home to a large Russian population, has also seen demonstrations in favor of closer ties to Moscow, and two pro-Russian protesters were killed there on Friday in clashes with security forces. Russian troops are reported to be massing along the country’s Ukrainian border, and the Ukrainian government has taken steps to form a National Guard and to mobilize military reserves, veterans, and volunteers.

On Monday, the Obama administration announced sanctions (travel bans and asset freezes) against 11 individuals, “to impose costs on named individuals who wield influence in the Russian government and those responsible for the deteriorating situation in Ukraine.” Included in this first round of sanctions are Dimitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister for defense issues; Valentina Matviyenko, head of the upper house of Russia’s parliament; Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov; and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The EU announced sanctions targeting 21 individuals, including Aksyonov, Rogozin, and Matviyenko, but the full list was not immediately available.

Western governments continue to threaten Russia with further sanctions against its interests, but European fears that Russia will cut off its supply of natural gas to Europe in response to draconian actions have complicated the situation. Natural gas exports from the United States are seen as one possible way for Europe to wean itself from Russian gas, but it is very unlikely that US exports could do much to alleviate the pain of a Russian shut-off, at least in the immediate future. On the other hand, analysts are pointing to the fact that Russia depends to a large degree on its oil and gas sales to Europe, and to the fact that Russian businesses have considerable ties to Western banks, to suggest that Russia’s vulnerability to sanctions may be higher, and its ability to punish those sanctions more limited, than has previously been assumed.

Western governments have also promised that financial and possibly military assistance will be provided to Ukraine. The US has pledged at least $1 billion in aid to Ukraine to help stabilize the government, but the measure authorizing those funds has been caught up in Congressional wrangling for several days and will be reconsidered when Congress returns to session on March 24.

Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses reporters before meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in London on March 14, 2014

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.


One Comment

  1. Another play/plan by another ivory tower denizen here, which is but one of the multitude available on the web if one looks. Amazing how most of these contain the lines about how this is illegal, but they don’t mention such when the U.S./NATO engage in these same practices. One could separate each of the various points/actions taken, which undoubtedly will be done sometime in the future. The question here is: “why is it O.K. when the U.S. plus NATO engage in their wars to unseat leaders not liked, causing death & destruction and infrastructure damage that wont be replaced if/when the new approved leaders are in power, usually because the new leaders are corrupt/thieves/greedy”?

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