The March 16 vote comes barely three weeks after Russian troops essentially took control of the peninsula.
The Crimean crisis, and the wider Ukrainian crisis, have been widely discussed throughout the international media, so there aren’t too many original points I can make about Sunday’s vote.
The most obvious, perhaps, is that no one expects Crimea’s election to be either free or fair, in any normal sense of those words. Though self-determination is one element from which nation-states today derive legitimacy, consider the context of the Crimean referendum with the context of September’s referendum on Scottish independence — the referendum date was settled more than a year in advance, the terms agreed by both UK prime minister David Cameron and Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, the debate focusing on the economic and other policy implications of independence.
It’s also important to remember that Crimea, ultimately, remains a sideshow. The more compelling story about Ukraine today is that its acting government is working, largely with success, to bring calm to the rest of the country. US and European financial support is likely to shore up Kiev’s shaky finances, preventing Ukraine’s pending sovereign default, and a May 25 presidential election could restore some semblance of political stability after the fall of corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych on February 22 (though that won’t end the cultural and economic imbalances that have caused such a strong east-west divide in Ukraine).
A phony choice?
Crimea’s referendum will be a slapdash affair meant to rubber-stamp the newly constituted Crimean parliament’s decision to seek Russian annexation. That’s clear from the tilted nature of the referendum’s wording. Crimeans will choose between two options, worded in Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar:
1. Do you support Crimea joining the Russian Federation as a federal subject?
2. Do you support restoration of the 1992 Crimean constitution and Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine?
The second option, as many scholars have written, is needlessly complicated, because there’s some doubt over which version of the 1992 Crimean constitution that the referendum option references. The original version states that Crimea is an independent state; only later was the constitution revised for Crimea’s current status, an autonomous republic within Ukraine. So there’s some suspicion that if Crimeans support the second option, it’s a vote for Crimean ‘independence’ from Ukraine that would, in essence, still bring Crimea under Russian control.
After Sunday’s vote, the Russian parliament, the State Duma (дума) will take up the question of Crimean annexation on March 21. It seems almost certain that Crimea will thereupon be admitted as a republic within the Russian federation, giving Crimea a special autonomy shared by 21 other Russian republics (among a total of 83 subnational units), which also include Chechnya, Dagestan, Karelia, Tatarstan and others.
By the numbers
To the extent that you’re not already familiar with the background to Sunday’s vote, the Crimean peninsula has a long (and not completely happy) history with Russia. It was the site of bloody war between Russia and Great Britain in the 1850s, and Crimea served as a buffer to prevent western powers from pushing even further into the Russian landmass. That’s one of the reasons Crimea, strategically, is so important to Russia today — the Black Sea Fleet has been located in Sevastopol since 1783, giving Russia a warm-water port, access to the Black Sea and, accordingly, to the Mediterranean Sea.
In 1944, Josef Stalin evicted many of the Tatars from Crimea to Kazakhstan and central Asia, an exile so perilous that it killed nearly 25% of the Crimean Tatar population. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, who was born in Ukraine, ceded Crimea from the Russian Soviet republic to the Ukrainian Soviet republic, a merely administrative gesture at the time. So when Ukraine became an independent country in 1991, Crimea came along with it. After some negotiation between Kiev and Crimea, however, Crimea emerged as a special ‘autonomous republic’ within Ukraine with its own constitution, government and regional parliament.
The region has just 1.97 million people — that’s just 4.3% of Ukraine’s population, and it represents just 1.4% of Russia’s current population. Though eastern Ukraine is home to greater numbers of Russian-speakers (as opposed to Ukrainian-speakers) and ethnic Russians, Crimea is the only place in Ukraine where ethnic Russians form a majority. Around 58% of the population is Russia, another 25% is Ukrainian and around 13% is Crimean Tatar. The Tatar population represents a significant increase as Tatars have migrated back to Crimea in large numbers since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Ostensibly, Crimea voted in October 2010 to elect all 100 members of the Supreme Council of Crimea. Not surprisingly, Yanukovych’s pro-Russian party, the Party of Regions (Партія регіонів), which has historically dominated the politics of the eastern half of the country in post-independence Ukraine, won 80 seats and over 48% of the vote.
When Yanukovych fled, Anatolii Mohyliov, who had served as Crimea’s prime minister since 2011, was dismissed by the Supreme Council, who appointed as his replacement Sergey Aksyonov. Aksyonov (pictured above), nicknamed the ‘Goblin’ for his ties to Crimean organized crime, leads a small party called Russian Unity, which won 4.02% of the vote in 2010 and just three seats in the Supreme Council.
As Russia has argued, there’s a legitimate question over the legality of the decisions by Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada (Верховна Рада) to depose Yanukovych, as a strictly legal matter, appoint Oleksandr Turchynov as acting president, roll back Ukraine’s current constitution to its 2004 version and confirm the acting government of prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (whose loyalties lie closer to pro-Western politicians like Yulia Tymoshenko and boxing heavyweight Vitaliy Klitschko).
But if there’s a legitimate question hanging over the Turchynov/Yatsenyuk government, the legitimacy of the Aksyonov government in Crimea is even more in doubt. If Yatsenyuk represents a set of mainstream policies with the political support of at least half of Ukrainians, Aksyonov was always a fringe politician who now seems less an independent Crimean prime minister than a Russian puppet official.
An expensive acquisition for Putin
As an increasing number of writers have noted, the costs of Russian annexation could make Crimea a costly proposition for Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Crimea’s economy rests largely on tourism and agriculture. Increasingly during the Soviet Era, Crimea became a top vacation spot for middle-class Russians, and like much of Ukraine, Crimea is well-known for its production of cereal grains. But the Crimean economy isn’t exactly booming, and under Russian control, there’s a risk that exports would fall (only around 40% of Crimean exports today go to Russia, Belarus and Kazakstan, which form a customs union).
Increasingly over the past two decades, the Ukrainian government has subsidized natural gas throughout the country — Russia, the source of that natural gas, will now have to foot the bill for Crimeans. Ukraine also provides other subsidies to keep Crimea’s economy afloat, so it’s an annexation that could well cost Putin billions of dollars annually. Putin recently spent more than $50 billion to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi, so perhaps he believes it’s a small price to pay. But Russia is already spending billions of dollars to prop up the economies of the Georgia breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russian troops occupied in 2008 (Russia spends around $1 billion annually in South Ossetia alone).
Russia’s economy isn’t exactly doing well these days, and energy prices are not set to rise rapidly anytime soon. The Russian ruble is losing value, like many of the developing world’s currencies these days. Russia suffers from one of the world’s lowest life expectancies outside sub-Saharan Africa, its infrastructure is crumbling, and it faces one of the world’s most extreme depopulation challenges over the coming decades. So there’s a cost limitation to Putin’s military adventurism in the Russian near-abroad. That economic drain is another reason it seems less likely that Russia will move beyond Crimea and into eastern Ukraine.
In addition to the economic costs of annexation, Crimean Tatars have already announced that they believe the referendum is illegitimate. Given Russia’s atrocious historical treatment of Crimean Tatars, it’s not shocking that they would prefer that Crimea remains within Ukraine. But there’s a chance that the Sunni Muslim Tatars could launch a long-term insurgency against Russian domination in the region, not unlike the insurgencies Russia faced in the 1990s and 2000s (and even today, to a low-level degree) in Chechnya, Dagestan and the north Caucasus.
Finally, if Russia gobbles up Crimea, it will ironically remove two million relatively pro-Russian residents from Ukraine. That, in turn, could alter the east-west divide in Ukraine in favor of pro-western politicians like Tymoshenko and Klitschko. As I’ve written, without Crimea, Yanukovych’s margin of victory in the 2010 Ukrainian presidential election would be halved. Solely on demographics, by taking Crimea, Russia may permanently lose Ukraine.
Send in the Light Brigade
I’ve argued that the European Union, its focus rightly on reforming and improving Ukraine’s economy, has made much more positive progress in the past month, while Moscow and Washington play out an outdated version of a Cold War showdown.
Moreover, I’ve also argued that Russian annexation of Crimea is not a sign of US weakness or NATO weakness — it’s a sign of Russian weakness. The battle for Russian influence is no longer taking place in Prague or Berlin or even Kiev or Tbilisi, but in Sevastopol, Minsk and on the fringes of the south Caucasus.
Russia’s aggression may violate international law, and this weekend’s referendum may not meet international standards for a fair election. But the reality for US policymakers is that Ukraine and Crimea are hardly vital US national interests. No one believes that it’s in the best interest of the United States to send navy ships into the Black Sea. No one believes that’s even in the best interests of its most vulnerable NATO allies, including Poland and the Baltic states, each of whom know quite a bit about Russian aggression.
So for as much as US secretary of state John Kerry blusters, there’s a limit to what the United States can do to register its disapproval of the Crimean annexation.
Crimea (and Ukraine) mean much more to Russia than they could ever mean to the United States, from an economic, cultural, political or strategic standpoint. That doesn’t mean the United States can’t object, or that the European Union doesn’t have a security or economic interest in assisting Kiev in building a strong, successful, dynamic Ukrainian economy. But it does mean that you should disregard talk of a new Cold War between the United States and Russia.