The Crimean Gambit

Throughout history, Crimea has seen its share of political turbulence and bloodshed, with many wars being fought for the occupation of its lands. The Crimean annexation in 2014 isn’t by any means the first in its history. In 1783, Catherine the Great who was fierce in her territorial ambitions after her victory in the Russian-Turkish war, went as far as to violate the Peace Treaty of Kaynarca during her appropriation of the lands. In today’s more modern and mostly civilized world, such seismic political shifts are occurring less by the sword and more by the ballot box. This isn’t to say that ills are no longer committed in territorial disputes however, as Russia and the US/EU bloc seem keen to hurl accusations of criminal misdeeds at each other, reading off a rap sheet apparently longer than the Encyclopedia Britannica. The annexation (or alleged annexation) of Crimea is no exception.

The crisis in Crimea started when the democratically elected president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych was unable to reach a mutual agreement with opposition leaders. This political stalemate soon resulted in unlawful and violent acts being perpetrated by rival political factions that eventually culminated in a coup d’état. Yanukovych found himself being stripped of his presidential power from the increasing risk of violence and subsequently fled the capital. The interim government led by Oleksandr V. Turchynov then stepped in and scheduled new presidential elections in which businessman Petro Poroshenko was elected president.

In the wake of the coup, the Crimean parliament approved a referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, or to remain with Ukraine but maintain greater autonomy. The referendum took place on March 16th 2014 and the results showed that an overwhelming majority voted to become a part of Russia. The City Council of Sevastopol also held a separate referendum, which turned out the same result as the Crimean Parliament.

The Ukrainian government in Kiev has since ruled that the Crimean referendum is illegal. Leaders in both the European Union and America also consider the referendum to be illegal as it contravenes the Ukrainian Constitution. The then President Obama issued the first in a number of punitive actions against a number of Russian citizens, which included visa bans on military officials and individuals he deemed responsible for undermining Ukrainian sovereignty in Crimea. The EU were at first reluctant to follow because of their continent’s heavy reliance on Russian oil and gas, but eventually issued sanctions similar to those of the United States. Despite the large (mostly Russian) population supporting Russia, there are still disagreements domestically, with the Tartan minority in Crimea who also viewing the referendum as illegal.

Who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong in this complex scenario, largely depends on whom you ask. The US/EU side of the crisis argues that Russia is to be held entirely accountable. In their eyes the referendum was illegal as it violates Article 5 of the Ukrainian Constitution, in which any constitutional change requires the say of all Ukrainians, not just those of Crimea. On paper this is very much the case, as the decision to hold a referendum was not made by the central government in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, but by the autonomous local government in the Crimean Parliament. All actions taken by Russia from the results of such an unconstitutional referendum are thusly seen to be both illegitimate and in violation of Ukrainian law.

The EU/US also believe the Ukrainian coup to be justified as Ukrainian president Yanukovych needed to be removed, due to his alleged activities of corruption and embezzlement. It is argued that the former president secretly holds numerous financial holdings and assets both domestically in Ukraine as well as internationally.

The incumbent government that now occupies Ukraine in the wake of the coup also argues that the Crimean vote was not only illegal, but in fact rigged. After the result (in which the notion to join Russia won with over a staggering 90% in favour), a number of widely circulated media reports stemming from Ukrainian news networks talk of how the Russian government accidentally posted the real results on their website. The results indicate that only around 30% of the Crimean people actually voted to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. Some have pointed out discrepancies however, as a poll done in early 2014 (pre coup) showed that 41% of Crimean people supported union with Russia. Moreover, there are reports of how military personnel dubbed ‘The Green Men’ were seen (particularly around the area of Sevastopol) during the vote. They are allegedly to have been sent by the Kremlin to act as a visual display of power and an intimidating force as the vote was carried out. At first the Kremlin denied this, but Vladimir Putin has since admitted that forces were sent to Crimea.

Europe also takes issue with the results of the referendum due to the claim that it is causing great concern for the minority Tartar population that resides in Crimea. The Tartars have, throughout history under Joseph Stalin, been subject to persecution and discrimination. They fear that to return to living under the wing of the Russian Federation will see that persecution re-newed. This concern solidifies why many Tartans also see the referendum as illegal.

Russia on the other hand argues that the Crimean referendum, and its incumbent result, was legitimate and fair. Firstly, the referendum that was carried out by the Crimean Parliament was conducted with full compliance of international law and the United Nations Charter. They also point out what is said to be one of the most misleading arguments put forward, which is that the referendum is unconstitutional. As mentioned earlier, this is true enough as it requires all of Ukraine to have a vote on it, but Russia argues that the Ukrainian Constitution has been null and void since February 22, 2014. This has been the case ever since the Kiev rioters overthrew the democratically elected President, in what was an armed acquisition of power. Since the coup, Crimea and Russia have instead been guided by the rules laid out by international laws and have exercised the rights laid out in the United Nations Charter regarding the rights to self determination (Article 73, pg. 14). The United Nations International Court of Justice in 2010 also handed down an advisory notice that unilateral declaration of Independence is in accordance with international law. Russia also stipulates that they carried out activities with the Crimean Parliament using reference to UN court rulings on previous territorial matters, most notable in 2011 when the southern territories of Sudan seceded from the rest of the country, to form the independent state of South Sudan.

The Ukrainian coup is another area where Russia and the US fail to see eye to eye. Russia regards the coup as criminal, starting with unlawful political actions that rose in intensity to destabilise Ukraine. Whilst the incumbent government claims that the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych may have been a triumph against corruption, the oligarch Petro Poroshenko is hardly shaping up to be an adequate replacement, with corruption and scandal allegedly as prevalent as ever. Russia also argues that the structures of government have taken a step back post-coup, seeing power that was once given to an elected president now being broken up and divided between Batkivschina and the Svoboda. The Svoboda political party is a group of significant concern both domestically and internationally due to its Neo-Nazi ideology.

The Russian government also contests the notion that the referendum was unjust, due to the presence of armed Russian troops in various districts of Crimea. Whilst at first they denied the presence of armed “Green Men’ operating in Crimea, they have since stated that their presence there was to protect voters from any pre-meditated attacks being carried out by violent political militant groups who would aim to intimidate people from voting. Supporters from both Russia and Crimea have also claimed that if there was an insistence to go by this standard, then it must be made clear that all Afghan and Iraqi elections since the early 2000s are to be rendered illegitimate for the presence of US and NATO military forces at ballots.

Russia vehemently contests the claim that the referendum was rigged in favor of supporting a union with Crimea. One of the key pieces of evidence that is usually drawn upon to contest the over 90% result is the previously mentioned poll, which showed that only 41% initially voted in favour of unifying with Russia. There are three main points that contest the validity of the poll conducted by the Kiev institute of Sociology. The first is that one of the key financiers of the poll was the European Union, which is immediately argued to be a conflict of interest. The second is that the poll only takes into account a very small fraction of the population of Crimea asking “2032 respondents older than 18 years in 130 settlements in 45 districts of the country.” With only an average of 1603 responding, and with the poll covering a range of districts across the entirety of Ukraine, only a small fraction (est. 10’000 max) of Crimea out of it’s 2,033,700 populace were asked. Moreover, a look at the ethnic breakdown of Crimea reveals that 65.3% are Russian, who identify as Russian, and see themselves as part of Russia. The poll was also taken prior to major political events (such as the coup) that took place in Ukraine that ultimately caused huge shifts of opinion regarding a unification with the Russian Federation. This supposedly goes some way to explaining the magnitude of the result in the referendum, with any notion of leaked ‘true’ results or vote rigging seen as nothing more than spurious acts of slander on part of the militant Ukrainian government.

When it comes to the fate of the Tartars within Crimea, the issue is one that’s still ongoing. Shortly after the referendum, Vladimir Putin signed a decree to rehabilitate Crimean Tatars who had suffered under the Soviet dictatorship. This order seemed to be aimed at appeasing the minorities in Crimea who are concerned of the reunification with Russia. It aims to ensure that basic education can be taught in the Tartar language and encourages a ‘Cultural Renaissance’ between the multiple ethnicities of Crimea. However, whether such measures will in fact protect the Tartars from their fear of persecution still remains to be seen as Crimea integrates into the Russian Federation.

The issue of who’s in the right regarding Crimea is a contentious one. On the one hand, it was wrong of the Russian government to deny placing troops in Sevastopol and other areas of Crimea, only to have later admitted to doing so. It is also a concern that the welfare of the Tartars could be at risk if old Soviet mentality is to resurface in Crimea. However, what is Crimea’s alternative? To fall under the wing of political factions that has acquired power through violence and force? With Svoboda, a movement with open alliances to fascism, it isn’t beyond the realms of reason to believe that the Crimean people would choose to join the ranks of the former rather than the latter.