The Crimean Referendum: Straining Relations Between Russia and the West

While the Russian intervention might have seemed extreme, the majority of Crimeans welcomed the move with many seeing the Russians as protectors from the chaos in Ukraine.

crimean-referendum-russiaOn March 16, 2014, Crimeans voted to join Russia in a referendum that was supported by Russia and denounced as illegitimate by Western powers and Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government said that the outcome of the referendum would not be recognized, with Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s interim president, labeling the referendum as being a “great farce” and stating that it “will never be recognized either by Ukraine or by the civilized world.”

How did pro-EU rallies in Kiev lead to a pro-Russian referendum?

Crimea had been a part of Russia since its annexation in 1783 until it was given to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union at the time and a Ukrainian by birth. Currently Crimea is an autonomous republic with its own parliament and a population composed of 60 percent ethnic Russians, 24 percent Ukrainians and 12 percent Tatars.

As pro-EU rallies in Kiev became increasingly widespread and violent, Ukraine’s stability and security became ever more vulnerable. This provided the opportunity for pro-Russian gunmen to seize control of Crimea, occupying governmental buildings in the capital Simferopol on February 27. This then led to Russia’s intervention after the its parliament approved Russian President Vladimir Putin’s request to use military force in Ukraine on March 1. Five days later, the Crimean government voted in favor of asking to re-join Russia and declared a referendum on the decision.

Referendum Results

While the Russian intervention might have seemed extreme, the majority of Crimeans welcomed the move with many seeing the Russians as protectors from the chaos and the newly elected government of the pro-EU protesters. Since the beginning of the crisis, Putin’s popularity increased around 10 percent, his highest popularity rate in three years.

It is unsurprising then that Mikhail Malyshev, the official electoral chief of Ukraine, declared on March 17 that approximately 97 percent of the Crimean population voted in favor of a union with Russia, with a turnout of 83 percent. On the same day, Crimea ceased to abide by Ukrainian law. By the end of the month, it will change to the same time zone as Moscow and adopt the ruble as its official currency.

But how accurate and fair are these results considering that the Tatar and the ethnic Ukrainian population of Crimea, who make up 36 percent of the republic’s total population, claimed that they would boycott the referendum?

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They question the legitimacy and fairness of the referendum since voters did not have the option to maintain the status quo. The only available options on the ballot paper were joining Russia or furthering devolution – phrased in such a way that implied a sovereign Crimea. This was important because the Crimean government stated that if the peninsula became sovereign it would still seek to join Russia and break off relations with Ukraine.

Sanctions

The US and the EU agreed on sanctions against Russia to begin from March 17 which include travel bans for Russian Citizens and asset freezes of 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials who are considered as the enablers of the referendum. President Barack Obama also stated that more sanctions may be imposed and that if Russia continues to ignore the West’s warnings it would “achieve nothing except to further isolate Russia and diminish its place in the world.”

But whether any of these sanctions will have a tangible effect on Russia, its citizens or the Crimean people is yet to be seen. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, took to Twitter to state that the sanctions will only affect those with assets abroad: “Comrade Obama, and what will you do with those who have neither accounts nor property abroad? Or didn’t you think of that?”

No end in sight?

With the Ukrainian government recently reporting that it prevented Russian troops from moving into eastern Ukraine and pro-Russian protests occurring in cities close to the Russian border such as Donetsk and Kharkiv, there have been concerns that more Ukrainian territories will follow in Crimea’s footsteps.

The extent of the fallout from the referendum is yet to be known in its entirety, but with the yes vote encouraging other pro-Russian groups it has become a potential reality. And if Russia continues to ignore the warnings of the West by supporting such groups it might irrevocably jeopardize its economy and further strain diplomatic relations with Western countries.

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Catherine Lefèvre holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at the University of Erfurt. She is a volunteer at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London and is a Co-founder of GPPW.org. You can follow her on Twitter @cat_lefevre.