Behind the Headline: Crimea “votes to join Russia”, U.S. and EU impose sanctions

A Crimean woman casts her vote. Yesterday, Crimean authorities announced that voters had overwhelmingly chosen to leave Ukraine and join Russia. Image by Andrew Lubimov of the AP.

A Crimean woman casts her vote. Yesterday, Crimean authorities announced that voters had overwhelmingly chosen to leave Ukraine and join Russia. Image by Andrew Lubimov of the AP.

When we last left the events in the Ukraine, pro-Western revolutionaries had just taken control of the country, promising fresh elections in a few months. Just days after this startling turn of events, armed men in uniforms with no identifying insignia or markings started taking over the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Russia claimed these were merely Crimean militias, but several of these men identified themselves to reporters as Russian soldiers. Before long, Crimea’s government was replaced by one that was more pro-Russian, Russia’s military started carrying out drills near the Ukrainian border, and Russia’s parliament voted to authorize Russian president Vladimir Putin to send troops to the rest of Ukraine if he so chose. Russia’s media is calling the new government in Ukraine a “fascist coup”, and its government says they have the right to protect Russian speakers in the country from violence.

Now a new twist has been added to the crisis: a referendum in Crimea was held yesterday asking voters whether they wanted to stay a part of Ukraine or join Russia. According to the results announced last night, 96.7% of the votes cast were in favor of joining Russia, with a voter turnout of 83%. After the announcement, the Crimean government has declared the peninsula’s independence from the Ukraine and applied for annexation by Russia.

There are doubts over whether the official results are accurate, as many Crimeans had boycotted the vote. Even if the results are accurate, though, the Ukrainian government, the United States, and the European Union have all argued that the vote is illegal and violates Ukraine’s constitution. A U.S.-backed declaration condemning the vote was approved by 13 of the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council, with Russia the only country to vote against the declaration and China refusing to pick a side. Not only are the United States and European Union refusing to recognize the vote’s results, they have announced that they will freeze the assets of and ban travel by various key figures that they claim have escalated the crisis.

Ukrainians are now bracing for what Russia’s next move will be. Recent rhetoric by Vladimir Putin has blamed recent violence in eastern Ukraine on “fascist radical extremists” supported by the new government in Kiev, and some fear that this may be a pretext for a full invasion of the country. For its part, the authorities in Kiev and many outside observers claim that the violence is the fault of pro-Russian protesters and Russian ‘protest tourists’ who are being egged on by Moscow to provoke a violent response from the Ukrainian police.

It’s hard to make sense out of all of these developments, so to help understand what is going on and what is at stake, it’s time to once again go behind the headline.

Why is Crimea so important, all of a sudden?

A map of Crimea

A map of Crimea

First of all, Crimea has not suddenly become important; it has always been important. Perhaps you may remember hearing about the “Crimean War” in your history class?

Crimea has changed hands many, many times throughout its history, in large part because of its strategic location on the Black Sea. Whoever controls the peninsula’s ports is in prime position to dominate the Black Sea, and to have easy access to the Mediterranean. Crimea is also a popular tourist destination, thanks to its beautiful beaches, mountains, and historic sites.

Crimea was conquered by the Russian Empire in 1783. At the time, the majority of the population were Tatars, a Muslim ethnic group related to the Turks and Mongols. The peninsula also had centuries-old Greek, Armenian, and Bulgarian minorities. Centuries of Russian rule brought large numbers of Russians and Ukrainians to the peninsula, until eventually it was the Russians and Ukrainians who were the majority. When the Soviet Union was set up, Crimea was initially an “Autonomous Republic” within Russia.

That’s when Joseph Stalin entered the picture. Among the many, many horrific and evil acts Stalin committed during his brutal rule, he forcibly removed the entire Tatar, Greek, Bulgarian, and Armenian populations from their homes, accusing them of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II. Most of the exiles were resettled in Uzbekistan. After Stalin died, a few of these people were able to return, but the Soviet government offered them no compensation for their losses and no help with reclaiming their lost homes. Naturally, many Tatars in Crimea today have very negative opinions about Russia.

Meanwhile, after Stalin died Nikita Khrushchev took over the USSR, and in 1954 he gave Crimea to Ukraine. According to his granddaughter, Khrushchev loved Ukraine and Ukrainians, so this decision was something of a personal gesture. On the other hand, it also made a fair amount of practical sense. Ukraine is physically attached to Crimea by a small land bridge, while Russia is not. The only way to get from Russia to Crimea is over water. This means that electricity, roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure has to be built through Ukraine to reach Crimea. Besides, at the time, Russia and Ukraine were both a part of the Soviet Union, so the transfer wouldn’t have all that much of an impact on the day-to-day lives of Crimeans.

That is, until the Soviet Union broke up. When Ukraine gained its independence, it took Crimea with it. This was a huge problem for Russia, because the Soviet Navy (and Russian Imperial Navy before it) had always used Crimea as a key naval base. Eventually, an agreement was reached where Russia agreed to recognize Ukraine’s independence and its borders – including Ukrainian rule over Crimea – in return for the right to continue using Crimea as a military and naval base.

Of course, these recent events have turned all of that on its head.

Why is Russia doing this?

Vladimir Putin, president of Russia. Image from Kremlin.ru

Vladimir Putin, president of Russia. Image from Kremlin.ru

The majority of Crimea’s population is ethnically Russian, and most of those fear the new pro-Western government in Kiev. There are also many Crimeans who feel Khrushchev made a mistake when he gave Crimea to Ukraine. There is little doubt that many Crimeans genuinely support annexation by Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia may fear that the new government would revoke Russia’s rights to its Crimean naval bases. Originally, the agreement was due to expire in 2017, but that agreement was extended until 2042. However, that extension was signed by Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president who was ousted by the revolutionaries. It is possible that Russia feared the new government would demand a return to the old terms, leaving Russia without its most vital naval base in just a few years.

However, the United States and the European Union maintain that invading Crimea and holding the referendum under the watchful eye of men with guns is a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and of the most basic principles of democracy.

Are there Crimeans and Russians who oppose these developments?

Yes. As I said before, Crimea’s Tatar minority opposes Russian annexation, and fears the consequences of a return to Russian rule. Indeed, many Russian Crimeans oppose the annexation as well, including middle-class Russians and Jews. Already, many Crimeans are moving out, fleeing to other parts of the Ukraine so they can remain Ukrainian.

In Russia, too, there are people who oppose their government’s decisions. While the majority of Russians appear to support Putin in this crisis, there were enough dissenting Russians to stage a rally in Moscow that counted tens of thousands of protesters in its number. These voices of opposition not only face harassment by police for their views, they are often attacked by their neighbors and passers-by, who call them “fascists” and “traitors”.

Are we about to see World War III, or at least another Cold War?

Cold War cartoon from Talk Android

Right now, the West’s response to the crisis has been to prop up the Ukrainian government with bailout loans, talk with Russian leaders and diplomats almost daily, and propose a very limited set of diplomatic and economic sanctions that target only Russia’s leadership. There is extreme reluctance to impose more far-reaching measures like a wholesale economic embargo blocking all trade (as the United States has done with Cuba and Iran), because of the economic interdependence between Russia and Europe.

Having said that, nobody is sure what Russia intends to do for its next move. The threat of an invasion of the rest of Ukraine to “protect Russian-speakers” worries EU members such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all of whom have large Russian minorities. These nations are also U.S. allies, so any Russian move against them would be sure to provoke an American response.

Already, the media is full of speculation that this is the beginning of a new Cold War, with a recent CNN poll finding 69% of Americans feel Russia has become a threat to the United States. Having said that, some voices are calling such talk an overreaction. This article from ABC News argues that Russia and the West are too economically dependent on each other to let things escalate that far. The article also points out that the United States and its allies have ruled out a military response to the events in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the only person who is really in control of where this crisis goes is Vladimir Putin, and so far, he isn’t telling us what his intentions are.

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One Response to Behind the Headline: Crimea “votes to join Russia”, U.S. and EU impose sanctions

  1. AuntLeesie says:

    Well… it makes ME nervous. Guess we’ll see.

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