The worst outcome now seems likely:
MPs [in the Crimean parliament yesterday] voted by 78 votes to nil for the territory to leave Ukraine, further escalating what has become the most serious crisis in Russian relations with the west since the cold war.
At the same time, a referendum on more autonomy for the region due on 30 March was brought forward to 16 March, and the question was changed to give residents the option to unify the Black Sea peninsula with Russia. Crimea’s deputy prime minister, Rustam Temirgaliev, said the referendum was now only to “confirm” parliament’s decision, and he considered Crimea to be part of Russia already. He said that all Ukrainian troops on the territory should either leave or be treated as occupiers. Crimea is planning to introduce the rouble and readopt Russian state symbols.
Brian D. Taylor’s sees the referendum as a Kremlin provocation:
[The] fast-tracking of a Crimean referendum on unification with Russia, if Putin is behind it, suggests that he decided to speed right past the “off ramp” and head straight for formal annexation.
In that case, the prospects for positive-sum outcomes will have shrunk considerably. If Russia does formally annex Crimea, the United States and Europe should go ahead with sanctions, in order to hit Russian elites in their pocketbooks. In the medium term, the United States should help Central and Eastern European governments to diversify their energy supplies, away from their dependence on Russian gas.
The Bloomberg View editors take a similar stand:
Any plebiscite held within 10 days of its announcement is by definition a joke, yet the implications here are serious: No major country has annexed territory since World War II. Unless it can be prevented, the damage will extend to everyone concerned. The move would, first of all, destabilize a fragile Ukraine, not least by encouraging pro-Russians in other regions to follow Crimea’s example. Civil war would become difficult to avoid.
Helena Yakovlev-Golani and Nadiya Kravets believe the annexation “could be problematic for Russia in a number of important ways”:
First, annexing Crimea would be a costly enterprise. The peninsula is not self-sustainable and heavily depends on Kiev to balance its budget. Crimea has no fresh water supplies and it does not generate its own electricity; in fact, it receives 90 percent of water, 80 percent of electricity, 60 percent of other primary goods and 70 percent of its money from Kiev. Building or creating these capacities in Crimea will put a huge strain on the Russian budget, and given the ongoing slide of the Russian currency due to calamities in Ukraine, the decline is likely to continue together with the fall of foreign direct investment into Russia. Crimea with its 2 million person population would become an economic drain on Russia even more than the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose populations totals some 250,000 and 45,000 respectively. In addition, economic problems would magnify due to reactions from Turkey and Europe.
But Bershidsky thinks annexation would be a win for Russia, despite the costs:
About 60 percent of Crimea’s natural gas comes from a Ukrainian company that extracts it in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The peninsula gets 80 percent of its water and power from Ukrainian territory. These supplies will not be cut off, but Ukraine will probably want to charge more for them. Russia will either have to negotiate with an unfriendly government in Kiev or build parallel infrastructure, which will take years and billions of dollars.
All told, it looks like a good deal for Putin compared with the $50 billion price for the Winter Olympics that just ended in Sochi. At taxpayer expense, the Russian president is acquiring a priceless resource: an explosion in public support. According to the VTsIOM sociological service, Putin’s approval rating has reached new highs in the last two weeks, and is now at 68 percent. That’s worth more to the Russian leader in his 14th year in power than any accolades from the West could ever be.
Juan Cole questions the US’s credibility in opposing the secession:
It is not clear if Russia’s supporters in Crimea are serious about this accession to Russia or if they are just playing a bargaining chip intended to wring long term concessions from the interim Ukrainian government, such as a permanent lease of naval facilities in Crimea to the Russian navy. …
But those pundits (and President Obama himself) who are suggesting that a Crimean secession from Ukraine would be contrary to international law or unprecedented, or that the US would always oppose such a thing, haven’t been paying attention. The US position on secessions depends on whether Washington likes the country affected. And Washington itself toyed with partitioning Iraq while it was a colonial possession.
Posner assesses whether international law would prohibit it:
Crimea is currently occupied by Russian troops, and the question of secession was (as far as I know) put on the agenda only because of Russia’s illegal intervention. Unlike places like Quebec, the Basque Country, and Scotland, the question of secession is entirely new; there was never a live secession movement that sought reunification with Russia. Ukraine itself does not appear to favor secession of Crimea. The world ought to be skeptical about the Crimean Parliament’s intentions, but if a fair referendum is held, and there is overwhelming sentiment in favor of unification with Russia, then a major geopolitical victory will be within Russia’ grasp.
Adam Taylor looks at survey data that suggests Crimeans already largely identify with Russia:
This poll, conducted by a well-respected agency linked with the Russian state, found that a majority of respondents view Crimea as part of Russia. There are a few fascinating elements to this one. First, it was conducted in August, long before Ukraine’s situation blew up, so it appears to show some deep-rooted feelings about Crimea (which was, after all, part of Russia until 1954). It’s also worth noting that in this poll, more people thought Crimea was a part of Russia than Dagestan (41 percent) and Chechnya (39 percent) – both of which are republics in the Russian Federation.
Another survey complicates the identity issue further:
Asked an open-ended question about where respondents considered their “homeland” to be, Crimeans, unlike easterners or other southerners, showed fairly little affiliation with the Ukrainian state. More than half of Crimean respondents replied by naming Crimea, while almost no one else mentioned their own region. Some 35 percent of Crimeans did volunteer Ukraine, and while allegiance to Ukraine was higher — around 50 percent — among ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars living in Crimea, these figures were considerably below the support in eastern Ukraine. In short, levels of attachment to Ukraine in Crimea are noticeably out of line with the rest of the country.
Natalia Antelava fears for the Crimean Tatars, who want the region to remain part of Ukraine:
Eskandar Baiibov, a deputy in the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, told me firmly that his community is unanimous in its backing for the government in Kiev, and that Crimean Tatars would boycott any referendum on joining Russia. But he is also terrified, he admitted, of the price that they might have to pay for refusing to give the Kremlin the support it wants.
“We are already seeing signs that they are trying to intimidate us, to split us, to stir trouble,” Baiibov said. “Ukrainians are also vulnerable, but at least they have Ukraine to go to. Where will we go? Crimea is our only home.” After the regional parliament voted to merge Crimea into Russia on Thursday, the chairman of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov, released a statement to the press, calling for the United Nations to “immediately consider” sending a contingent of international peacekeepers into Crimea, “in order to deëscalate the military conflict … which can lead to mass casualties among the entire civilian population of the peninsula.
Previous Dish on the Tatars here.
(Photo: One of several pro-Russian demonstrators blocking the entrance to the Ukranian Navy headquarters in Sevastopol holds Soviet flags, on March 7, 2014. By Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)