Under a panoply of Russian flags and a chorus of exultant cheers, the Crimean Peninsula has voted in favour of severing ties with Ukraine and is petitioning the Kremlin for the opportunity to join the Russian Federation. Ever since Russia’s occupation of the Black Sea territory, many have seen it as only a matter of time before the Russian bear closed its paw around Crimea. With regional ministers doubling as Kremlin cheerleaders and the streets populated by masked Russian soldiers (or as Moscow would have us believe, ‘Crimean self-defence forces’), it is of little surprise that the outcome of this hastily instituted referendum was overwhelmingly in favour of Russian assimilation.
Already, the west has denounced the referendum as illegal, in violation of international law and engineered by puppets of Putin to further his imperial ambitions. There are good grounds for taking this position, and one of the more salient is the climate under which the referendum took place. With Ukrainian military bases and civic buildings effectively besieged by Russian forces and media outlets transformed into Moscow mouthpieces, a reasoned debate over the future of Crimea was never a real possibility. Instead, pro-Russian factions have been allowed to dominate the debate to the exclusion of all others, rendering the subsequent referendum something very short of a free and fair democratic process.
Exacerbating the divide and the sense of a foregone conclusion, the choice presented to the people on the ballot paper was a crude mockery of duality. Pencils in hand, prospective voters were offered a choice between breaking away from Ukraine and joining Russia, or breaking away from Ukraine to become an autonomous state, governed by a pro-Russia administration. Devoid of the option for retaining the status quo, it was effectively a decision between joining Russia now or joining Russia later. Small wonder that the Tatar community and resident Ukrainians, for whom there is little love for Russia, felt so disenfranchised that they rejected the referendum. Their abstinence will have contributed to the 97% majority voting in favour of being subsumed, though that is on the assumption that the 83% turnout figure proclaimed by the Crimean government is actually representative of the voting population. Suspicion is perhaps warranted given that such a high turnout was achieved even when so many pro-Ukrainians are reputed to have boycotted the vote. Accounting for at least a third of the Crimean population, the numbers just don’t seem to add up.
On the other hand, although there are many reasons to be dubious about the results, an alternative view of the referendum could be that the result was the self-determination of the people. It is arguable that detractors of the vote, as much as they protest, simply cannot have it both ways. If particular communities chose not to participate in the referendum then they cannot cry foul-play because they don’t like the result. Similarly, it could be considered gross hypocrisy for western governments to condemn the actions of Russia and the Crimean elections when it is guilty of imposing itself on the internal affairs of other nations, particularly the Middle East.
Yet as fervently as some have argued the position, this doesn’t detract from the severity of Russian actions in Crimea or reduce the flagrancy with which Vladimir Putin has acted. It may be the case that the West, in particular the UK and the US, have a lot to answer for in respect of their interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the rights or wrongs of past actions don’t validate or excuse Russian actions now nor should they be used to inflict a gagging order on western nations speaking out against infringements of international law. Those contending otherwise give the impression that they have axes to grind with the West and exhibit a disturbing lack of perspective regarding Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence.
Now that Russia has issued an official decree recognising Crimea as an independent nation, the question on the lips of western observers, including the current Kiev administration, is surely what happens now? Both the European Union and the US have responded to what they view as an illegal referendum by freezing assets and sanctioning travel for a variety of Russian politicians and military personnel. By putting the squeeze on Russia’s top brass, the West seems to be counting on collective pressure bringing Putin and his parliament to the table. As a consequence of this, a secondary question presents itself; what happens after the sanctions? Should an expansionist Russia remain haughtily dismissive of the punishments rendered by the EU and US, what recourse is there should sanctions fail to produce the desired results? Moreover, what happens if the thousands of troops amassed on the eastern borders of Ukraine are suddenly ordered to march west, their mission to occupy in the name of the Russian Federation?
Of course we don’t know, and can’t know at this stage. As alarmist as such questions may seem, they do at least show that a truly international consensus and condemnation of Russia’s actions is lacking in current dialogues. The EU and the US have been vocal in their denunciations of Russian incursions into Crimea but the voices of other big players on the global scene have been conspicuously absent. Although United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has issued his own statement admonishing the actions of Russia, the UN has been largely mute and inactive in response to events in Crimea.
Whether opposed, ambivalent or in tacit agreement with Putin’s actions, their silence only serves to diminish the strength of the international community and leaves Putin’s adversaries with little in the way of support or capability to defuse events in the Black Sea. US President Barack Obama and EU leaders have repeatedly called for a diplomatic resolution to the current crisis. Unfortunately, without the unity of the international community, efforts to bring about such a solution seem increasingly futile. As a result, what began as a protest by Ukrainians over their desire to join the EU has now transformed into now a much greater and more urgent battle. It is a now a fight for power, territory, autonomy and the sanctity of international law.
This article was originally published on the author’s blog, Contrarious.