The Supreme Council of Crimea voted on Mar. 6 to formally become a federal subject of the Russian Federation after 60 years as a part of Ukraine. The decision was put to the Crimean people by referendum on Mar. 16, and passed with 96 percent of the vote, with a turnout of over 80 percent. However, Ukraine has since declared the ballot unconstitutional, as have the United States and the European Union, claiming that the referendum was illegal since Russian troops were still deployed around the peninsula.
Native Russians compose 58 percent of Crimea’s population, and a majority consider Crimea to be an extension of Russia. Given that a larger number of Crimean citizens do not identify as Ukrainians, having the opportunity to choose whether to become an independent republic or join Russia is justified, but the referendum was approached poorly by the Crimean Parliament, Ukrainian government and Russia.
It was aggravating and unnecessarily threatening for Russia to intervene militarily in Crimea, especially so soon after the collapse of the Ukrainian government. The sudden aggression gave the impression that the Russian government was attempting to take advantage of Ukraine’s weakness rather than protect Russian natives in Ukraine and Crimea, as it claimed to be doing. Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the gunmen were local resistance forces, when evidence points to the fact that the men were indeed Russian soldiers without insignias. Since Mar. 1, Ukrainian journalists were prohibited from entering the Crimea, increasing the questionability of Russia’s intentions.
The referendum provided no choice to maintain the existing political status of Crimea, only to restore the 1992 Crimean constitution or join Russia as a federal subject, both of which would have resulted in de facto separation from Ukraine. According to Ukrainian law, territorial changes can only be approved via a referendum that includes all citizens of Ukraine, rendering the referendum illegal by Ukrainian law. The EU, G-7 and the U.N. Security Council have all said that they will not recognize the result of the referendum, citing a violation of international law. The EU has imposed sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on 33 Russian and Ukrainian officials since Mar. 7, with threats of more to come, including against Russian energy exports. However, since several of the officials have no property or family abroad, the travel sanctions are ineffective as the “consequences” that President Barack Obama intended them to be. However, denying service to cardholders of Bank Rossiya, the Russian bank on the blacklist, has affected common citizens more than the officials. While the sanctions are a step in the right direction, they pose more a threat of harm than direct harm for the sanctioned officials.
Putin’s approval rating among the Russian people has since increased to 71.6 percent, the highest since 2012, suggesting that a major goal in pursuing the annexation was to bolster his popularity. Such a suspicious motivation, coupled with the fact that only authorized journalists were allowed to cover the elections, indicates that the referendum was not an accurate reflection of the opinion of Crimean citizens. In order to properly administer such a ballot, Russia should have withdrawn its forces, and the ballot should have involved all Ukrainian citizens without intrusion.