Crimea has voted to secede from Ukraine. The Obama administration is warning Russia not to annex the breakaway region. What happens if Vladimir Putin does so anyway?
- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
The Obama administration and its allies couldn’t prevent an overwhelming majority of Crimea’s residents from voting to secede from Ukraine. It’s looking increasingly likely that they also won’t be able to prevent Russian strongman Vladimir Putin from annexing the restive Ukrainian province.
Western powers spent much of the last week asking Putin and Crimea’s new pro-Russian government to cancel the secession referendum, but the appeals failed and residents of Crimea turned out in droves Sunday to vote. There had never been much doubt about what the outcome would be in the pro-Russian peninsula of Ukraine, but the margins were still startling: with 50 percent of the votes counted, more than 95 percent of voters opted to join Russia and secede from Ukraine, according to local Crimean election officials. The officials said 80 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots.
In separate statements Sunday, the United States and European Union called the vote illegal and refused to recognize its results. "This referendum is contrary to Ukraine’s constitution, and the international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
In a statement from all 28 member states, the E.U. called the vote "illegal’ and called on Russia to return its troops to their barracks. "The European Union has a special responsibility for peace, stability and prosperity on the European continent and will continue pursuing these objectives using all available channels," read the statement.
Russia’s State Duma has said it will discuss whether to annex Crimea, making it a "federal subject" of the Russian Federation, on March 21. If Moscow decides to move ahead, Washington and its allies have already said they won’t recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea. As with Russia’s recognition of the separatist Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, Crimea’s absorption into Russia is likely to be contested by the international community for years, if not decades, to come.
President Obama emphasized his refusal to accept Russian control over Crimea during a tense Sunday phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Obama, according to a later White House statement, said the referendum "would never be recognized by the United States and the international community" and that a clear path toward resolving the crisis diplomatically remains in play. U.S. officials hoped to broker a deal giving Crimea wide autonomy under Kiev, a diplomatic "off ramp" rejected by a number of Crimean voters today. The referendum offered voters the choice of absorption into Russia or remaining in Ukraine but with greater autonomy. According to local officials, voters sided overwhelmingly with joining Russia.
A number of hawks in Congress reacted angrily to the days events and stepped up calls for imposing tougher economic sanctions against Russian officials and businesses. "No more reset buttons. No more ‘Tell Vladimir I’ll be more flexible,’" Sen. John McCain told CNN. "Treat him for what he is — an individual who believes in restoring the old Russian empire."
The Obama administration and its European allies are preparing to sanction Russia as early as Monday, beginning with asset freezes and visa bans targeting members of Putin’s inner circle and several top Russian oligarchs. Congress is also drafting a hard-hitting sanctions bill, but its fate remains uncertain because of a dispute over an unrelated provision about reforming the International Monetary Fund. "The sanctions that we passed out of the Foreign Relations Committee are very biting, one of a kind," Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the panel, told Fox News. He referred to a new sanctions bill passed by the committee last week that has yet to be voted on by the entire Senate.
But many observers note that U.S. economic sanctions alone are unlikely to influence Putin or Russia’s elite governing class given the relatively small amount of annual trade between the two countries. EU sanctions, on the other hand, could deliver a powerful blow to Russia, but could also destabilize Europe’s post-recession economies.
Moscow, meanwhile, is using thousands of its troops to establish facts on the ground in Crimea, just as it did in Georgia several years ago. In 2008, Georgian troops fought a series of low-level skirmishes with separatist forces in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Russia intervened on behalf of the separatists and pushed the Georgian forces out. Tbilisi and Moscow severed their diplomatic ties, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been occupied by Russian forces ever since.
In a recent interview with FP, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili acknowledged that the provinces would remain de facto parts of Russia until their residents decided their lives would be better as part of Georgia. Unlike his predecessor, he didn’t speak of reconquering the breakaway regions, a reflection of the fact that Russia has been tightening, not loosening, its control over the regions.
Garibashvili said that Russian forces have begun building 30 miles of barbed wire fencing along the border with South Ossetia. The work stopped in December, weeks before the start of the Sochi Olympics. When the games ended, the work resumed. "That’s crazy, right?" Garibashvili asked in the interview.
Crazy or not, the residents of Crimea have willingly chosen to join Putin’s Russia. And rhetoric aside, it’s far from clear that the West will manage to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity any more successfully than it did with Georgia’s.