Why Ukraine Should Risk It All

Forget Crimea. Kiev needs to hold a referendum on secession in all its southeastern provinces.


Tensions continue to rise ahead of Crimea’s vote to join the Russian Federation, scheduled to take place on Sunday. Russian troops are massing along the Ukrainian border, and a spokesman for the government in Kiev has warned of a possible “full-scale invasion from various directions.” Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin has added fuel to the fire by reportedly questioning whether Ukraine’s exit from the USSR was legal. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to defuse the Russo-Ukrainian conflict once and for all. Forget a single-province referendum in Crimea: Ukraine should ask the United Nations or some other neutral international organization to hold a vote on secession in all the southeastern provinces with significant Russian and Russian-speaking populations.

If that sounds outlandish or foolhardy or even politically impossible, just consider what it would accomplish. Russia insists these southeastern populations are being threatened by the “neo-Nazis” and “fascists” in Kiev. Putin insists he has the right to employ military force to defend them. Kiev — along with most Western observers — reasonably rejects these claims, but being right makes little difference when Moscow has the force of might on its side. According to acting Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh, Russia has positioned 220,000 soldiers, 1,800 tanks, 400 helicopters, 150 planes, and 60 ships along Ukraine’s eastern border. By contrast, Ukraine’s infantry consists of 41,000 soldiers, of whom only 6,000 are battle-ready. In other words, if Putin were to launch an attack on Ukraine, it would swiftly succeed, although it could conceivably become bogged down in a prolonged occupation and pacification fight.

Since the relative force capability precludes a successful military defense of Ukraine by Kiev — and a Western military intervention is unlikely as long as Russia’s aggression is confined to the southeastern provinces (all bets are off if Russian tanks advance on Kiev or Lviv) — Ukraine’s government really has only one option: to remove the pretext for a possible invasion. Since Russia insists that any intervention would be motivated solely by a desire to help threatened countrymen, Ukraine should act immediately to determine just how many of its southeastern residents do in fact feel threatened enough to want independence. The provinces in question would be, from west to east: Odessa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv. Ideally, Crimea would be added to the mix.

An internationally-conducted referendum would give the residents of these provinces the chance to speak for themselves. The organization overseeing the vote would have to be acceptable to Ukraine, Russia, and the West; the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe come to mind. Guided by international conventions, that organization should determine how high the percentage of pro-independence votes would have to be to trigger legal secession: 50 percent plus one, 60 percent, or some other figure. The referendum should be held as quickly as possible, so as to keep tensions from rising as a result of divisive campaigning. To guarantee a peaceful environment, U.N. peacekeepers should be temporarily deployed to the provinces in question. Three-person teams of international observers consisting of one European or American, one Ukrainian, and one Russian could monitor the voting. The results should be binding on both Ukraine and Russia. The question could be as simple as this: “Do you support X province’s independence from Ukraine and annexation by the Russian Federation?” Since both Russia and Ukraine insist that the local populations support them, a referendum would call their bluffs.

There is actually a precedent for this kind of procedure in recent Soviet history. On March 17, 1991, Soviet voters were asked to vote on the following question: “Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” Seventy-one percent of Ukrainians voted yes. Ukrainian voters were also asked: “Do you agree that Ukraine should be part of a Union of Soviet sovereign states on the basis of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine?” Eighty-two percent said yes. Although the referendum proved inconclusive — the August putsch followed soon thereafter, Mikhail Gorbachev effectively lost power, and Ukraine declared independence on Aug. 24 — it is certainly still remembered in Ukraine and could serve to legitimate a new vote.

The results of a referendum in Ukraine’s southeastern provinces should be acceptable to Russia, but it’s a gamble. The will of the people will have been heard, and if, as Moscow insists, it is pro-Russian, the Russian Federation will have the opportunity to annex a few territories. If it is not pro-Russian, then Moscow will have to recognize that its claims of persecution are unfounded.

Ukraine should also be satisfied with such a procedure, both because a Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine looks more likely with every day and because mid-February polling data suggest that none of the southeastern provinces has more than a third of its voters supporting unification with Russia. If these provinces choose to stay, then Russia will no longer be able to claim that they are oppressed. If pro-Russian sentiment grows exponentially in the immediate future and some provinces choose to leave, then Ukraine’s stability and security will only be enhanced by the departure of regions with fifth columns that exceed 50 or 60 percent of the population and that, as a result, could not be defended from Russian aggression.

The referendum could be capped with a broad treaty between Russia, Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States in which all sides agree to respect the referendum’s results in perpetuity. Russia and Ukraine would also agree to respect each other’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, to provide for minority rights (especially in the disputed southeastern provinces), to refrain from threatening actions, and to respect each other’s choice of domestic policies and international orientations.

The results would insulate Ukraine from further Russian aggression — and they should satisfy Putin that large numbers of southeastern Ukrainians aren’t being held hostage against their will. Unless Putin intends to swallow all of Ukraine and thereby declare war on the entire post-war international order, he should appreciate that only such a referendum would produce legal and legitimate outcomes, and not internationally unrecognized statelets and frozen conflicts at best, and a land war, a lengthy occupation, and the certainty of protracted conflict at worst.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.

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