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A game with no winners
Publication Date : 19-03-2014
Ukraine's Crimea region held a referendum on Sunday offering voters the choice between becoming a constituent part of the Russian Federation or remaining part of Ukraine. With the overwhelming majority of those who voted in favour of joining Russia, Crimea's parliament formally applied to join Russia on Monday, and Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by signing a decree recognising Crimea as a sovereign independent state.
The contentious referendum was one of Russia's responses to the dismissal of the former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich and the overthrow of his government. The unexpected suspension of the proposed Association Agreement and free trade deal with the European Union by the Yanukovich administration in November provoked anti-government protests that eventually resulted in his ousting as president. A new interim government took power and indicated it would continue to pursue the integration process with the EU, which is in conflict with Putin's Eurasian Union ambition. Under the permission of the Russian State Duma, Russian troops entered Crimea and seized key installations and government buildings. Two weeks later, the Crimean parliament declared independence and decided to hold the referendum.
However, the referendum is controversial. Although Russia claims that the referendum is legal and not prohibited by international law, the Ukrainian government immediately rejected its legitimacy. The result of the referendum has also been rejected by the United States and the EU, who claim the referendum violates international law.
In 1954, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union issued a decree transferring the Crimean Oblast from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, marking the 300th anniversary of Ukraine becoming a part of Russia. Upon the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the majority of Ukraine's Crimean Oblast was in favour of Ukraine being an independent state and Crimea remaining in Ukraine.
Crimea's independence movement gathered momentum after 1992 when the Crimean parliament renamed the region the Republic of Crimea and proclaimed autonomy months later. The independence endeavours were rejected by the Ukrainian parliament in a legislative way. Since 1995, the political situation eased in Crimea, but it was not fully settled.
Regarding the legitimacy of Crimea's referendum, the principle of national self-determination is one of key principles recognised by modern international law. The UN Charter upholds this principle, proclaiming that self-determination ought to be enjoyed by all peoples as a basic human right. However, with most former colonies determining their independence after World War II, the traditional interpretation of the right to self-determination seems to need reconsidering as self-determination is now a domestic issue, and the abuse of the self-determination principle by some ethnic separatists can cause instability in a country.
Crimea's independence campaign has not only intensified the political crisis in Ukraine, it is also escalating tensions between Russia and the West. Russia will obviously benefit from Crimea's annexation. A strategic location, the port facilities in Crimea are of immense military importance to Russia, serving as the base for Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Through annexation, Russia will obtain the facilities permanently and will not have to pay for them. The facilities were leased to Russia by the Yanukovich administration. This lease was due to expire in 2017, but it was extended to 2042 in exchange for a substantial gas discount.
If the annexation goes smoothly, it is likely that Russia will take further measures to encourage protests in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, such as Luhansk, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkov, with military pressure at the Russia-Ukraine border.
It is also probable that Russia will seek to stall Ukraine's integration with the EU in a more peaceful way by pressing for a federalisation process in Ukraine, which would entitle the eastern and southern parts a veto over major foreign policy decisions, including the signing of the EU Association Agreement.
But while the annexing of Crimea has some benefits to Russia, Putin's ultimate goals are to prevent Ukraine from joining the EU and to make the whole of the country a member of his Eurasian Union.
The US and the EU have harshly criticised Russia's actions. The US and the EU have committed substantial financial aid to Ukraine, and the IMF has also resumed its bailout programme. These supportive measures are conducive to ease Ukraine's emerging sovereign debt crisis as a result of poor fiscal performance since 2012.
This time the West seems somewhat weak against Russia's military manoeuvre and Crimea's separation. The West will not want a direct military confrontation with Russia, while sweeping economic and trade sanctions would incur too high a cost, especially for EU countries, as these countries rely heavily on energy supplies from Russia.
However, Crimea's separation indicates that the regional situation around Ukraine has become more complicated and there is a possibility for the crisis to escalate further.
The author is associate professor of the Institute of Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.