The March 16 referendum on whether the southeastern Ukrainian province of Crimea should unite with Russia or have greater autonomy within Ukraine has presented the United States and the European Union with their most severe political test in decades.
On available figures, almost 97 per cent of those who voted favoured unification with Russia; the option of the status quo was not offered, and the Crimean government, headed by Sergey Aksyonov, promptly voted to approve the plan. In the Ukrainian capital Kiev, interim Prime Minister Oleksandr Turchynov rejected the referendum as unconstitutional, but he was powerless to prevent it. The proximate cause of the referendum was the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s unannounced departure from office on February 22, following weeks of public protests – and a violent government crackdown — over revelations of his corruption and his abrogation of an association agreement with the EU, which may well have led to Ukraine’s joining the EU in due course. In response, Russia, which had offered Kiev a €15-billion aid package and retains a naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea, sent troops into the 58 per cent ethnic-Russian province, where Mr. Aksyonov had already been voted into the regional prime ministership while armed guards kept all but his own party out of the Assembly building in Simferopol.
Russian President Vladimir Putin considers Mr. Yanukovych the victim of a West-inspired coup d’état, but the issues are much wider. The EU deal would have involved Ukraine in IMF restructuring and much closer cooperation with NATO-dominated EU defence institutions. Moscow saw this as a threat, especially following the emergence of evidence that U.S. troops had helped prime Georgian weapons in the latter’s 2008 attempt to seize South Ossetia; Russian governments also recall the unilateral U.S. recognition of Kosovo in 2008, and Mr. Putin was incensed when plans emerged for Ukraine to join NATO. Moreover, ethnic Russians in Crimea were not consulted over then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to hand over the province to Ukraine when the USSR collapsed in 1991. Tensions within Ukraine were further exacerbated by Mr. Turchynov’s appointment of several far-right politicians to senior ministerial posts in Kiev, and by a new law ending the official status of the Russian language in Crimea. The U.S. and the EU are considering sanctions, such as visa bans and asset freezes, against Russian officials; the G7 countries have declared the Crimea referendum illegal, but no Western bloc may be able to stop the dismemberment of Ukraine and prevent the start of a new Cold War.