What Would an Independence Vote Really Mean for Crimea?

The latest ploy raises the possibility of Crimea becoming a truly independent nation, that is neither Ukraine, nor Russia. Can that possibly work?

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The Crimean Parliament overwhelmingly approved a "declaration of independence of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea," saying it will declare total autonomy from Ukraine if voters opt to secede in Sunday's referendum vote. Although the move is ostensibly a vote to join Russia, the latest ploy raises the possibility of Crimea becoming a truly independent nation, that is neither Ukraine, nor Russia. Can that possibly work?

The geopolitical struggle over Crimea, with the West backing Kiev's attempts to hold onto the region, and Russia attempting annexation by force, is not new. Powers have vied over the strategically located peninsula for centuries. Now, the vote for independence is dredging up new territorial disputes and calling into question the region's future. Here are some possible scenarios for Crimea, and what they would mean for Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and Crimea itself.

But first, some history

Billboard reads "Autonomous Republic of Crimea." AP

In the last century, Crimea was at one time an "autonomous republic" of the Soviet Union, and then a province of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, but in 1954 it was given to Ukraine by then-Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev as a way to "further [strengthen the] brotherly ties between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples." The New York Times describes how at the time the transfer was largely symbolic, as both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union. But it was also part of a larger effort to "Russify" the rest of Ukraine through education and cultural dominance. Most of the local population still speaks Russian and identifies as Russian, ethnically.

When the U.S.S.R. broke up in 1991, many Crimean residents — especially in the port city of Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is still based — started regretting that they were now attached to Ukraine and not Russia. After some back and forth in 1991 and 1992, Crimea became an autonomous republic within Ukraine, subject to Kiev's ultimate rule, but with its own legislative body.

National Geographic reported in 2011 that "mentally and emotionally, [Crimea] identifies with Russia," but that it seems to belong more in the old Soviet Union than in modern Russia:

Crimea is practically a throwback to the old Soviet Union: the Early Concrete Bunker style of architecture, the rusting hulks of Russian warships in the harbor, the hammer-and-sickle medallions on the iron gates of Primorsky Park. It's also attitude. Brusque, rigid, humorless: the worst kind of Soviet hangover. You can take Crimea out of the Soviet Union; to pry the Soviet Union out of Crimea is something else... Ukrainian may be the official language, but Russian is the lingua franca, even in city hall. Of 60 secondary schools in Sevastopol, only one holds classes completely in Ukrainian.

Since 1992, the Crimean Constitution has seen some revisions, but the region has remained an arm of Ukraine. Until now.

Why does Russia want Crimea?

Soldier in Crimea, believed to be Russian. REUTERS

Russia  is pushing hard to get Crimea back under its influence. But Russia would pay a big price to regain control of Crimea. To do so would violate the integrity of a foreign nation, which is why U.S. and European forces are considering sanctions and some officials in the Kremlin don't necessarily think this is a battle worth fighting. The Associated Press reports that Konstantin Remchukov, a publisher and newspaper editor, spoke out against the annexation, adding that he believes Russia should be able to negotiate a deal with the West, perhaps promising concessions in Iran and Syria to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine, while also maintaining its Black Sea Fleet in Crimea. (The Russian navy leases it bases there.)

According to Forbes contributor and former Ukrainian publisher Greg Satell, Crimea's strategic locale has a lot to do with why Russia wants it back: 

The naval base at Sevastopol, on Crimea’s southwestern tip, is Russia’s only warm water naval base and its primary means of extending force through the Mediterranean.  It has been alleged that the port city has been used extensively to supply Bashar al-Assad throughout the current civil war in Syria. And while the lease agreement with Ukraine regarding the base remains valid until 2047, the majority of the Black Sea coastline is held by NATO allies except for Georgia on the east, which is actively seeking NATO membership, and Ukraine in the north.

Alternatively, political analyst Vadim Karasyov told the Associated Press that the fight over Crimea could really be a fight for control in Ukraine overall. As the nation grows closer to Western Europe, it cease to be bulwark against the EU on Russia's border. He said:

[Russian President Vladimir Putin's] task now is to get a stake in the shareholding company called Ukraine. He believes that the West now has the majority stake and he doesn't even have a blocking package... So Crimea is an attempt to get a blocking package.

And some see Putin's bid for Crimea as a way to assert dominance over the West. As Slate's Eric Posner explains, Western calls for Russia to back off Ukraine will hit a wall if the majority of Crimeans opt out of Ukraine. In Crimea voted to secede, he explains, Western efforts to keep Crimea from joining Russia will seem like little more than international bullying.

Why does Ukraine want Crimea?

"Putin is Occupier." AP

Kiev's interim leaders have issued Crimea an ultimatum — reverse plans on the referendum vote by Wednesday or see the dissolution of Crimea's semi-autonomous government. (They've also formed a national guard to fight off Russia if it has to.) But after months of protests, including some of the bloodiest days in recent Ukrainian history, opposition leaders in Kiev have finally gotten what they wanted — the opportunity to self-lead and offers of aid from the U.S. and EU. Why now spend all this energy attempting to hold on to the rebellious peninsula?

As mentioned earlier, just as Sevastopol, a port city, would be valuable to Russia, it's also extremely important for the Ukrainian economy. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Ukraine could use Crimea's resources to back further way from Russia:

Without Crimea, Ukraine looks set to lose an important piece of its economic and energy future: valuable undersea oil and gas fields that lie just offshore the Crimean peninsula. Exploiting those Black Sea fields could help reduce Ukraine’s dependence on Russian gas imports. And Big Oil had been interested: Before the overthrow of former President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine was on the verge of signing a deal with a group, including Exxon Mobil (XOM) and Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.B), that was prepared to spend $735 million to drill two wells off Crimea’s southwest coast. 

If Crimea goes to Russia, it stands to reason that Moscow would profit off the deal. And according to German broadcaster Deutsche WelleUkraine could really use that money:

Ukraine is facing national bankruptcy unless international investors step in.... Ukraine's social systems have suffered a blow, and the country barely has enough financial reserves to meet its foreign debt. Interim finance minister Yuriy Kolobov said Ukraine may need 25 billion euros ($34.4 billion) by the end of next year: Ukraine, according to Standard and Poor's rating agency, is on the brink of bankruptcy.

In addition to material concerns, there is the fact that Russia has stood by Yanukovych, offering him shelter despite the fact that Ukraine wants him for mass murder. To let him get away, and take Crimea with him would be particularly galling. And let's not forget that Russia's meddling in Ukraine started the upheaval in the first place. If Yanukovych had not accepted Putin's offer of a $15 billion bailout instead of signing a trade deal with the EU, Maidan activists might not have launched their revolution at all. 

What's best for Crimea?

Today's declaration of independence is seen by some as a way to cool tensions between Russia and the West, perhaps providing Moscow an exit that doesn't involve violence. The AP explains:

The vote in Crimea's Parliament about Sunday's referendum could give Moscow the option of saying there is no need for Crimea to become part of Russia.... The Crimean Parliament's declaration could put the bid to join Russia on hold, depending on the outcome of Russian President Vladimir Putin's bargaining with the West.

What this means, according to Karasyov, is that this is "a message to the West that there is no talk about Russia incorporating Crimea... It's a tranquilizer for everybody, for the West and for many in Ukraine who are panicking."


Russia's state-run publication Russia Today writes that the declaration stipulates that Crimea will go out on its own regardless of whether Russia accepts its bid for annexation. It cites the declaration as proclaiming that "the country where we lived doesn't exist anymore. We are going our own way and we're trying to do it quickly." But this doesn't hold up to the reality on the ground. (Like a lot of what RT reports.)

Crimea has not been independent in recent history, and all other outlets are reporting that Crimea will either remain in Ukraine or try to join Russia — not that it will strike out on its own. Even if could, there are plenty of indications that the vote is far from open and fair. The voting site set up ahead of Sunday's referendum vote has a Russian domain, and all flights into Crimea's main airport are blocked ... unless they come Moscow. There's also the matter of the tens of thousands of Russian soldiers already on the ground in Crimea. Hardly the atmosphere for a fair election.

So if Crimea can't really be independent, should it stay, or should it go?

Some Crimean businessman are excited by the prospect of joining Russia, seeing a possible opportunity for economic growth. The Financial Times reports:

Alexander Basov, head of the local chamber of commerce, echoes a widely held view that a Russian-ruled Crimea would garner more attention – and investment – from Moscow than it ever got from Kiev. “Since independence, Ukraine has treated Crimea like an unloved stepchild, not a real son,” he says. “No big factory has been built here in the last 20 years. The only spending was on repairs to the road from Simferopol to the state dacha in Yalta.”

But others fear that if Crimea ends up in an international gray area, foreign investors may shy away from conducting business with Ukrainian firms. One Crimean businessman told the FT that "there will be no foreign investment in a place with such dodgy legal status.... and the odds are that even Russians will not want to invest here." Plus, Crimea relies on Ukraine for basic facilities like water and electricity, services that could be shut off if Kiev loses patience with the region.

And if Ukraine does finally make a trade deal with the EU, as it appears poised to do, Crimea could have a better chance of prosperity in the long run than if it is governed by the protectionist and oppressive Kremlin. But ethnic Russians still make up a majority of the Crimean peninsula, and would be happy to return to the motherland. 

By next week, Crimea will ostensibly have made a decision as to its next move. Yet, the matter will be far from settled in the eyes of the international community. For now, at least, it seems to be having some fun with the notion of going its own way.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.