Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine has received global attention over the last month. The move followed the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych’s government in a Ukrainian revolution led by civilian protestors. The legitimacy of a referendum held on March 16, in which Crimean citizens reportedly voted for the region to become a part of Russia, has been a topic of international discussion.
Conflict over the Crimean region goes back as far as 1783, when the Russian Empire first annexed Crimea. In 1954, the Soviet Union transferred control of Crimea to what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. After the breakup of the Soviet Union Crimea remained a part of Ukraine and the naval base located in Sevastopol remained under Russian control. The Soviet Black Sea Fleet stationed in Crimea was split between the two countries under the deal, creating conflict between the two countries.
Tensions in the area were reignited due to civil unrest under the Ukrainian government led by Yanukovych. Revolutionaries were successful in forcing Yanukovych out of the country. Shortly afterwards, Russian forces stormed the Crimean peninsula with Putin claiming that Russia was protecting the interests of the country and its citizens. 40 countries denounced Russia’s military invasion of the area in a joint U.N. statement Wednesday.
During a Tuesday afternoon panel covering the international implications of the Ukrainian Crisis, Monica Eppinger, a professor in the school of Law, touched on misconceptions in popular media concerning the lines of division in Ukraine and the referendum, which found 97 percent of Crimean citizens in favor of joining Russia.
Some media outlets have maintained that the conflict in Ukraine has been between the Ukrainian-speaking western half and the Russian speaking eastern half of the country. Eppinger stated that the majority of Ukraine is bilingual, and that the protests have not been a conflict of cultures but a conflict of goals. According to Eppinger, the revolution was led by those who wish to join the European Union and opposed by those in support of a stronger relationship with Russia. She noted that in a poll of Crimean citizens conducted on Feb. 28, 41 percent of those surveyed said they would prefer to be a part of Russia. This is a considerable difference from the 97 percent of citizens who voted to become part of Russia in the recent referendum, which some national governments have refused to recognize.
Eppinger also denounced the referendum as illegitimate and “a myth” due to the use of coercive force before the vote. Citing reports of men with assault weapons confiscating passports from families that expressed support of the Ukrainian revolution as a means of intimidation and control, she said that the referendum has wiped any opportunity to accurately gauge the opinion of the Crimean people.
“There was an exercise meant to look like a voting procedure,” Eppinger said. “If you think you can cast a free vote with someone sticking a bullet to your head, then it was a referendum.” She also stated that citizens were only given the option of secession on the ballot: the two choices were ultimately to become part of Russia or to become an independent country.
According to Ellen Carnaghan, a professor of Political Science at SLU, there are multiple reasons for which Putin might disapprove of Ukraine’s current government, including its support for the EU and Western governments and the fact that the Ukrainian revolution came about as a result of popular resistance against a pro-Russian regime. She cited complaints amongst protestors of corruption, autocratic tendencies and lack of responsiveness to popular needs as criticisms that could also apply to Putin’s own government, giving him further reason to make a strong statement against the revolutionaries.
“The Russian government has shown itself to be very hostile to the idea of political change pushed by popular resistance and has worked hard to ensure that opportunities for popular protest are very constrained in Russia,” Carnaghan said. “Annexing Crimea allowed Putin to send a message about the costs of this kind of political change.”
Carnaghan also noted the strategic value of the Black Sea Fleet and the Russian naval base located in Sevastopol, Crimea. By taking the peninsula, Putin secured access to the fleet in addition to Sevastopol’s base, which allows the Russian navy vital access to the Mediterranean Sea through the Bosporus strait. The naval base has also been cited as an important historical symbol of Russian might by Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow.
The responses to the Crimean annexation by Russia have been, according to Carnaghan, mostly symbolic. She stated that limited sanctions imposed by the West on Russia, and Russia’s suspension from the G8, a group of eight leading industrialized countries, are unlikely to have a major effect on the global economy.
However, the conflict has had some effect on the Russian stock market, which has already fallen 14% since Russia’s invasion.
According to Ivan Lapuka, an assistant professor of marketing, Russia’s economy relies heavily on the exportation of its natural resources.
He stated that oligarchs, the wealthiest people in Russia, and foreigners with interests in the Russian economy are likely to withdraw from the country due to the Western sanctions. He also pointed to Russia’s reliance on neighbors, specifically Ukraine, in order to fund continued modernization of the country.
“It’s a very murky future. Most likely we will see stagnation in terms of growth in Russia, and we will see some inflation in the currency,” Lapuka said.