10 March 2014

Keir Giles

Senior Consulting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme


Election staff begin the count at a polling station after a day of voting 16 March 2014, Bachchisaray, Ukraine. Crimeans go to the polls to decide whether the peninsular will break away from mainland Ukraine.  Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.
Election staff begin the count at a polling station after a day of voting 16 March 2014, Bachchisaray, Ukraine. Crimeans go to the polls to decide whether the peninsular will break away from mainland Ukraine. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.


The planned referendum on the future status of Crimea has been widely condemned as illegal and invalid. But even if it were legitimate, the two choices presented to Crimean voters offer them no option for leaving Russian control.

The referendum, currently planned for 16 March, asks voters in Crimea to choose between joining Russia or reverting to the 1992 Crimean constitution while notionally remaining part of Ukraine. Some media reporting has presented the second option as a return to the situation before Russian troops took control of the peninsula; in fact it is anything but. 

Crimea's 1992 constitution was adopted during a feverish round of devolution in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Soviet Union, and abolished shortly afterwards. In words that those with long memories will find chilling, it refers to the Republic of Crimea as a 'Soviet state' and describes it as a sovereign entity that grants Ukraine only such powers as it sees fit. In other words, the restoration of this constitution would be a step toward notional independence under Russian control. If it were adopted, events in Crimea would continue to mirror Russia's clash with Georgia in 2008 and the establishment of the 'independent' entities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Those citizens who were content with Crimea remaining part of Ukraine on the same basis as it has been for the last 20 years do not have a voice in this referendum. There is no third option available.

Implications for Ukraine

The local pro-Russian authorities have made their preference known to voters, including by means of a crude billboard campaign presenting a simple choice between two Crimeas: one overlaid with a Russian flag, the other with barbed wire and a swastika. Intimidation by the pro-Russian gangs describing themselves as 'self-defence' units, who will be patrolling and potentially manning polling stations, is likely also to play a significant role in persuading Crimean residents which way to vote. But, in effect, either result in this referendum would be broadly acceptable to Russia.

Geography dictates that consolidation of Russian control of Crimea, whether as part of Russia or notionally independent, will present serious challenges for Ukraine in both security and economic terms. Ukraine's vulnerability to further Russian military intervention will be amplified. The isthmus from Crimea offers land access to the Ukrainian mainland which is limited and easily defended. But the large-scale and continuous reinforcement of Russian troops in Crimea, combined with unrestricted freedom of movement by the Black Sea Fleet, renders Ukrainian coastal areas elsewhere much more vulnerable to Russian military operations in future.

In fact, the Mistral-class helicopter carriers being provided to Russia by France will be powerful facilitators for precisely this kind of operation. In the midst of the Crimea crisis, the first vessel built for Russia began sea trials on 6 March, with its Russian crew already in training in France.

The additional Russian troops in Crimea are largely being brought in across the Kerch Strait, the narrow waterway dividing eastern Crimea from southern Russia. Control of this strait is highly significant, and has been the subject of previous disputes between the two countries. But with both shores now in Russian hands, the Sea of Azov in effect becomes a Russian lake. In other words, Russia now has full control of maritime access to all the ports in eastern Ukraine, including the major port of Mariupol. This provides Russia with even further economic and other leverage over conditions in the east of the country, and supports Russia’s goal of Ukraine being ungovernable without Russian consent and cooperation.


Crimea's pro-Russian authorities are in a hurry to push the referendum through. The date has already been brought forward twice, and a joke currently circulating goes that 'the latest date for the referendum has just been announced – it was yesterday'. This is part of the Russian drive to maintain the initiative, keep the West on the back foot and present the world with a fait accompli before any significant reaction or deterrent can be put in place.

In this context, rejection of the referendum by the US and other Western countries (even if not by all Western experts) is reassuring. For the time being, this mitigates fears that the result could be used as a face-saving justification for accepting Russian control of Crimea, and once again rewarding the use of Russian military force against a neighbour.

But the question of the legitimacy of Russia’s actions, while important, has little effect on the reality of Russian control of Crimea. In addition, current concerns could still easily be overtaken by events. The situation in Crimea remains extremely fragile. Thanks to the extreme self-discipline and forbearance of surrounded Ukrainian servicemen in the face of Russian military blockade and repeated attacks by Russian-backed gangs, no shots have yet been fired by the Ukrainian armed forces. They know that as soon as this happens, Russian retaliation will be immediate, overwhelming and brutal.

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