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The Annexation of Crimea

Article by: Borislaw Bilash II, Physics Teacher, Pascack Valley High School

Crimea, a strategically located peninsula on the Black Sea, is an autonomous region of Ukraine.  It has special status granting home rule.  It also has a large ethnic-Russian population as a result of the encouraged settlement of ethnic Russians on Crimea following the ethnic cleansing of the local population.  This repopulation extends back to the time of Catherine the Great.  Particularly harsh were the actions of Joseph Stalin in the 1940’s, who forcibly deported the entire population of Crimean Tatars from their ancestral land of Crimea.  The ethnic-Russian population in Crimea is bolstered by Soviet/Russian military officers who have traditionally found the peninsula an attractive retirement location. The port city of Sevastopol also serves the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, as the result of a lease agreement between Ukraine and Russia.  Ethnic Russians make up 60% of the population whereas ethnic Ukrainians make up 24%. Although the ethnic Russians in Crimea are citizens of Ukraine, many maintain a heart-felt allegiance to their ancestral roots.  During every local and national political campaign since Ukraine’s independence, voters in Crimea tended to overwhelmingly support Pro-Russia candidates and policies.  The Ukrainian parliament has always acknowledged the complex and unique nature of Crimea.  For this reason, Ukraine’s constitution provides Crimea with a special status as an autonomous republic but as a inseparable constituent part of Ukraine.

Paramilitary detachments at the border between Crimea and mainland Ukraine. Source: AFP

On February 26, 2014, a week after President Victor Yanukovych fled Ukraine, armed men in uniforms without identifiable insignias began taking control of checkpoints and government buildings  in Crimea. The identity of these armed men was initally a mystery.   The next day, they ousted the Crimean prime minister, hoisted the Russian flag on top of Crimea’s parliament building and declared Sergey Aksyonov, a known criminal, the new prime minister. More armed men in uniform lacking insignias– now referred to as “little green men,” began appearing.  The interim government in Kyiv was caught by surprise and reacted cautiously or not at all.  World leaders voiced their concern but took no action.  The Ukrainian military was ordered by their generals to stay on their bases and not to engage the armed men.

Under the supervision of these armed invaders, Aksyonov oversaw a vote of no confidence in the new government in Kyiv and subsequently called for a referendum.  The ballot included only two choices:  A] Join Russia or B] Return to the Crimean Constitution of 1992, giving Crimea a sovereign status, effectively severing itself from Ukraine.  Voters were not given the choice to vote for status quo.  The vote took place on March 16, 2014, less than three weeks after the armed men appeared.  The process was highly suspect, as organizers purportedly printed ballots as needed on computer printers and there was evidence of ballots being pre-filled.  The vote had to be carried out without verified voter lists as they were not made available by the Ukrainian government in Kyiv.  Observers from Russia as well as right-wing groups from around the world sympathetic to the Kremlin supervised the poll.  Western observers such as the OSCE or ODHIR did not send missions.  According to the referendum organizers, 83% of registered voters took part in the plebiscite.  Of those, 93% percent voted to unify with Russia, a figure many find suspicious.   Most of the world’s countries have not recognized the results and condemn the referendum as a breach of the constitution of the sovereign nation of Ukraine.

Armed masked Russian troops attack a Ukrainian officer outside a military base. Image: Kuba Kaminsky

Russia moved swiftly in its recognition of Crimea’s separation from Ukraine.  The day after the referendum, Aksyonov asked the Russian Federation to admit the Republic of Crimea as a new subject with the status of a republic.  Later that day, President Putin signed a decree recognizing Crimea as an independent state.  The next day Putin and Aksyonov signed The Treaty on the Incorporation of Crimea into Russia.  The Russian Parliament ratified the treaty a few days later.  In less than one month, Crimea went from being an integral part of Ukraine to a subject of Russia.

Most countries and extra-national bodies of the world consider the absorption of Crimea by Russia as an illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory.  Russia has been accused of orchestrating the Crimean crisis and Vladimir Putin has since admitted that the mysterious “little green men” were indeed his own.  In fact, Putin has stated that Russia’s intervention was necessary “to ensure proper conditions for the people of Crimea to be able to freely express their will.”  In response, the G-8 nations expelled Russia and the European Union, Canada, the United States, as well as other nations, imposed various sanctions on Russia and on certain individuals associated with the annexation.  Russia has been accused of violating the Budapest Memorandum, of which it is a signatory, which guarantees Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  Many have suggested that the United States and Great Britain, as co-signatories of the Budapest Memorandum, have skirted their responsibility with respect to their role in upholding the agreement.

Since annexation, Crimea has experienced a significant еconomic downturn and erosion of human rights.  Tourism has decreased significantly. The economy of this Black Sea peninsula relies heavily on tourist spending.  Prior to annexation, the Crimean coast was one of the top 20 travel destinations in the world.  Consumer products are no longer sent from the mainland of Ukraine and Crimeans must now rely on imports from other sources.  Non-ethnic cultures, in particular Tatars, complain of repression. All religious communities except the Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church face difficulties.  Libraries have been cleared of books written in the Ukrainian language, which have also been burned in public.

A brief timeline of the annexation of Crimea is below (source):


Learn more at our special project dedicated to Crimea.

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