Crimeans Endorse Secession, Union With Russia. What’s Next?
Exit polling indicates that the referendum in Crimea has come out overwhelmingly in favor of secession:
Simferopol (Ukraine) (AFP) – An overwhelming 93 percent of Crimeans voted Sunday to become part of Russia in a referendum deemed illegal by the new authorities in Ukraine and most of the international community, exit polls showed.
“Ninety-three percent of Crimean residents have supported the attachment of Crimea to Russia in the referendum. This is the data given by the exit polls,” Crimea’s pro-Moscow authorities said.
There was never really any doubt about the outcome of the separatist referendum in Crimea. Thanks both to the fact that the region is dominated by Russian loyalists and, of course, the presence of Russian troops and pro-Russian militia groups, it’s been clear from the start that the result would end up favoring secessi0n from Ukraine and union with Russia.
Nonetheless, now that it has happened, the parties involved, Russia, Ukraine, Europe and the United States, all find themselves at a crossroads. Europe and the U.S., of course, will reject the legitimacy of the referendum and, indeed, under the Ukrainian Constitution it is entirely illegitimate. Russia, meanwhile will cite is as justification for their move into Crimea and will likely take the opportunity to strengthen their military position.
The question is what happens next, and there are a number of factors that come into play there.
At the top of the list, of course, is what happens to Crimea. At least as a preliminary matter, the Ukrainians and the West are not going to accept the outcome of the referendum and there will be little desire in Kiev, Berlin (given that German Chancellor Merkel has been the primary voice of opposition in Europe), or Washington to simply back down and let the Russians take the peninsula. At least in the beginning, the desire will be to punish Russia for the events in Crimea via trade sanctions and other methods that likely will have at least some impact on the Russian economy, although one wonders how much they’d persuade Vladimir Putin to give up what he has seemingly won here. Even if Ukraine and the West do back down, though, the parties would still have to deal with what to do about those people who don’t wish to be part of Russia, as well as the several thousand members of the Ukrainian military and government located in Crimea. Additionally, the future of the rest of Ukraine, including those parts of eastern Ukraine that are dominated by ethnic Russians, will still have to be resolved.
Next, there’s the question of whether Russia’s ambitions extend beyond Crimea, and how the West would react to that.
There have already been some moves by the Russian military that suggest that it may be planning to move into some parts of eastern Ukraine beyond Crimea, for example. Additionally, some political leaders here in the United States have asserted that Putin’s desire is to reassemble the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Leaving aside the fact that much of this commentary sounds as paranoid and reactionary as the claims, sometimes made by the same people, that the worldwide Islamic Caliphate is just around the corner, the assertion itself ignores several political realities. There would be a significant difference, for example, between Russia asserting its influence in Ukraine (or in nations such as Belarus, Moldova, and Georgia), and its attempting to do the same in nations like Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia. Not the least of those differences, of course, is the fact that the last three nations are NATO members and that Russian aggression addressed toward them would be treated far differently by the West than similar moves in Ukraine, or in Georgia in 2008. Whatever one might thing of Vladimir Putin, one has to admit that he’s at least intelligent enough to know that he’d be overplaying his hand if he were act toward those nations, or against the rest of Eastern Europe, in the same manner that he is acting toward Ukraine.
Finally, there’s the worst case scenario.
The one thing about the Ukrainian crisis that strikes me is the fact that everyone, no matter which side of the debate about Western intervention they happen to be on, seems to agree that this isn’t going to develop into some kind of shooting war. What if they’re wrong, though? What if the Ukrainians refuse to accept the Russian absorption of Ukraine and decide to fight, or if the Russians use violence in eastern Ukraine, staged or otherwise, as an excuse to make a move into that part of the country? Could we actually end up with a real shooting war in Central Europe? It seems unlikely, but then again 100 years or so ago it seemed unlikely that the death of an Austrian Archduke and his wife on a street in Sarajevo would lead to the bloodiest war that Europe had ever seen.