What's happening today, March 14:
Residents of the Ukrainian region of Crimea are preparing to vote in a secession referendum scheduled for Sunday. Voters have two options: to assert their independence from Ukraine, or to join Russia. The referendum does not have any option to maintain the status quo. Currently, Crimea is an autonomous republic within Ukraine, a status enshrined in the 1998 Crimean constitution. It has effectively been under Russian control since the beginning of the month, when pro-Russian but unmarked soldiers positioned themselves across the region. More recently, Russia has begun to deploy significant military forces along its border with Ukraine, including at least 10,000 soldiers as well as artillery batteries and assault helicopters. Russia had previously run military drills near the border with Ukraine.
U.S. officials say they expect that Crimeans will vote to join Russia, a result Russia has also prepared for by passing laws to make accession into Russia easier. But neither the U.S. nor the European Unionconsider the vote legitimate, pointing to such facts as that the Ukrainian constitution prohibits it, or that the Russian military presence in and around Crimea makes a fair vote impossible. U.S. diplomats have warned of "very serious" consequences by Monday if Russia doesn't back down from annexing Crimea. So far, the West has implemented limited sanctions on Russia. President Obama's proposed sanctions included a visa ban and asset freezes targeting Russian officials found to be "complicit" in the invasion of Ukraine. The E.U., meanwhile, agreed to a specific framework and wording on European sanctions against Russia. Those also include targeted travel bans and asset freezes, as well as the possibility of an arms embargo and other trade sanctions if Russia does not relent. E.U. foreign ministers must approve the sanctions document on Monday. For now, neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are expected to be on a list of individuals to whom travel bans and asset freezes will apply, though E.U. officials indicated that could change if Russia is not willing to discuss its actions in Ukraine. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Lavrov are holding last-minute talks ahead of Sunday's planned votes.
The popular vote follows a vote in a pro-Russian Crimean parliament that approved the secession in the first place. The political developments in Crimea come on the heels of several months of pro-Europe protest and unrest in Kiev and across Ukraine that eventually led to pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych stepping down from office, fleeing to Crimea, and seeking help from Russia.
Stocks around the world have tumbled over worries about increasing tensions in Ukraine.
Reason's Jacob Sullum this week dismissed U.S. concern trolling over the Ukrainian Constitution being violated, pointing out that the 1994 Constitution was passed by legislators, not by popular vote, and that the constitutional process was not followed for the removal of Viktor Yanukovych, either. Sullum writes:
The legislators who voted against the current Ukrainian Constitution did not approve it, and no doubt many citizens, including ethnic Russians in Crimea who would prefer to be part of Russia, would have voted no as well.
If Crimea's Russian majority approves secession, of course, they will also be overriding the will of a minority, including dissenting Russians as well as Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians. But when Obama says a vote cannot decide the region's fate because the Ukrainian Constitution forbids it, why should his argument carry any weight with people who never consented to that constitution? While President Obama insists the U.S. "will stand with Ukraine," he is mentioning only the Ukrainian constitution and international law in general, not the Budapest Memorandum, signed in 1994 by Russia, Ukraine, the U.S., and the United Kingdom, as a condition for Ukraine to voluntarily give up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the USSR. One Ukrainian lawmaker opined that his country may have to re-acquire nuclear weapons if the Budapest memorandum is ignored. Given the high costs, monetary and political, of acquiring nuclear weapons, it's unlikely Ukraine will successfully do so. It's not even clear that Ukraine would have been able to hold on to Soviet nukes absent the Budapest memorandum: declared nuclear powers were not keen on allowing that to happen, and Russia ended up acquiring the Soviet arsenal that existed throughout the Soviet Socialist Republics. Russia has maintained a military base in Ukraine even after the country's 1991 independence. Regardless, the Budapest memorandum does not require U.S. or British intervention in Ukraine, anyway, as France 24 reported:
According to Stephen MacFarlane, a professor of international relations specialised on the former Soviet Union at St Anne's College, Oxford, Ukrainian leaders are also preparing for a scenario under which US and British involvement would remain verbal…
The Budapest Memorandum offers no guarantee of intervention. "It gives signatories justification if they take action, but it does not force anyone to act in Ukraine," Stephen MacFarlane told FRANCE 24. "[US Secretary of State John] Kerry's harsh remarks on what is going on in Ukraine indicate a degree of resolve, but at the end of the day, what can you do?" Read the Budapest memorandum for yourself here.
Last week, Steve Chapman argued that the U.S. shouldn't intervene in Ukraine because the U.S. is not relevant there. That may be the case, but it hasn't stopped the U.S. from intervening before. In fact, Bloomberg's James Neuger tied the current dilemma the West faces over intervention in Ukraine with President Woodrow Wilson's actions nearly a century ago:
[World War I] felled the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, bequeathing to the Allied victors a panoply of ethnic and cultural identities clamoring for statehood. The peace pitted Wilson's "imperative principle" of self-government for formerly subject peoples against what the U.S. president dismissed as the European diplomatic ritual of drawing lines on maps in secret.
Wilson was less principled on Ukraine. His opposition to a sovereign Ukrainian state was backed by the British and French, supporters of anti-Bolshevik forces in the civil war that followed the communist seizure of power in Moscow in 1917. The Kyiv Post reports that Crimea's political leaders believe the region, which is 58 percent ethnic Russian, will see 70 percent of voters choose joining Russia as an option. No polling has been done, but Reuters, reports active campaigning over the referendum in Crimea:
Patriotic extracts from the Russian national anthem jostle for space with emotional condemnations of the new Ukrainian government in Kiev, the capital, highlighting what many ethnic Russians here say are its fascist tendencies.
But look carefully and you'll find more practical appeals for people's votes. One, entitled "Ten demands from the International Monetary Fund that will put Ukraine on its knees", says the IMF will cause Ukrainian living standards, already lower than Russia's, to plummet.
Next to it, another sheet of A4, entitled "Our home is Russia", reprints what it says is glowing praise from the IMF of Russia's key economic indicators, telling voters how much higher average wages and pensions in Russia are than in Ukraine. The Moscow Times, however, reports no campaign material available that opposes Crimean accession to Russia.
while here is a map showing in which parts of the Ukraine the Ukrainian language dominates (in orange), in which parts Russian dominates (blue), and which parts are about evenly split, with Ukrainian having only a slight advantage (purple):
Crimea is the peninsula in the southeast. When Putin requested from Parliament, and was granted, the authority to intervene militarily in Ukraine, he cited the potential danger to ethnic Russians as one reason. It's unclear whether those ethnic Russians still holding Russian citizenship will be prohibited from voting on Sunday.