What does it mean to have the right to national sovereignty? Who should have it? When? How many people, and in what proportion, should demand it before it becomes a right? Is it even a right, or is it simply a matter of gaining the power to seize sovereignty for oneself, as a realist would see it? And what about when sovereignty is really just an intermediate step in the process of annexation by a far larger and more powerful country?
All of the above questions, especially the last one, are relevant in the case of the Crimea annexation. Three years ago, this Black Sea peninsula was still legally and actually a part of Ukraine. At the end of February 2014, however, Russian troops had entered Crimea and occupied the state parliament building and military facilities in Crimea and the independent port city of Sevastopol. What followed was the declaration of an independent Republic of Crimea separate from Ukraine that only lasted for one day before it was legally1 absorbed into the Russian Federation – which had been the intention of the Crimean legislators who declared independence.
But why did this one-day republic emerge, and why was it necessary to affect a Russian annexation? And why did it happen in the first place? The roots of the Crimea crisis have their origin much earlier, in 1783, when the Russian Empire first annexed the peninsula. Crimea was a benefit to Russia, especially for its role as a warm-water port, albeit one that was boxed in by the Turkish-controlled Bosphorus and Dardanelles. Crimea remained a Russian territory until 1954, when the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic under the rule of Nikita Khrushchev transferred control of the peninsula to the Ukrainian SSR.
At the time, Ukraine was a Soviet republic and was effectively under the thumb of Moscow anyway as a member state of the Soviet Union, so this transfer didn’t matter very much in reality. However, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it went Crimea, which voted to join the newly independent Ukraine after a brief initial period of legal independence as the Republic of Crimea in 1992. The peninsula would eventually take the name “Autonomous Republic of Crimea” with a special status in Ukraine, in light of its majority-Russian population and its minority population of Crimean Tatars (a Muslim, ethnically Turkic group that had lived in Crimea for centuries.)
However, this didn’t end matters. Crimea’s character as a majority-Russian land in a state of mostly Ukrainian-speakers seems to have caused continuous problems throughout its history as a Ukrainian republic. In 2006 and 2009, protests against Ukraine’s close ties with the Western-oriented security alliance NATO and against the Ukrainian government in general broke out in Crimea, and Russia (now firmly under the control of President/Prime Minister/President again Vladimir Putin) was accused by pro-Western Ukrainian politicians of meddling in the affairs of Crimea. The status of the Russian lease of Crimean ports for its Black Sea navy from Ukraine also caused unrest.
The battle between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces in Kiev raged again in February 2014, when massive protests filled the streets of the Ukrainian capital. The protesters called for the resignation of Victor Yanukovych, the Russian-aligned President of Ukraine, after the president’s refusal to sign a treaty that would allow for closer ties with the European Union and greater liberalization in government. Street fights between protesters and with riot police ended with Yanukovych’s flight to Russia and the capture of the centers of government by the protestors in Kiev on February 22, after which Yanukovych was impeached sought for arrest by the new government.
The victory of the Euromaidan protesters in Kiev coincided with pro-Russian protests in Crimea and with the entry of Russian military units disguised as irregular militiamen into Crimea, still an undisputed territory of Ukraine at the time. This invasion led to the Russian capture of government and military centers in the independent city of Sevastopol and the Crimean capital of Simferopol at the end of the month. The surrender and ejection of Ukrainian military forces in Crimea followed. For Crimea annexation by Russia was all but complete, but more still had to be done to formalize the matter.
The Crimean legislature and the city council of Sevastopol then announced plans to hold a referendum on Crimea’s status, either to remain within Ukraine or to rejoin Russia after 60 years of separation. The planned vote was denounced by Kiev as illegal and void, but Kiev couldn’t do much about it, as Crimea was now entirely in the hands of Russian military and pro-Russian paramilitary forces. The vote, held on March 16, yielded a result of 95.5% in favor of joining Russia. Crimea’s majority-Russian population might have made this result a foregone conclusion, but the figure of 95.5% was widely questioned in the West and in Kiev, and the fact that many Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar residents of Crimea refused to go to the polls along with the presence of Russian military forces (still denied by the Russians themselves) cast genuine doubt on the legitimacy of the vote.
But legitimacy be damned – the vote was in, and the Crimean legislature together with the Sevastopol council went ahead on March 17 and issued a declaration of independence from Ukraine as the Republic of Crimea, along with a request that the republic be allowed to join Russia as a constituent republic.2 This request was granted by Russia one day later, making the Republic of Crimea one of the shortest-lived states in human history.3
Naturally, Kiev did not and still does not recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea and still prints maps with the Autonomous Republic of Crimea as a part of its own territory. Many of its Western allies, including the United States, have also refused to recognize the annexation, and placed sanctions upon Russia and travel bans upon many of the individual players in the drama on the pro-Russian side, including Crimean politicians who set the deal up. It remains to be seen whether Crimea will continue as a federal republic of Russia, though it seems to be quite firmly in Russia’s grasp – the presence of anti-annexation Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars and the continued war in eastern Ukraine with the pro-Russian separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics complicate the issue.
The Crimean drama features a strange side plot, quite a bit lighter than the struggle between Russia and Ukraine over Ukraine’s eastern territories. During the crisis, one figure rose to particular prominence: the Crimean criminal attorney Natalia Poklonskaya. Poklonskaya, a Soviet turned Ukrainian citizen by birth, worked as a Ukrainian state prosecutor before resigning in protest against the Ukrainian government during the Crimean crisis. She was subsequently appointed the Prosecutor General of the new Republic of Crimea, in which capacity she served until September 2016, when she was elected to the Russian State Duma. In the midst of the crisis, Poklonskaya made televised announcements to the press that were aired on international news channels. The young waifish prosecutor turned a lot of heads, especially among the anime and manga-loving set in Japan/Korea/China and pretty much everywhere else online. A flood of anime-ized portraits of Natalia followed, featured on art sites like Pixiv and posted on Reddit and 4chan boards (presumably including some Rule 34 material, but I won’t get into that.) Poklonskaya was understandably puzzled about the weird nerds’ fixation on her, but seems to have taken it in stride. Since she’s been declared an outlaw by the Ukrainian government and is now assuming a prominent role in the Russian one, she probably has a lot more to think about than her online popularity anyway.
1 Legal from Russia’s point of view, of course. According to Ukraine, the US, the EU and Western-aligned states, the declaration of independence of March 17 and the annexation of March 18 were anything but legal.
2 Crimea’s declaration of independence is itself interesting because it cites the recognition of the Republic of Kosovo, only eight years old as of this writing, as precedent for its own independence from Ukraine. Kosovo is aligned with the United States and her allies, however, and is not recognized by Russia, the country that Crimea is now a de facto part of.
3 Not the shortest-lived state, though, as we will later see.