The annexation of Crimea and the uprising in eastern Ukraine 2014

In an article on "War hawk Igor Strelkov" in Internationalen No. 30/2022, Per Leander (PL) writes the following about the Russian annexation of Crimea:

"After the so-called Maidan revolution earlier that year [2014], when Ukrainian nationalist and pro-Western forces came to power in Kiev, Russia decided to annex the Crimean peninsula where it had a centuries-old Russian naval base that it did not want to risk losing."

The Russian annexation of Crimea was hardly OK because Russia had a long-standing naval base there. The peninsula had been transferred to Ukraine in 1954, and Russia had agreed to the 1994 Budapest Treaty which, in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons, assured Ukraine that nuclear powers (including Russia) would not threaten or use force against Ukraine's territorial integrity or political independence.

The occupation and annexation was a clear violation of this agreement.

PL continues: "The fact that the majority of the population in Crimea was Russian-speaking and welcomed reunification with Russia made Putin's decision easier."

PL must be referring here to the referendum held in Crimea in March 2014. The very circumstances under which the vote was held should make any critical observer wonder.

To hold such a vote when a military coup has just taken place must be viewed with great scepticism. Referendums conducted in such circumstances are usually considered to be in breach of international law and were declared invalid by a UN General Assembly resolution on 27 March. And how likely is it that residents would dare to vote 'no' in such circumstances?

Let's hear what Richard Sakwa, who is pro-Russian in many respects, has to say about this in his book Frontline Ukraine? Does he write unreservedly that "the majority of the population welcomed reunification"? No, he does not, because it was more complicated than that (p. 139):

"The referendum was postponed to 16 March and, after much debate over the wording, the ballot paper finally came to consist of two questions (rendered in Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar):

"Are you in favour of reunification of Crimea with Russia as part of the Russian Federation?" and "Are you in favour of restoring the 1992 Constitution and the status of Crimea as part of Ukraine?".

According to the Referendum Commission, 83% of eligible voters participated in the vote (1,274,096 people), of which 96.7% supported reunification with Russia (1,233,002). (MF italics) Thus, 82% of the total population of Crimea appears to have voted in favour. There were no independent Western observers, and the vote was thus inevitably subject to widespread criticism; a report by the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights later estimated that the actual turnout was only between 30 and 50 per cent, of which 50-60 per cent voted in favour of unification with Russia (MF emphasis added), with a higher turnout of 50-80 per cent in Sevastopol, where the overwhelming majority voted in favour. Thus, on the peninsula as a whole, according to this report, only between 15 and 30 per cent of the total population voted for accession to Russia. Kiev and the Tatar Mejlis, the presidium of the traditional Crimean Tatar parliament Qurultay, urged voters to boycott the referendum, and if the turnout fell below 50 per cent the vote would have been automatically annulled, and the majority of Tatars appear to have abstained. However, it is reasonable to assume that a majority in Crimea would have voted in favour of union with Russia even under perfect conditions, and that the vote in Sevastopol would have been overwhelming."

Thus, according to the Russian referendum commission, 83% would have participated, of which nearly 97% voted in favour. But just a few lines later we learn that, according to a report by the "Russian Presidential Council...", the turnout was in fact only between 30% and 50%, of which 50-60% voted in favour. This means that only between 15-30% of the population would have voted in favour (and the majority of Tatars had boycotted the vote).

Yet Sakwa writes: "However, it is reasonable to assume that a majority in Crimea would have voted in favour of union with Russia even under perfect conditions, and that the vote in Sevastopol would have been overwhelming."

What evidence does Sakwa have for that? None! It is his own subjective judgement. Thus, PL has no proper facts behind him when he writes that the majority "welcomed reunification with Russia". Moreover, he denies that a vote was held in connection with Ukraine leaving the Soviet Union, when a majority in Crimea also voted in favour of joining Ukraine.

PL continues: 'At the same time, a pro-Russian separatist uprising broke out in Donbass among parts of the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine who also wanted to join Russia.

The rebellion included all sorts of groups from nationalists to communists and consisted of both local people and Russian citizens who travelled there."

This is also questionable. We know that Moscow realised early on that the widespread demonstrations in Ukraine meant that the pro-Russian President Yanukovych risked being deposed and that Russian influence in Ukraine would thus be radically reduced. Therefore, as early as December 2013, a 'concrete plan for what to do with Crimea' began to be drawn up (Mikhail Zygar, Men in the Kremlin, p. 378). This included plans for an uprising in eastern Ukraine, for which a memo was prepared in early February. The plans were put into action after the Sochi Olympics had ended.

The uprising in eastern Ukraine was not spontaneous, but Moscow encouraged and supported it from the very beginning, including with 'volunteers' ('expatriate Russian citizens' as PL puts it) and weapons. The recently arrested Russian Strelkov/Girkin was one of the leading insurgents.