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Ukraine Primer (Part II): Developments Through March 9

This is the second in a series of primers on the fast-moving situation in Ukraine, and covers events from March 2 through March 9. For more background on the situation, please see part 1.

Summary of Recent Events

This week saw sporadic military activity on the Crimean peninsula, in particular a reported attack by pro-Russian gunmen on a Ukrainian air force base in Sevastopol that ended when the gunmen retreated. Diplomatic efforts seem to have stalled, as Russia refused to speak directly with the new Ukrainian government, which it regards as illegitimate, and threatened that any sanctions against Russia would “boomerang” against the United States. The week’s biggest development was that Crimea’s parliament has voted to begin the process of seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia, a vote that the governments of Ukraine, the United States, and the European Union all termed “illegal.”

Secession movement

On March 6 the Crimean parliament voted to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia, pending the approval of the Russian government and the results of a referendum now scheduled for March 16. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin had said earlier in the week that he “did not foresee” Russia annexing Crimea, the leaders of both houses of Russia’s parliament publicly welcomed the Crimean assembly’s vote and pledged to honor the wishes of the Crimean people as expressed in the referendum. The draft referendum, which Kyiv Post revealed, offers two options: “joining Crimea with the Russian Federation” or “restoration of 1992 Crimean Constitution” (which declared Crimean independence, then was amended to declare its autonomy within Ukraine).

Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk criticized the Crimean vote as “illegitimate,” and its interim President, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, termed the vote “a farce.” Leaders of Crimea’s sizable Tatar minority also expressed opposition to the vote. Their sentiments were echoed by American and European leaders. US President Barack Obama characterized the vote as illegal under both the Ukrainian constitution and international law, and the EU envoy to Ukraine, Jan Tombinski, argued that a referendum on secession that was restricted to Crimea would violate Ukrainian law.

Attack on Ukrainian base, questions about the Russian forces

On Monday Ukrainian military sources reported that the commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol, had given Ukrainian forces in Crimea until early Tuesday morning to surrender or face an attack. Russian officials denied that any such ultimatum had been issued, and the deadline passed without incident. On Friday, however, armed pro-Russian forces stormed a Ukrainian air force base in Sevastopol and occupied parts of it for several hours as they demanded the surrender of the Ukrainian soldiers inside. When the Ukrainian soldiers refused to surrender, the gunmen withdrew; thus far, both Ukrainian and Russian forces have not fired on one another. Russia continued to deny that the pro-Russian forces in Crimea were Russian military, insisting that they are local “self-defense units,” but considerable evidence has been found suggesting that they are, in fact, Russian military forces. The Ukrainian border guard service contended that roughly 30,000 Russian troops are now on the peninsula, and photographs allegedly taken near the southern Ukrainian city of Chonhar appear to show a freshly dug minefield along the approach from the Ukrainian mainland to Crimea. Deputy Crimean Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliev stated that Russian troops are the only legal soldiers in Crimea, suggesting that Ukrainian soldiers still on their bases are considered illegal by the Crimean government. On Saturday, March 8, a bus carrying international observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) attempted to enter Crimea, but it turned back at the northern Crimean city of Armyansk when “warning shots” were fired at it.

Diplomacy sputters amid looming threat of sanctions from both sides

President Vladimir Putin gave a press conference on Tuesday that appeared to “hit pause” on the Crimea situation, though this characterization was obviously premature given events later in the week. Putin described the events that forced Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from office as “an anti-constitutional coup” and claimed that Russian intervention was necessary to safeguard the ethnic Russians who are concentrated in Crimea and in major cities in the eastern part of Ukraine, though he reiterated the official Russian position that there has not been an invasion. US Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Kiev to offer the interim government $1 billion in loan guarantees, and while there he, in remarks that were echoed by Obama, accused Putin of “hiding behind falsehoods” to justify Russia’s actions, and called on him to return Russian forces to their barracks. Kerry failed in his efforts to arrange a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, with Lavrov refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Kiev government, but on Saturday one of Russia’s deputy foreign ministers did meet with the Ukrainian ambassador to Russia in Moscow.

Sanctions both by and against Russia were already being imposed by week’s end. On Thursday, President Obama ordered the imposition of sanctions against “individuals and entities” that were involved in Russia’s move into Crimea, which followed an earlier decision to suspend all US military cooperation with Russia. European Union leaders suspended talks with Russia on economic and travel issues but did not yet appear to be prepared to go any further. European leaders expressed concern that a Russian response could damage economies across Europe, and Lavrov warned that sanctions could “boomerang” against the United States and Europe. Russia announced that it was considering pulling out of arms control treaties with the US and the OSCE in response to American actions. More urgently, the Russian firm Gazprom hinted Friday that it may suspend gas shipments to Ukraine (and thus, potentially, through Ukraine and on to the rest of Europe) due to Kiev’s outstanding debt, which Gazprom estimates to be $1.89 billion.

Questions over legitimacy

Earlier this week Obama stressed that “[a]ny discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine,” but the standoff is being driven in part by a disagreement over what the “legitimate” government of Ukraine actually is. Russia still recognizes Viktor Yanukovych as the legitimate president of Ukraine, and claims that Yanukovych asked for Russian military assistance when he was ousted. The United States, on the other hand, has recognized the interim government in Kiev and says that Yanukovych’s actions in office “undermined” his claim to authority despite the fact that he was a democratically-elected leader. Russia’s continued refusal to deal directly with Kiev is couched in terms of the new government’s illegitimacy, at least in Russia’s view. Aid from the United States and from Europe is being offered to help stabilize the government in Kiev.

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Derek Davison

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history.

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