In a recent study conducted by the Center for American Progress, 43% of Americans stated that they are generally confused by America’s foreign policy goals and “don’t really understand what the United States is trying to accomplish in its dealings with the rest of the world.” For many of those living outside the US, it’s not inconceivable that many Americans would feel this way. Indeed, a lot of people across the world are bemused and bewildered by American foreign policy, its aims and objectives.
This is due in large part to the discrepancy between what America’s elite say are American values (i.e. democracy and the preservation of human rights, etc.) and the actions of the United States government that often contradict those said values.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than in America’s policy towards Crimea, a region of the world that many Americans might struggle to point to on a map, but that nonetheless suffers from America’s disregard for consistency. That is to say, the American government’s policy towards Crimea is explicitly at odds with what Americans say are American values, namely democracy and the right to self-determination.
Crimea is arguably the origin story for the US and Russia’s turn towards hostility in recent years, but it’s a story that’s largely misunderstood and grossly misrepresented to the American public. It’s a story that if many Americans reconsidered, then they would likely come to a different opinion and likely resent America’s political posture towards Crimea.
To understand Crimea and its relationship to democracy, it requires a bit of background.
In 2014, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was removed from office by what amounted to a bloodless coup. This political upheaval sent shock waves throughout Ukraine and the rest of the world. Instead of following the impeachment process and rule of law outlined in the Constitution of Ukraine, which would have involved formally charging Yanukovych with a crime, a review of the charge by the Constitutional Court of Ukraine, and a three-fourths majority vote in favor of impeachment — the Ukrainian parliament bypassed the constitution and implemented a new provisional government that was neither democratically elected nor legitimate by traditional standards.
In doing so, more than 12 million people and more than 80% of Crimeans who voted for Yanukovych were essentially disenfranchised and their votes nullified. By foregoing the rules of impeachment laid out in the Ukrainian constitution, the ouster of President Yanukovych gave legitimate grievance for those in Crimea who felt their right to self-determination was violated. It communicated to many Crimeans that their will and concerns were disregarded and neglected.
An Accurate Referendum
This led Crimeans to independently organize a referendum on Crimea’s status, a referendum that we have sufficient evidence to conclude was free, fair, and representative of what Crimeans want.
Now this notion runs counter to what most Americans have heard and think they know about that referendum. For years Americans have been sold and told that the Crimean Referendum was a vote held at gunpoint, that Crimeans had no real choice in the matter. However, evidence and testimony tell a remarkably different story.
In terms of evidence, we have at least three key reasons to conclude that the “held at gunpoint” narrative is more fiction than fact.
First, multiple polls conducted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) between 2009 and 2011 show that a majority of Crimeans favored reunifying with Russia well before the 2014 referendum. This did not come out of the blue. There was popular support for reunification with Russia well in advance.
Second, the polling data from 2014 shows that Crimeans felt the referendum was free, fair, accurate, and ought to be recognized. For example, an overwhelming majority of Crimeans responded to a post-referendum Pew Research study by saying that “the March 16th referendum was free and fair” (91%) and that “the government in Kyiv ought to recognize the results of the vote (88%).” Another Gallup study found that (82%) of Crimeans believe “the referendum reflects most Crimeans’ views.”
Third, by all indications, Crimeans seem happy with the move. Point in fact, this past March 92 percent of Crimea voted for President Putin (the man responsible for accepting Crimea’s bid for reunification). By comparison, the Leninsky suburbs in Moscow went only 59% for Putin in this year’s election, which seems to indirectly suggest the move to Russia is wildly popular.
What’s more, the polling data matches the outcome we would reasonably assume based on Crimea’s demographics.
A common misconception regarding the fall of the Soviet Union is that the post-Soviet countries that superseded the USSR disintegrated into the perfect puzzle piece-shaped countries that separated Georgians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, et cetera, from everyone else. Unfortunately, that was not the case. The Soviet Union was a multinational canvas of ethnic groups with pockets of different people scattered across the map. Crimea was and is no exception. Although Ukraine is ethnically around 78% Ukrainian — Crimea, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. In fact, around 67% of Crimeans are ethnically Russian and Russian is the primary language spoken at home for around 85% of Crimeans.
This demographic reality lends further credence to the Crimean Referendum and its legitimacy. The share of ethnic Russians and primary Russian-speakers among Crimeans parallels the prior polling data and allows us to reasonably assume that most Crimeans would prefer reunification with Russia given the choice. That is, people generally want to governed by and associated with people that share their language, their culture, and their interests. Thus, it’s not surprising that Russians and Russian-speaking individuals would identify and prefer to be under the jurisdiction of Russia, especially when they continue to be marginalized by discriminatory language laws, disenfranchisement (see above), and political targeting in Ukraine.
That said, even eyewitness testimonies contradict the “held at gunpoint” narrative and instead corroborate the notion that the Crimean Referendum was indeed trustworthy. 135 international observers from 23 countries across the world arrived in Crimea to monitor the referendum. Among those international observers were international law experts, human rights activists, and members of the European Union parliament, all of which unanimously maintain they saw no signs of coercion or a military presence during the referendum.
The Legal Argument
So with that out of the way, the next argument to assess is the legality.
Although the provisional government that replaced President Viktor Yanukovych was not procedurally legitimate, the Crimean Referendum seems to pass the litmus test of legitimacy and legality. Critics of the referendum will argue that even though Article 138 of the Constitution of Ukraine bestows the Autonomous Republic of Crimea the competence to organize and conduct local referendums, Article 73 excludes “issues of altering the territory of Ukraine.” This, however, is a moot point. By consequence of the coup, is it really fair to say that Ukraine was operating as a normally functioning government with the constitution guiding the rule of law? One should think not, and therefore, the legality or illegality of the Crimean Referendum seems like it should lie in the precedence of international law.
In this regard, Crimea’s referendum seems to pass the litmus test of legality. As case in point, to justify the referendum, the Supreme Council of Crimea appealed to the United Nations Charter, which unequivocally speaks to the right of self-determination. Incidentally, when Ukraine seceded from the USSR it appealed to that same justification almost word for word and in a similar procedural fashion. It begs the question why is it okay for Ukraine to exercise this right, but not okay for Crimea?
Beyond that, the International Court of Justice extended that precedence in an advisory opinion on Kosovo that ruled “international law contains no applicable prohibition” against declarations of independence. The Supreme Council of Crimea and Sevastopol City Council followed that exact precedence by declaring independence from Ukraine and requesting to join the Russian Federation after the referendum in that order.
So if the precedence set by international law applies in the cases of Kosovo and Ukraine, then it certainly applies in the case of Crimea.
Houston, we have a messaging problem
Of course, this all culminates into a deeply-rooted messaging problem for the United States. Despite the voluminous lip service to democracy on a daily basis— the United States and its allies have consistently communicated a position on Crimea that is categorically undemocratic. That rather undemocratic position to Crimea’s democratic referendum has come in the form of sanctions against Russia, and more appallingly — sanctions that specifically target Crimea and the Crimean people.
In fact, just days after the referendum in 2014, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13685 which prohibits investment, importation, and exportation to and from Crimea in what essentially amounts to a complete embargo on the peninsula. The message could not be clearer. What those sanctions do is emblematically and fundamentally put a condition on democracy, that a “democratic gesture is only legitimate if we like the outcome.” Those sanctions punish Crimeans for the crime of exercising democracy, something which seems so diametrically opposed to America’s purported commitment to upholding democracy.
But is that the message the United States really wants to send?
One would think not, but that’s precisely the message that politicians, thought leaders, and those in the Washington establishment have expressed for the past five years. They have cast aspersions on the referendum, arguing that it was rushed and illegitimate without international observance. But even if one grants that those are legitimate criticisms (spoiler: they’re not), why hasn’t the United States or other “leading democracies” advocated for a second referendum — one that could be internationally monitored and recognized? Why hasn’t a second referendum even been up for discussion?
The answer is simple. “Democracy” has lost its touch. It’s been dissolved of meaning, becoming nothing more than a buzzword that Western countries employ as tool of realism when it’s convenient. The word no longer espouses sincerity, consistency, or even the sacrosanctity its most fervent televangelists verbally bestow it. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
Policy should be based on reality
A month ago, United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, surprised the world with his announcement that the United States would now recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Pompeo justified the move in tactfully sagacious fashion by stating on Twitter that: “The Trump administration sees the world as it is, not as we wish it would be. Basing policy on reality, we recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital [and] Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.”
Unfortunately, this embrace of reality only goes so far at the present moment. While the United States is happy to embrace reality for Israel’s sake, the US seems to take cognitive exception to Russia. This, again, is a failure of consistency. That is, if followed to its logical conclusion, the Trump administration’s newfound logic of pragmatism would seem to imply that the United State would be willing and ready to recognize Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea — since that would be “basing policy on reality.” But that’s not the United States’ policy.
Instead, the United States’ policy is to repeat the fictive and banal notion that “Crimea is Ukraine” in the face of all the realities that suggest otherwise. This position might be politically tenable, but it’s not intellectually or objectively tenable. It’s a position that is impuissant to scrutiny.
For example, if Crimea is Ukraine, then why did the Ukrainian government order the full withdrawal of all of its armed forces from Crimea just days after the referendum? Why did more than 75,000 Crimeans apply for Russian passports immediately after the referendum? Why did Crimeans vote in the Russian presidential elections, but not in the Ukrainian presidential elections this past April? Why is the Russian government paying pensions in Crimea and not the Ukrainian government?
Answers to such questions reveal the reality — the reality that Crimea has fully integrated with Russia and that Crimeans have done so by their own volition. More damningly, such answers expose current American foreign policy to be dangerously out of touch with reality. But again, it doesn’t have to be that way.
For those who value democracy and care about its message, for those who value policy based on principles and reality — there is a remedy and it starts with consistency. It starts with embracing democracy in any and all cases, including Crimea. That means officially recognizing the Crimean Referendum and lifting the devastating sanctions that punish ordinary people in Crimea for the crime of exercising democracy. If recognizing the original referendum is a bridge too far, then the United States can at the very least advocate for a second referendum that can be internationally recognized.
That will demonstrate a commitment to democracy, a consistent message to the world, and a monumental step towards lasting peace.
Hunter Cawood is the founder of the Russian Public Affairs Committee. He holds a Master’s in Management from Saint Petersburg State University (Russia) as well as a Bachelor’s in Political Science from Kennesaw State University.