What does it feel like to have your country invaded and dismantled by a powerful neighbor? Neighboring states of Russia, like Georgia, unfortunately know only too well. Sunday’s referendum in Crimea was designed to seal Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, a part of Ukraine since 1954.
Three young Ukrainians currently on professional exchanges in Washington, D.C., spoke at The Heritage Foundation about this experience and about the troubled future of their homeland. All three—Iryna Fedets, visiting fellow at Heritage; Mykola Vorobiov, editor of an investigative news website; and Maksym Beznosiuk, a visiting fellow with the National Conference on Soviet Jewry—expressed a sense of disbelief that this could actually happen.
Two weeks before the February 28 Russian invasion of Crimea, no one in Ukraine would have believed it, they said. Even though protests have been taking place since November against the country’s (now ousted) pro-Russia government, this was so far beyond the pale.
However, the outcome of the Crimean vote—93 percent in favor of joining Russia—was as predictable as it is illegitimate. According to Vorobiov, even though there are not as many Russian supporters in Crimea as has been reported by the Russian media, the local Crimean population has no access to news sources other than broadcasts coming out of Russia. All Ukrainian and foreign media have been shut down.
The outcome, noted Fedets, “was already decided.” There were only two questions on the ballot: (1) “Do you want to be part of Russia?” and (2) “Do you want to be independent?” The ballot did not offer the option of remaining a part of Ukraine.
Asked whether Ukrainians might accept the outcome if it meant peaceful relations with Russia, Beznosiuk, an expert in international law, bristled. Article 72 of the Ukrainian constitution says that “the territory of Ukraine is united and indivisible,” he said. Furthermore, Article 73 states that any territorial changes can be decided only during a national referendum, rendering Crimea’s regional referendum unconstitutional. He also recalled that Russia’s move was in direct violation of the guarantees of the Intergovernmental Agreement of 1999, which arranged the peaceful transfer of Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal to Russia.
Vorobiov also reminded the audience what happens when Russia takes over a region. “In the social media there are already comparisons of Abhkazia [a Russian-occupied region of Georgia] and Crimea. It could be a good warning of what will happen when Russians take over,” he said.
The three Ukranians expressed a firm belief that the international community will not accept the Russian annexation of part of their country, a faith that must not be disappointed. As Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint stated on Sunday, “Russia’s actions must be addressed, as they threaten to open a fault line of instability in the world.”