TSG IntelBrief: A Potemkin Referendum: Putin's Annexation of Crimea
• Russia’s annexation of Crimea is the first time one European country has, in essence and fact, taken territory from another since the redrawing of borders after World War II
• President Putin is leveraging a dangerously powerful mix of nostalgia to those old enough to remember the Soviet Union fondly and of nationalism to those young enough to only remember its break up
• The Russian president’s actions are a direct repudiation of recent European history, a period that has aimed to minimize jingoistic nationalism by maximizing pan-European aspirations
• While stating that Russia had “no need” to take other parts of Ukraine, Putin also tellingly added that the Russian and Ukrainian people were “one nation” and that “Kiev was the mother of all Russians.”
It took ten days to take Crimea. In a ten-day span, Crimea announced it would hold a referendum to decide whether or not to leave Ukraine and petition to become part of neighboring Russia. It held the referendum, announced the results, submitted a petition, and became a part of Russia—all overseen by thousands of Russian troops. The results of the voting, 97% in favor of joining Russia in a turnout of 83% are reminiscent of Soviet-era numbers. Much like the fabled Potemkin Village, designed to present a false reality, so was the Crimean referendum. While pro-Russian feelings do indeed run strong and deep among the Russian-speaking population of Crimea (they make up 60% of the overall Crimean population of 2.6 million), these feelings were manipulated and inflamed by the presence of Russian forces at polling stations and a ballot that did not include the status quo as a choice. Minority groups, in particular Tatars, who comprise about 12% of the population of Crimea, boycotted the vote.
In a move that was seen as defiant by the US and the EU, but seen as consistent and logical by Russian policy makers, President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty confirming that Crimea was now part of Russia. Unmoved by the threat of Western sanctions, Putin is playing both to his domestic constituency by whipping up volatile nationalist sentiment and to the international audience by stirring fears of a new Cold War. The destabilizing repercussions of this are hard to quantify but will likely be significant for Russia, its nervous neighbors, and the international community more broadly.
Putin isn’t the first politician to use the passionate threads of nationalism to gain popular support—and his approval rating in Russia is running at about 70%—but he is the first European leader since the end of the second World War to use nationalism to seize the land of another European country. After the massive protests in Moscow that surrounded the contested election in 2012, culminating in the Bolotnaya Square demonstration on the eve of his inauguration, Putin’s efforts to rebuild his popular support by leveraging a mix of Russian nationalism and nostalgia for the Soviet era have increased his popularity at home but have seriously damaged his standing in the international community. The Russian president has evidently come to the conclusion that the risk is worth the gain, perhaps using his 2008 military operation against neighbor Georgia as a guiding example.
In the signing ceremony that annexed Crimea, Putin tried to assuage fears that Russia had designs on more Ukrainian territory by using language with foreboding undertones, stating Russia “had no need” to take more land right now. In saying Kiev was “the mother of all Russians,” it was less a reference to the deep common cultural bonds the two countries share and more a menacing statement designed to keep Ukrainian officials uneasy. Even accounting for the need to play to his domestic audience, Putin’s speech was striking in its defiant and aggressive tone. Such language in such a high-profile setting suggests Putin is not backing down. Quite the contrary. In specifically citing historic Russian fears of encirclement, Putin is making the point that Russia will take whatever steps are necessary, and has the moral and defensive justification to so.
It is through narrowing the difference between the two perceptions of encirclement that officials might reduce long-term tensions, but reducing short-term tensions is an entirely different matter. Paradoxically, in the short term, raising tensions through clear non-military actions aimed at protecting the remaining sovereignty of Ukraine (be it meaningful sanctions or increased diplomatic isolation of Russia) might actually lower the threat of further annexation and hostility. Simply put, something needs to change Putin’s risk vs gain equation so that additional land grabs in the heart of the continent become, by his calculation, undesirable. The Potemkin Referendum is best countered by sustainable and effective action from the international community. Sanctions against a few senior Russian and Crimean officials are no match for the deep sense of historic mission that appears to drive Putin. He is not so much interested in reviving the territorial integry of the Soviet Union as restoring the glory of a Russia that may never have existed. In that case, persuading him to back down may prove extremely difficult.
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