Addressing Russia’s bicameral parliament on March 18, President Vladimir Putin announced Crimea’s incorporation into the Russian Federation. The founding documents on Crimea’s “admission” into Russia were signed on the same day, with immediate “legal” effect as far as Russia is concerned (kremlin.ru, March 18, 19).
For the first time since the Second World War, Russia has annexed territory from another country; not de facto (as in Georgia in 2008) but officially this time, seizing Crimea from Ukraine through military force and bringing it directly under Russia’s sovereignty. Crimea’s March 16 plebiscite, recognized solely by Russia, has provided a pseudo-legal cover to the annexation (see EDM, March 17).
Moscow has activated its pre-existing, unilateral legislative mechanism, allowing for the incorporation of a territory from another state into the Russian Federation. This procedure (“legal” from Russia’s standpoint only) exists basically since 2001, with some subsequent refinements. The West as well as Russia’s neighbors had ample warning time, which was wasted.
Russia had seized Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia de facto, but stopped short of turning those two territories outright into entities of the Russian Federation. This is a distinction without a difference on the ground, but it helped to mitigate Western reactions, until reactions such as there were petered out altogether. Prior to 2008, Moscow had actually turned down several South Ossetian requests to stage a referendum for joining North Ossetia within Russia. The occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia did change borders by military force, taking territories from Georgia, but still without a transfer of sovereignty to Russia.
Now, in Crimea, the referendum-to-annexation marks the next bolder phase of Russia’s re-expansion, moving into the security vacuum that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has allowed to become chronic in Europe’s East.
On March 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree “recogniz[ing] the Republic of Crimea as a sovereign and independent state” (Interfax, March 17, 18). Crimea’s March 16 plebiscite had produced a landslide for Crimea’s accession to Russia (see above), but Putin’s decree did not address that. Instead, Putin’s decree responded to the Crimean parliament’s March 11 “declaration of independence,” which had proclaimed an independent Crimean republic, its secession from Ukraine, and its request to join the Russian Federation by treaty. On that basis, Putin, in turn, requested Russia’s bicameral parliament to “accept” Crimea into the Russian Federation with a republic’s status.
Technically, Crimea’s accession brings two distinct territorial units from Ukraine into the Russian Federation, namely: Ukraine’s Crimean Autonomous Republic (unilaterally renamed an independent republic on March 11) and the municipality of Sevastopol, which had all along been subordinated to Kyiv directly, not to the autonomy’s government in Simferopol. The March 16 plebiscite covered both of these territorial units. Russian military authorities had set the stage for the plebiscite through a putsch, executed on February 23 in Sevastopol and on February 27–28 in Simferopol. In both places, pre-designated Russia loyalists replaced the incumbent authorities that had owed allegiance to Ukraine’s central government in Kyiv (see EDM, February 28, March 4).
On March 17 (acting in parallel with the Crimean parliament), the Sevastopol city council petitioned Putin for Sevastopol’s admission into the Russian Federation with the status of a federal city. It sought—and has now received—a status analogous to that of Moscow and St. Petersburg, subordinated directly to Russia’s central government (Interfax, March 17).
Putin signed the accession treaty with the Crimean and Sevastopol leaders on March 18, directly after the conclusion of Putin’s speech in parliament. Crimea’s parliament chairman Vladimir Konstantinov and prime minister Sergei Aksyonov, as well as Sevastopol’s ad hoc municipal council head Aleksei Chalyy, signed for their respective entities. The “Treaty on the Admission of the Republic of Crimea and the Formation of New Constituent Units within the Russian Federation” establishes the Crimean Republic and the city of Sevastopol as federal units within Russia. Citizens of Ukraine residing on the peninsula (population: 2.2 million) are automatically “deemed to be” citizens of Russia, unless they apply within maximum 30 days to retain their Ukrainian (or other) citizenship (kremlin.ru, Interfax, March 18, 19).
Couched in bare generalities, the treaty falls far short of defining the respective competencies. This reflects Russia’s haste to seal its annexation of Crimea in the shortest possible time, before Ukraine and its Western partners can react. Completing its Crimean operation, Russia looks set to move on to more ambitious political objectives in mainland Ukraine.
The treaty invokes the principle of self-determination of peoples one-sidedly, with no reference to the countervailing (and usually prevailing) principles of territorial integrity of states or the inviolability of their borders. The latter two principles were long deemed sacrosanct by Russia, until now. In annexing Crimea, it is expedient for Russia to invoke “self-determination” and correspondingly ignore the countervailing principles.
Beyond Crimea, the Kremlin might inspire radical forces in Ukraine’s east and south to invoke the same principle, intensifying pressures on Ukraine’s central government. Russia’s broad political objective is to play the role of “guaranteeing” mainland Ukraine’s territorial integrity, on constitutional terms that Moscow seeks to shape and then foist on a beleaguered central government in Kyiv.