Massive support claimed for Crimea merger with Russia; Ukrainian troops given till Friday to leave

McClatchy Foreign StaffMarch 16, 2014 

Ukraine

Pro-Russian people celebrate in Lenin Square, in Simferopol, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014.

VADIM GHIRDA — AP

— Even before residents of Crimea headed to the polls Sunday, Ukrainians and Russians knew the result of the vote would be to secede and join Russia. So, when results showed that in excess of 95 percent of the ballots favored joining Russia, it didn’t really turn any heads.

What did, however, was news footage showing ranks of Russian tanks lining the road near Kerch in eastern Crimea, apparently preparing to move, while other footage showed Ukrainian tanks moving to defend the border with Russia in the Donetsk district, on the eastern edge of the country.

The prospect of a beefed up Russian force moving north from Crimea into other parts of Ukraine or Ukrainian tanks engaging potential Russian invaders in the east raised tensions after weeks when the Russian takeover of Crimea was largely without bloodshed.

The interim Ukrainian government pledged to invest an additional $7 billion in its woefully underfunded military.

On Monday, Crimea’s rump government is expected to ask officially that Russia annex the territory. The Russian Defense Ministry said that Ukrainian soldiers still in Crimea had until Friday to leave the territory or face military action by Russian forces.

“No wonder, no surprise, everyone knew the day it was announced what the result would be,” said Taras Berezovets, a political scientist and president of Berta Communications in Kiev.

Crimean officials said 80 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots, which offered only two options: secede from Ukraine and join Russia or revert to the 1992 constitution which gave Crimea vast autonomy. There was no option to maintain the status quo.

With 50 percent of the ballots counted, union with Russia was favored by 95.5 percent, with 3.5 percent choosing greater autonomy. One percent of the ballots were invalidated.

In a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Barack Obama reiterated that the referendum result “would never be recognized by the United States and the international community,” according to a White House statement.

But the statement didn’t indicate any change of heart from Putin despite Obama’s renewed warning that the U.S. is “prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions.”

“President Obama reiterated that a diplomatic resolution cannot be achieved while Russian military forces continue their incursions into Ukrainian territory and that the large-scale Russian military exercises on Ukraine’s borders only exacerbate the tension,” the statement said.

The European Union and European Council heads issued a joint statement, noting there would be consequences, and those would be discussed Monday in Brussels.

“The referendum is illegal and illegitimate and its outcome will not be recognized,” the statement said. “We reiterate the strong condemnation of the unprovoked violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and call on Russia to withdraw its armed forces,” the statement read.

Those denunciations were joined by a council of Crimea’s Tatar minority, which called on Ukrainians and the international community to “confirm that we recognize Ukraine as a sovereign and independent state in the existing borders” and “condemn vigorously an act of aggression committed by the Russian Federation and its plans to annex Crimea.”

The Tatars, who consider Crimea their homeland and trace their history to the era of Genghis Khan, noted that they’ve face more than 200 years of repression under Russian rule. Their population has slumped to just 12 percent of Crimea’s total under a determined Russian campaign to move them out, including a decision by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to relocate them, a move the statement referred to as the “genocide of May 18, 1944, when the whole Crimean Tatar people was subjected to the forcible deportation from its historical homeland.”

The rump Crimean government said that 40 percent of the Tatars participated in Sunday’s referendum, but the Tatar council said the participation rate was only 1 percent.

Russian and Crimean officials gave every indication that they intend to proceed quickly with formalizing the Russian annexation. Crimean Prime Minister Serhiy Aksyonov called the decision historic and said he would seek Russian agreement on Monday, with the Russian Parliament expected to take up the matter on Wednesday. Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Ilmirovich Temirgaliev said that the region would replace the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, with Russian rubles in April.

The Friday deadline for Ukrainian troops to leave Crimea came in an announcement from the Russian Ministry of Defense, which said it had agreed to “a truce” to allow the Ukrainian forces a work week to get back to the Ukrainian mainland.

Russian troops without insignia have been occupying Crimea for two weeks and have surrounded several military bases still occupied by Ukrainians. Ukrainian soldiers said last week that their Russian counterparts had told them that after the referendum their presence would be considered illegal and that they would be given the choices of laying down their arms and returning to Ukraine, taking Russian citizenship or preparing to defend themselves.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh, in an interview with Ukrainian Interfax news service, said that Ukrainian troops would not be leaving Crimea.

He said that Ukrainian combat readiness remains at its highest level, and that in past few days 40,000 Ukrainians have signed up for National Guard duty.

“I want to say that the illegal referendum that is attempted to be held at gunpoint in the Crimea is not recognized by any country in the world. Moreover, it is not recognized by Ukrainian parliament, goverment and society,” he said. “Therefore, soldiers who are in Crimea will strictly follow the laws and statutes of the armed forces. And they will not leave because this is Ukrainian land.”

Tenyukh also said that Russia maintains the pretense that their troops have not been occupying Crimea. He said that when he asked his Russian counterpart why the troops were there, the Russian minister answered “We know nothing, those are not our soldiers.”

“When I specifically named brigades, battalions numbers, military units, the reply came: ‘We will think about it,’ ” he said, adding, “Of course, this is not considered to be an honest answer.”

While Russian troops have controlled Crimea since the end of February, experts and military officials note that once Crimea is broken away from Ukraine, it will lose access to water and fuel, which flow to it from the Ukrainian mainland, and that the area will not have a land connection to Europe except through what is likely to be a hostile Ukraine.

Viktor Sokolov, first vice president of the Gorshenin Institute, a public policy research center in Kiev, said Russia cannot rely on support from Ukraine in the peeled-away region. His polls, over the years, have shown that while 40 percent of Crimean residents have favored secession, 87 percent of Ukrainians oppose them leaving.

“Reaction could be extremely negative,” he wrote in an email answer to questions.

Crimea’s isolation has led military experts to conclude that Russia may move to annex other Ukrainian regions needed to provide a land corridor connecting Crimea to Russia.

Stephen Long, an international security expert at the University of Richmond, said that he doubts international outcry over an expanded Russian land grab would deter Putin.

“Putin is willing to endure any level of international condemnation in the pursuit of his interests in the Russian near abroad,” Long said. “What is stunning about this story is that he appears to believe that he can change the narrative through sheer force of will.”

“What is not clear,” Long added, “is whether Mr. Putin believes that he is actually changing public perception, or whether he simply cares so little about it that he sees no reason to offer a more convincing argument for his actions.”

Email: mschofield@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @mattschodcnews

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