Ahead of a Referendum, Ukraine’s Crimea Votes for Full IndependenceMarch 11, 2014 in Ukraine
On Tuesday, Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula voted for full independence from Ukraine ahead of a referendum to join Russia. Meanwhile, France has threatened sanctions against Moscow, which could be implemented as early as this week.
Yanukovych Remains Defiant
The latest escalation, in what has developed into Europe’s worst crisis in decades, came moments after ousted pro-Kremlin leader Victor Yanukovych defiantly vowed to return to Kiev from Russia, declaring that he was still the leader of the former Soviet country. Speaking to reporters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, Yanukovych, in what is his first public appearance since February 28, stated “I remain not just the sole legitimate president of Ukraine but also commander-in-chief,” adding “as soon as the circumstances allow – and I am sure there is not long to wait – I will without doubt return to Kiev.”
In light of the upcoming referendum, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that if Moscow failed to respond to Western proposals on the standoff, sanctions against Russia could come as early as this week. On Tuesday, Western officials are also expected to meet in London in order to finalize a list of Russian officials who may face asset freezes and travel restrictions over their role in endangering the sovereignty of Europe’s largest state.
Independence and Referendum
On Tuesday, Crimea’s parliamentary assembly took another dramatic step by issuing a declaration proclaiming the region’s full independence from Kiev rule. The body had earlier voted to actually join Russia, with the latest move appearing to be primarily aimed at creating a legal framework for becoming a part of Russia as a sovereign state.
Crimea has been a tinderbox since Russian forces seized control of the Black Sea peninsula, which has been home to its Black Sea Fleet since the 18th century, with help of Kremlin-backed militias days after Yanukovych fled Ukraine last month in response to three months of deadly unrest. The strategic region’s self-declared rulers are recruiting volunteers to fight Ukrainian soldiers while Russia’s parliament on Tuesday prepared legislation that would simplify the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea after Sunday’s vote. However the pro-European leaders in Kiev have rejected the referendum and are appealing to Western powers for both diplomatic backing and pressure on Moscow to release its troops stronghold on the rugged peninsula of two million people.
NATO Launches Surveillance
Meanwhile NATO announced Monday that it will deploy AWACS reconnaissance aircraft, which will overfly Poland and Romania, as part of alliance efforts to monitor the crisis in Ukraine. The Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) will fly missions from their home base in Geilenkirchen, Germany, where seventeen are housed, and from Waddington in Britain. The AWACS aircraft are one of the most sophisticated command and control vehicles in the NATO armoury, capable of monitoring huge swathes of airspace, with diplomatic sources indicating that the AWACS were routinely deployed and on that count, there was nothing unusual in their use in this case. However a diplomatic source has indicated that it is unusual that the deployment has been announced publicly.
According to a NATO official, the flights “will enhance the Alliance’s situational awareness,” adding “all AWACS reconnaissance flights will take place solely over Alliance territory.” The official also noted “this decision is an appropriate and responsible action in line with NATO’s decision to intensify our on-going assessment of the implications of this crisis for Alliance security.” Flying over Poland and Romania the AWACS planes should be able to see far into Ukraine’s airspace.
As the Ukraine crisis has deepened, with Russian intervention on the Crimean peninsula, former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe have become increasingly nervous at President Vladimir Putin’s apparent willingness to up the ante. The situation risks becoming more difficult if Crimea, which is now controlled by pro-Russian leaders, votes in a March 16 referendum to break all links with Kiev and become a part of Russia. Poland and the Baltic states especially have taken a hard line as events have unfolded and last week, Warsaw called for urgent consultations with its NATO allies on the situation. In response to Putin’s move into Crimea, which is home to a large Russian-speaking population and the Black Sea fleet, the US is sending a dozen F-16 fighter jets and 300 service personnel to Poland as part of a training exercise. Last week, Washington also deployed six additional F-15 fighter jets to step up NATO air patrols over the Baltic states.