CU professors on Crimea referendum, Russia-Ukraine crisis

Russian president Vladmir Putin signed a treaty Tuesday recognizing the republic of Crimea as part of Russia, dealing a blow to the embattled Ukraine, where Crimea is located.

In the weeks leading up to the treaty, Ukraine experienced revolution and upheaval that forced its former president, Viktor Yanukovich, to flee because of a political coup following violent protests in the capital city of Kiev. As a result of rising nationalist sentiment in Kiev, many ethnic Russians in the southeastern peninsula of Crimea began protesting the interim government.

Just days after protests in Crimea began, armed men in Russian military uniforms took control of Crimean airports and surrounded a Ukrainian military base in the area. Putin saw this military occupation as legitimate protection of the Russian population in the region, insisting that the new Ukrainian government has abused them.

On Sunday, March 16, a referendum was held by the Crimean government to see if its people would approve of annexation by Russia. Western leaders, including President Obama, refused to recognize this referendum as legitimate, citing violations of international law, but the votes were counted regardless and displayed an overwhelming support for the peninsula to join the Russian Federation.

The decision by Putin to sign the treaty comes as a surprise to those who thought the Russian president would instead maintain Crimea as a “pseudo-state” like Abkhazia, a territory Russia considers independent, but according to most of the international community is still part of Georgian territory.

“It will be difficult to take control of all Ukrainian state resources in Crimea without some resistance and that is where violence could be high,” said John O’Loughlin, a professor of geography at CU whose expertise lies in Russia and its neighboring post-Soviet states.

The conflict has remained relatively peaceful in recent weeks, but Professor O’Loughlin is skeptical of other Ukrainian cities where there are pro-Russian protests, such as Donetsk and Kharkiv. He said it is important to watch these cities to see if protests intensify or settle.

“I suspect that they will continue and if they turn violent, there will be calls for Russian troops to come as ‘peacekeepers.’ If that happens, all bets are off and serious violence could escalate,“ O’Loughlin said.

According to the Associated Press on Monday, in response to Russia’s actions, the United States and the European Union announced sanctions imposed against Russian and Ukrainian officials who are suspected to be involved in the Crimean crisis.

Many academics who study the region signed an online statement regarding their displeasure of the recent conflict. Its website,, lists the names of 387 signatories from 40 countries, including Sarah Sokhey, a professor of political science at CU who specializes in post-Soviet political economy.

The signatories of the statement agree on five crucial points, the most prominent being the removal of Russian occupation in Crimea and the non-recognition of Sunday’s referendum. If the referendum were to be legitimate, the issued statement required at least “the agreement of national and regional governments, a clear question, sustained public discussion of the ramifications of yes and no votes, and the option of international monitoring to ensure a free and fair process.” 

Rather than voting on a potentially consequence-filled referendum, Sokhey and O’Loughlin believe that the establishment of some type of de facto state or decentralized Crimea in which the local government would exercise greater influence could provide a stable solution. 

The treaty annexing Crimea will need to be endorsed by Russia’s Constitutional Court and ratified by the two houses of parliament in order for the process to be complete. Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, believes that these procedures will not take long, and may be complete by the end of the week.

Updates from the Associated Press were included in this report. 

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Kevin Joyce at









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