It's time to #RecognizeCrimea

By recognizing Crimea’s Referendum and accepting the real narrative of the region, the U.S. could put its policy back on track with reality.

This past Tuesday, March 16, marks the seventh anniversary of an event that many Americans and Western audiences often overlook— the Crimean Status Referendum. The Crimean Referendum of 2014 allowed citizens in the Crimean Peninsula to express their self-determination on whether or not to join Russia. The vote revealed that over ninety percent of Crimean citizens wanted to join the Russian Federation and break ties with Ukraine. Despite the results, the West has viewed the referendum as “illegal” or unconstitutional under Ukrainian law.

Seven years later, the U.S. and other EU member states still do not recognize Crimea’s ties with Russia and it remains a major source of tensions between Russia and the United States. Let’s take a step back to understand the situation fully:

In 2013, then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power by an anti-Russian and pro-West provisional government after he delayed further talks with binding Ukraine to the European Union. The delay resulted from the fact that the bind would generate immense geopolitical implications. Russia, Ukraine’s neighbor, strongly opposed further NATO and EU expansion, scrutinizing their top national security objective. Despite the delicacy and magnitude of the situation, the leading force for Ukrainian integration with the West, known as the “Euromaidan” movement, rapidly rallied together to remove Yanukovych. The process was by no means democratic— the provisional government was not democratically elected nor abided by the Ukrainian constitution. Most importantly, the ousting of Yanukovych disenfranchises the two million Crimeans, where a majority desire and promote closer ties with Russia.

Just 500 miles south of Kyiv, citizens of the Crimean Peninsula organized a referendum to resolve Crimea’s uncertain future. On March 16, 2014, Crimea became subject to the Russian Federation after the population overwhelmingly voted to join. Some political officials estimate that 95.5% of voters were in favor. Western audiences view the referendum as “illegitimate” due to Russian President Putin deploying military forces to the peninsula around that time. Even so, the U.S. and Western nations still disregard a growing number of polls and research that find the referendum to be free and illustrative of Crimean’s desires.

The Pew Research Center conducted a study in May of 2014 to address the legitimacy of the March referendum. Results found that 91% of Crimeans felt the referendum was free and fair, and that 88% felt the referendum should be recognized.

A month later, in June 2014, a Gallup poll revealed that 82.8% of Crimean believed that the March referendum accurately reflected the views of the people. Similar findings have been popping up, for example, in February 2015, a poll by GfK revealed 93% of Crimean citizens were happy that Crimea was under Russian jurisdiction. Crimeans not only were satisfied with merging with Russia in 2014, but they are continually pleased with remaining under Russia’s influence— even seven years later!

The Crimean Peninsula holds great historical significance to Russia. In Ukraine, ethnic Russians living in the country are estimated to be eight million. In Crimea, it’s noted that 65% of their 2 million inhabitants are ethnic Russians. The peninsula’s relationship with Russia can be traced back to 1783 when Russia’s Catherine the Great acquired the region from the Ottoman Empire. After two centuries of Russian control, the Crimean Peninsula was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 while still attached to the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, Crimea became a part of Ukraine officially, but Russia was allowed to keep a lease on a small slice of Crimea.

This share resided in Crimea’s largest city, Sevastopol— also home to Russia’s largest naval fleet. Russia was able to retain joint command over their Black Sea fleet, but at a cost. Through a bilateral agreement in 1997, Russia and Ukraine had to split their military assets and share a lease on the naval port of Sevastopol. The Black Sea fleet holds vital significance to Russia’s geopolitical and economic interest, as it sits between the junction of Europe and Asia.

Fast-forward two decades and Western nations forget to consider Russia’s national security interests over Crimea. When the pro-West Euromaidan movement gained power via the new provisional government in 2014, Moscow did not ignore the grave implications it meant for their Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol. Euromaidan power over the Crimean Peninsula would mean Russia would lose the bulk of their entire naval assets, in addition to losing access to the Black Sea.

Despite the massive military implications Russia holds with the Crimea, in hand with the irrefutable evidence that demonstrates Crimean’s support to remain under Russian influence, U.S. and EU nations have continued to express their discontent of the situation. Just a month into his term, President Joe Biden released a statement condemning Russia’s engagement with the Crimean Peninsula and even stating, “Crimea is Ukraine.” The statement marks a continuance of U.S. leadership and their disregard to recognize Crimean autonomy and the failure to deploy dialogue and diplomatic arrangements on the issue. American unawareness about Crimea also looms outside the confines of the White House.

In a recent study conducted by Ru-PAC, researchers uncovered startling evidence on how Americans received information regarding the Crimean Peninsula since 2014. Analyzing 975 articles from CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, a disturbing majority of articles made no mention of the Crimean popular support for reunification with Russia. It’s evident that Americans are not given the necessary information to properly understand the Crimean dilemma and that media bias towards Russia is rampant.

To effectively improve Russia-U.S. relations, it begins with the U.S. recognizing Crimea. The Crimean Referendum of March 16th, 2014 was a free and fair resolution that reflects Crimean’s desire to become subject to Russia. Despite the evidence, American policy towards Russia has aimed to either diminish or entirely hinder Crimean integration and has been a barrier to a constructive Russian-U.S. relationship. By recognizing Crimea’s Referendum and accepting the real narrative of the region, the U.S. and Russia could achieve unprecedented stability within Ukraine while also tearing down a wall that has inhibited the symbiotic capability between the two nations. It’s time to recognize Crimea.

Sam Schilling is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC), where he focuses on Russia-U.S. relations, post-Cold War security structures, and NATO’s role in Europe.