March 16, 2022 marks eight years since a highly contested incident in Crimea when a referendum was held that, supposedly, saw the people vote to unite with Russia and leave Ukraine.
The background to this incident is highly complex, as are the many conflicting narratives regarding what, exactly, occurred on that day in 2014. However, it has continued to play a major role in the geopolitical landscape, and its influence continues to be felt on the ongoing events in the region.
The Crimean peninsula juts off into the Black Sea from Ukraine, where it is located in the Kherson Oblast. The peninsula is surrounded by the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to the east.
Crimea has a very rich history and has been home to many civilizations over many millennia. It first became Russian territory during a conflict with Turkey in the 18th century and stayed under Russian rule into the era of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union was, itself, a union of different constituent republics, hence the USSR standing for United Soviet Socialist Republics. During this period, specifically in 1954, Crimea was transferred from the Russian SFSR to the Ukrainian SSR, essentially becoming under the control of this Ukrainian constituent republic.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine retained control of Crimea, though it was essentially an autonomous independent republic within the country known as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, though the major port city of Sevastopol was another story.
The entire region, along with Sevastopol, remained a considerable source of controversy and tension between Ukraine and Russia. This is due in part to its strategic location in the Black Sea as well as the importance of Sevastopol as a major base for the Russian, and later Soviet and then Russian and Ukrainian, naval fleets.
This became even more complicated due to the presence of natural gas in the area.
With its long history, Crimea has a diverse and important demographic makeup, which plays a role in the political events in the past eight years.
According to population estimates from a 2014 Russian census, Crimea and Sevastopol combined have a population just shy of 2.25 million people.
The majority of Crimean residents, according to the 2014 census, are ethnically Russian (around 68%), with 84% having Russian as their native language.
This same census put Ukrainians as the next largest demographic at around 16% of the population.
Also present are other minorities such as Armenians, Belarusians and Jews, but the largest minority group aside from the Ukrainians are the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group indigenous to the region with a very long history who are primarily Muslim. Nearly 200,000 of them had been forcibly deported by Joseph Stalin in 1944 under accusations that some had helped the Nazis, something Ukraine and some other countries consider genocide, though many Tatars have since returned.
The direct events leading up to the referendum occurred in February 2014, when the Maidan Revolution, also known as the Revolution of Dignity, took place following the end of the Euromaidan protests. This saw the Ukrainian government overthrown in response to then-president Viktor Yanukovych's push to have closer ties with Russia rather than the West and refusing to sign political and trade deals with the European Union.
Following this overthrowal, Russia intervened. This led to many important events, such as the war in the Donbas region, the breakaway of pro-Russian separatist-controlled states in Donetsk and Luhansk, a wider trend of what became known as "decommunization" and, of course, Russian annexation of Crimea, which in turn led to the referendum.
On March 16, 2014, Crimea and Sevastopol both held a referendum for their citizens. This vote gave people two choices: Join Russia or restore the 1992 Crimean constitution which, in turn, would make Crimea a de facto independent part of Ukraine.
According to Russia, there was an 83% voter turnout in Crimea and an 89% turnout in Sevastopol. And according to them, this saw an overwhelming majority in both areas (around 95-97%) vote in favor of joining Russia.
This was lauded by Russia, who continues to view Crimea as Russian territory, though Ukraine and the international community heavily dispute this, with many saying all of the numbers are suspect.
It should also be noted that despite the high turnout, there were many who boycotted the referendum.
Internationally, the referendum was condemned, despite Russia on March 17 recognizing Crimean independence. That same day, the Crimean parliament called for Russia to admit them into the Russian Federation.
On March 27 of the same year, the UN General Assembly voted with a wide majority in UN Resolution 68/282 that the referendum was entirely invalid.
It was also rejected by the entirety of the European Union, NATO and the G7, among many others.
So what exactly was wrong with the vote itself?
There are several aspects of the referendum that have been criticized. Firstly, under Ukrainian law, the entire referendum itself was illegal as it did not allow for participation from all citizens of Ukraine, but just those who lived in Crimea.
Having said that, Crimea at no point in the referendum claimed to be part of Ukraine. On March 11, the Crimean parliament declared independence from Ukraine after a controversial vote. As such, the ballot in the referendum made it clear that at the time, Crimea was an independent nation.
Russia disputes claims that the vote itself was illegal in principle, and has cited several points as evidence. This includes the UN recognition of self-determination and the ICJ ruling regarding Kosovo that stated international law does not prohibit declarations of independence. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also gone so far as to say that Ukraine's own independence from the Soviet Union was never legitimate to begin with.
Both statements are, themselves, highly contested by the West, as is their validity as comparisons.
But problems with the referendum persisted beyond simple legality.
During the leadup to the referendum, numerous analysts and news outlets noted that the campaign was almost entirely pro-Moscow, with pro-Russia campaigns hyping up the claim that the Ukrainian government consisted of neo-Nazis and fascists.
According to contemporary BBC reports, Ukrainian TV channels were blocked in Crimea after the referendum was called and some had even been replaced with Russian stations.
There is also the fact that, as noted by the OSCE at the time, there was "significant evidence of equipment consistent with the presence of Russian Federation military personnel."
The OSCE and UN both further alleged that Russian forces had made it difficult, if not impossible, for international observers to come to monitor the referendum.
However, there were, in fact, observers on the ground to monitor the referendum. But, as noted by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, these observers were invited by the Russian government and belonged to far-right extremist groups.
There are also allegations of voter fraud, with one Russian journalist even saying she was allowed to vote despite openly identifying herself as a Russian citizen and not a Crimean.
Ultimately, the entire referendum is still vastly disputed.
The situation today
Russia to this day continues to tout the Crimean referendum as being a legitimate vote and a historic moment, something the Russian Foreign Ministry even said themselves.
#OTD 8⃣ years ago people of #Crimea made a historic choice - they took their future into their own hands and cast their ballots in favour (83%!) of reunification with #Russia in a regionwide referendum ️ A true triumph of democracy.#CrimeaIsRussia pic.twitter.com/u2A1OeM2Br— MFA Russia (@mfa_russia) March 16, 2022
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry has not been silent about it either. They have called the Crimean referendum "The first stage of Moscow's plan aimed at destroying Ukrainian statehood," and continue to vow to return Crimea to Ukraine.
We will return Crimea and every single piece of our land temporarily occupied by Russia, and hold Russia and its leadership responsible for all the crimes committed by it in Ukraine.— MFA of Ukraine (@MFA_Ukraine) March 16, 2022
The US Embassy in Kyiv has also referred the Crimean referendum as a "sham referendum."
Crimea is Ukraine, and the United States will never recognize Russia's illegitimate occupation of Ukrainian territory. #CrimeaIsUkraine (2/2)— U.S. Embassy Kyiv (@USEmbassyKyiv) March 16, 2022
Since 2014, tensions between Russia and Ukraine have remained high and many directly point out its links to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Further, it is thought that it may play an even larger role than just parallels. According to some, Russia's end goal in this invasion is to link up mainland Russia and Crimea with Transnistria, a pro-Russia breakaway in Moldova.
The Crimean peninsula remains of great strategic value and with the ongoing conflict, there is every chance the situation could possibly change.
However, as of the time of writing, Crimea remains disputed, recognized internationally as part of Ukraine but under the de facto control of Russia.