With Trump on his side, Putin admits Russia staged the ‘referendum’ to annex Crimea
It is devastating that the only positive thing to be said about the Helsinki Summit on 16 July is that US President Donald Trump did not, as feared, ‘recognize Crimea as Russian’. At least, not publicly. Trump was unable or unwilling to mention even one of the grave crimes which the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin has committed over recent years. In fact, according to Trump, the low in US-Russian relations was not because of its interference in the US presidential elections, confirmed by all US intelligence services, Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and military aggression against Ukraine, the downing by a Russian Buk missile of Malaysian airliner MH17, the use of radioactive polonium and nerve gas against perceived enemies on British territory, war crimes in Syria and much more. No, it was because, the man tweeted, of “many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!,"
It is for US citizens to consider whether their President should reject US intelligence in favour of a former KGB agent’s assurances. They might also wonder how, on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the downing of MH17, Trump should have been waxing effusive about a new dawn in US-Russian relations and totally silent about the murder of 298 passengers. Since Trump has cast doubt on Russia’s proven involvement in that crime earlier, the silence was not unexpected. That doesn’t make it any the less disturbing.
Trump’s failure to mention Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as a cause of the worsening in Russia’s relations with the entire democratic world was also deeply worrying. Putin’s lip service to the fact that Trump had not overturned the USA’s correct condemnation of Russia’s annexation was scarcely enough when he went on, unchallenged, to try to justify its actions.
Putin claimed that “we consider that we held a referendum in strict compliance with international law, with the UN statute. For us, for the Russian Federation, this question is closed. That’s all”.
Putin was clearly feeling particularly emboldened by the gift that Trump bestowed upon him through this ‘summit’, and did not even bother to hide behind his customary subterfuge. Even after admitting that the soldiers without insignia who had seized control of Ukrainian territory were Russia, Putin has always tried to claim that the so-called ‘referendum’ was the initiative of ‘the Crimean people’. No longer, it would seem, thanks to US President Trump - it was us all along.
Whatever “UN statute" Putin had in mind, there is nothing at all in ‘international law’ to allow one country to “hold a referendum” on the sovereign territory of another country. Trump may not know that, or not care, but it is of relevance, since Russia is still pushing a narrative about a supposed ‘referendum’ that is as false as the cosmetic ‘elections’ which Joseph Stalin used to take over Eastern Europe after the Second World War.
Russian soldiers seized control of the Crimean Parliament and critical infrastructure in the morning of 27 February 2014, after around 10 thousand Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians prevented an attempt to imitate a homegrown coup d’état the previous day. Within hours, they had forced a ‘parliamentary session’, with an obscure pro-Russian politician Sergei Aksyonov declaring himself Crimean ‘prime minister’. The fact that force was required to ensure that the members of parliament agreed to this ‘shift in leadership’ is not disputed even by Igor Girkin, the former Russian military intelligence officer who played a critical role in the invasion. It was these leaders, installed at gunpoint, who swiftly announced the so-called ‘referendum’ to be held on 16 March.
This was in breach of Ukraine’s Constitution which would require any change in territory or status to be determined by national, not local, referendum. This was one of the reasons why it was immediately declared illegitimate not only by the Mejlis [representative assembly] of the Crimean Tatar people, the main indigenous people of Crimea, but also by the EU, OSCE, European Parliament and all democratic countries, including the USA.
The questions produced for this event also offered no possibility of voting for the status quo, No. 1 asked: Are you for the Crimea re-uniting with Russia, as a subject of the Russian Federation? No. 2: Are you for the reinstatement of the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of the Crimea and for the status of the Crimea as part of Ukraine? Since the second alternative required knowledge of a largely theoretical constitution in force for only around 13 days in 1992, it was relatively unlikely that anybody would choose that option
It is also impossible to speak of a referendum if one side faced physical danger if they expressed their point of view. The Russian soldiers without insignia (often called the ‘little green men’) were accompanied and helped by so-called ‘self-defence’ armed paramilitaries. Russia has tried to claim that these were all locals, but they were led by people like Girkin, included very many Russians and probably also the members of private military companies who are known to have been brought from Sevastopol the day before. After finally admitting to lying about the Russian soldiers, Putin denied that this could be an invasion since nobody had been killed. Even from the point of view of military deaths, this is not totally true, but it also conveniently brushes over the use of the armed paramilitaries to abduct, beat up, torture and generally terrorize those Ukrainians who did not want to be ‘annexed’. Those paramilitaries are known to have carried out the savage killing of Reshat Ametov and many other violent abductions, and are believed to have been behind the disappearance and assumed murder of three other pro-Ukrainian civic activists.
The state-owned TV Krym had been seized by 1 March 2014, the main private TV channel Chornomorska closed two days later, and all Ukrainian channels were taken off air and replaced by Russian channels. This was also of critical importance, as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted in its report on 15 April 2014
“New restrictions on free access to information came with the beginning of the Crimea crisis. Media monitors indicated a significant raise of propaganda on the television of the Russian Federation, which was building up in parallel to developments in and around Crimea. Cases of hate propaganda were also reported. Dmitri Kiselev, Russian journalist and recently appointed Deputy General Director of the Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, while leading news on the TV Channel “Rossiya” has portrayed Ukraine as a “country overrun by violent fascists”, disguising information about Kyiv events, claimed that the Russians in Ukraine are seriously threatened and put in physical danger, thus justifying Crimea’s “return” to the Russian Federation. <> As a result, there are serious concerns that people – both in Russia and Ukraine and especially in Crimea – may be subject to propaganda and misinformation, through widespread misuse of the media, leading to a distortion of the facts”.
Russia had thus tried to guarantee a positive account through the use of armed thugs and toxic lies in the media. It also ensured that the event, condemned by all those who respect international law, was ‘observed’ by the Kremlin’s friends from the far right and extreme left in European politics.
At least some of the ‘observers’ were financed by the Russian-based Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections headed by Luc Michel and Jean-Pierre Vandersmissen, both supporters of the neo-Nazi Jean-François Thiriart and members of the extreme right Parti Communautaire National-Européen (PCN-NCP). The list of supposedly 135 observers included representatives of the far-right parties Jobbik (Hungary); Ataka (Bulgaria); Vlaams Belang (Belgium); Freedom Party (Austria) and others. There were also members of neo-Stalinist or extreme left-wing parties, including Germany’s Die Linke.
Putin could hope that Russian viewers would not question his lies about the supposed compliance with international law. Russian state-controlled media had, for example, tried to palm off far-right Belgian politician Luc Michel as from the OSCE, which had wanted nothing to do with this stunt.
It is, in fact, only Russia and its cronies who even attempt to call the event on 16 March 2014 a referendum. Even Putin’s own Human Rights Council confirmed, after a visit to Crimea, that the turnout had been much lower than reported, and the results far less overwhelmingly in favour of joining Russia. The report found that while a large majority of residents of Sevastopol (where the Russian Black Sea Fleet was based) had voted for ‘joining Russia’ (turnout of 50-80%), the turnout for all of Crimea was from 30-50% and only 50-60% of those voted for joining Russia.
It is also important that the Crimean Tatar Mejlis called on all Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians to boycott the event. As Bill Bowring, Professor of Law from the UK’s Birkbeck College and well-known expert on international law, has pointed out, it is essentially only the Crimean Tatars, as indigenous people of Crimea, who have the right to self-determination. The Crimean Tatars have consistently made it clear that they view Crimea as part of Ukraine.
Russia’s attempt to claim that its landgrab was not achieved by armed soldiers and paramilitaries, backed by warmongering propaganda, but by a ‘referendum’ expressing ‘the will of the Crimean people’ has no basis in international law or fact.
With the human rights situation in Crimea having plummeted under Russian occupation and over 70 Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners now held in Crimea and Russia, the US President’s silence is baffling and profoundly disturbing.