The Crimean referendum election on Russian annexation took place yesterday. With more than 50% of the vote accounted for, exit polls demonstrate that an overwhelming majority (close to 95%) of Crimeans supports the secession from Ukraine, as reported by the head of referendum committee Mikhail Malishev However, instead of defusing tensions, the referendum has merely fanned the flames of the largest diplomatic confrontation between the United States and Russia since the Cold War.
US Secretary of State John Kerry reported that he warned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the referendum remained illegal under current Ukrainian law and that the United States would not recognize the outcome. The European Union also joined the chorus, expressing its “strong condemnation,” with Germany’s Angela Merkel taking the lead, promising “massive damage” if Russia does not withdraw from the Crimean peninsula.
The military occupation remains in full force in Crimea, with Russia’s Black Sea Fleet blockading the commercial port of Sevastapol. A sizable minority, the Crimean Tatars are also vocally discontented with the results of the election, with most contending the whole affair as a sham. Local Crimean Tatar activist Refat Chubarov called the referendum “a clown show, a circus.”
The election came only a day after Russian forces seized a village outside of the Crimean peninsula, Strilkove, and its natural gas distribution plant. The move has been interrupted as part of a larger strategy to deter the EU and its allies from punitive action. Six EU countries depend exclusively on Russian gas supplies. Gazprom recently raised gas prices for Ukraine by 37%, negatively affecting the German economy, one of the largest consumer of LNG routed through Ukraine from Russia and Central Asia. In the wake of this decreased gas flow to the EU, UK gas prices jumped 10% in one day last week. Markets have been remarkably bearish on the news coming out of Crimea, with the S&P down 2% for the week.
EU leadership has also put two Russian-sourced LNG pipelines on hold, notably the South Stream project, a planned submarine pipeline under the Black Sea that routes from gas fields in Azerbaijan and southern Russia to Bulgaria. The project is a collaboration between Gazprom and Italian energy giant Eni. Additionally the EU commission blocked a request by Gazprom to pump more gas through its OPAL pipeline that supplies Germany through the Czech Republic. Oddly enough, this has not prevented the sale of a major German utility company RWE-AG to Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman, perhaps because Gazprom has been known to act in tandem with Russian policymakers.
Despite these initial punitive measures, it is unclear what Western powers hope to accomplish. Russia stands to gain quite a bit from this annexation in material and historical terms, aiming to re-establish Sevastapol as a primary strategic asset for naval operations in the Black Sea, as well as seizing submarine and overland routes of natural gas to eastern and southern Europe. In historical terms, Crimea has long been seen as historically Russian, both by its residents and leadership in Moscow. It was only recently, in 1954, that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev “gave” Crimea to Ukraine, which was at the time a Soviet protectorate.
- In an odd twist, the newest theory on the whereabouts of the missing Malaysian flight MH370 is that it is either in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan, according to Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak. This theory comes after new information surfaced that the pilot or co-pilot deliberately switched off its radar and communications systems in an attempt to mask its true destination. According to Slate’s Jeff Wise, MH370 had just left Malaysian airspace when the systems were switched off. This would have allowed sufficient time between communications with Malaysian and Vietnamese air controllers for the pilot to redirect the plan to its intended destination. After searching the Indian Ocean and the areas to the south for almost a week, authorities have proposed the theory that the plan is somewhere near the Kyrgyz-Chinese border, near the Uighur homeland of Xinjiang. However, Kyrgyz officials say there is no indication that MH370 entered Kyrgyz airspace, landed, or crashed anywhere in their territory.
- In China, popular opinion on the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 is centered around fears of a second attack by Uighur terrorist groups, especially in the wake of the deadly knife attacks in Kunming that claimed 33 lives. This theory has been gaining traction in recent days, as two thirds of the passengers on the flight were Chinese, and yet it is unclear if the hijacking is the result of terrorism or some other cause. Since the Kunming massacre, Chinese authorities have cracked down hard on Uighur groups in Xinjiang province. In retaliation, Abdullah Mansour, leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party, a noted Uighur terrorist cell located in Pakistan, vowed revenge against China. Accusations of atrocities by both sides have so far kept Western authorities from commenting on the possible Uighur connection to the missing flight.
- Iran has continued its charm offensive, meeting with premiers and business leaders from Europe, Azerbaijan, and attempting to improve relations with Pakistan. Whether this will have any bearing on its nuclear negotiations with Western powers remains to be seen, but Iran is lobbying hard to break from the yoke of its sanctions and emerge as a first-rate world economy. Hassan Rouhani met with Azerbaijani officials to promote bilateral ties, presumably to increase cooperation on the exploitation of key subsea oil and gas resources in the Caspian sea, a major source of undeveloped energy wealth. Persian and Pakistani officials also met in Tehran during their 8th annual Iran-Pakistan Road Transportation Cooperation Commission to discuss opening new roads between the two countries to promote trade. This comes at a tense time between the two countries, as Saudi Arabia has offered a substantial aid package to Iran to prevent the completion of the IP pipeline that would be a much needed boost to Iran’s economy.
- At Steppe Dispatches, we’ve talked before about the failure to prevent narcotic agriculture from taking root in Afghanistan. Heroin usage across the globe is up, mostly due to the steady supply streaming north from Afghanistan through former Soviet republics like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Russia and the US have surprisingly cooperated on efforts to disrupt the supply routes in the region, but with little success. A 2007 paper cites almost 30% of Tajikistan’s GDP comes from drug transit alone, and in comparison to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, receives the lion’s share of aid to fight drug trafficking. Transportation is believed to be largely the result of bribing legitimate transportation businesses (i.e. those who are not career criminals) into smuggling shipments across the border, or what is called a “cluster approach.” While one or two may be caught, most will make it through the border thanks to corruption and lack of security infrastructure.