Skip to main content

Crimea's vote: Was it legal?

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
March 19, 2014 -- Updated 1107 GMT (1907 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine, its leaders said
  • Russia says Ukraine's political upheaval negated constitution, so population free to vote
  • The United States and its European allies say the vote was not legitimate
  • The standoff resembles Cold War tensions

(CNN) -- Depending on who you ask, Crimea's decision to secede from Ukraine was either an unconstitutional split manipulated by Russia or a move consistent with international law upholding the region's right to govern itself.

The United States and its European allies say Sunday's referendum vote violated Ukraine's newly reforged constitution and amounts to a thinly veiled attempt by Russia to expand its borders to the Black Sea peninsula under a threat of force.

Moscow asserts Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in an illegal coup, which ended Ukraine's constitutional authority. Russian President Vladimir Putin argues Crimeans should have the right to decide how they want to be governed going forward.

So who's right?

"The answer depends on what your perspective is," said David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

Russia: Crimea vote was legal
Obama imposes sanctions against Russia
Ukraine PM: Russia threatens entire world
NATO worried about more Russia intervention

"The U.S. is buying into the argument of the Ukraine government, which is that the secession of Crimea from Ukraine is not constitutional under the terms of the Ukrainian constitution," Rothkopf said.

"The alternative argument is that all peoples have a right of self-determination and that if the people of Crimea choose not to be part of Ukraine, that is their prerogative in the same way that it was the choice of colonial powers to break away from the imperial powers that claimed them or parts of the former Yugoslavia were free to head off on their own," he added.

Ukraine 'will never accept' Crimea annexation, President says

The standoff between the United States and Russia resembles tension from the Cold War era.

"We'll continue to make clear to Russia that further provocations will achieve nothing except to further isolate Russia and diminish its place in the world," President Barack Obama said on Monday.

"The international community will continue to stand together to oppose any violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity; and continued Russia military intervention in Ukraine will only deepen Russia's diplomatic isolation and exact a greater toll on the Russia economy," Obama said.

The United States and Europe imposed travel bans and froze assets of senior Russian and Crimean officials.

The Obama administration went a step further by banning entry and freezing all U.S. assets held by any Russian government official or people with close financial ties to 11 people, including advisers to Putin.

Legal or not, Crimean referendum will shape Ukraine crisis

Separate from the vote, Crimean lawmakers approved a resolution on Monday that declared the Black Sea peninsula an independent, sovereign state and requested to join the Russian Federation.

Putin later in the day signed a decree that recognized Crimea's independence, the Kremlin said. He will address a joint session of Parliament on Crimea on Tuesday.

Putin spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently by phone and stressed the Crimean referendum was in accordance with international law, including Article 1 of the U.N. Charter regarding the principle of self-determination.

Ukraine crisis like 'slowly unfolding bad movie'
Crimea votes to return to 'Motherland'
Mixed feelings after Crimean referendum
The mood is grim in Kiev Square

"It was emphasized that Russia will respect the choice of the Crimean people," according to a Kremlin statement summarizing that conversation.

Obama told Putin during a phone call on Sunday that "Russia's actions were in violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity," according to the White House.

Putin pushed back, according to a statement from the Kremlin, and said the situation in Crimea is akin to Kosovo's breakaway from Serbia in 2008.

"Regarding the March 16 referendum in Crimea, Mr Putin said that the decision to hold the referendum was in line with international law and the U.N. Charter, and was also in line with the precedent set by Kosovo," the Kremlin said.

"The referendum was organized in such a way as to guarantee Crimea's population the possibility to freely express their will and exercise their right to self-determination," it said.

West hits back at Russians over Crimea

Even within Crimea's pro-Russia majority, opinions about the legality of seceding are split.

Voters proudly proclaimed their support for rejoining Russia as they stood in line in dreary weather to vote. However, one, who was too afraid to speak to CNN on camera, proclaimed the referendum illegal.

The ethnic Tatars and younger voters have also questioned the legality of secession. Many of the Tatar minority boycotted the referendum with some leaders calling it "a farce" forced by armed men.

As the United States and Russia attempt to hash out their differences, pressure mounts for Putin to move quickly and carefully in resolving the Crimean crisis, Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute told CNN International.

"He basically has two choices. Choice Number One would be to move fairly quickly to annex Crimea and that is going to then seem as a very naked land grab and will make it very difficult then for a dialogue to move forward," Pifer said.

"That move will likely mean Western nations will ratchet up the level of sanctions, Pifer said.

"The alternative is they take the vote but that the Russians don't move very quickly," Pifer said.

"They let Crimea basically stay in some limbo status which will create some opportunity perhaps for negotiation that can diffuse this crisis."

READ: U.S. warns Russia: More sanctions coming due to Ukraine crisis

READ: Crimea remarries -- but that divorce will be messy

READ: Crimea's vote: Was it legal?

READ: Amanpour blog: Ukraine on brink of 'very dangerous conflict'

CNN's Tom Cohen and Marie-Louise Gumuchian, and CNN Money's Mark Thompson contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Photos illustrate the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as fighting continues to flare in the region.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1112 GMT (1912 HKT)
A 20-minute drive from Kiev takes you to a neighborhood that feels more like Beverly Hills than central Ukraine.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Nearly six months since popular protests toppled Yanukovych, fighting between Ukraine's military and pro-Russia rebels continues.
August 7, 2014 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
Western leaders stepped up sanctions, but the Russian President shows no sign of backing down.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1236 GMT (2036 HKT)
Europe's deteriorating relationship with Russia has hit its growth, even before food sanctions begin to bite.
August 4, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Despite mortar fire echoing in the distance, the international team combed through the wreckage of MH17.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1108 GMT (1908 HKT)
The road isn't easy -- past shelling and eerie separatist checkpoints. But where it leads is harder still.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1631 GMT (0031 HKT)
Future imports, exports between the EU and Russia are now banned -- but existing contracts continue.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 0026 GMT (0826 HKT)
The Cold War aerial games of chicken portrayed in "Top Gun" are happening in real life again nearly 30 years later.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
More Russian aggression in Ukraine. More U.S. and European sanctions imposed on Moscow.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Air accident investigators normally reach crash sites soon after a plane has gone down, what does the delay in reaching MH17 mean?
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0001 GMT (0801 HKT)
Deadly violence, ongoing tensions and the deliberate downing of a passenger airplane. Why should Americans worry?
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
The shooting down of MH17 may finally alert Washington and Europe to the danger of the conflict in Ukraine.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2304 GMT (0704 HKT)
The United States and its allies are angrier at Russia now over Ukraine, but will they do anything more about it?
The U.S. releases satellite images it says shows the Russian military has fired across its border with Ukraine.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1540 GMT (2340 HKT)
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2037 GMT (0437 HKT)
Information about Ukraine, the second-largest European country in area after Russia.
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1725 GMT (0125 HKT)
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on securing the MH17 crash site and negotiating with the separatists.
Learn more about the victims, ongoing investigation and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 0700 GMT (1500 HKT)
When passengers boarded Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last week, they couldn't have known they were about to fly over a battlefield.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 0925 GMT (1725 HKT)
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
Increased fighting around the MH17 crash scene blocks international investigators. CNN's Kyung Lah reports.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
In the tangled aftermath of the disaster, two narratives emerge -- one from most of the world subscribes to, and another from Russia.
ADVERTISEMENT