Lining up with death and taxes, the outcome of the weekend’s vote in Crimea on whether or not to join Russia was certain before the event. Somewhat remarkably — with about two-thirds of Crimea’s population being ethnic Russian and the other third being openly opposed to joining Russia — the vote to join Russia was said to be running in excess of 90%.
While the outcome of the vote may have reflected reluctance by non-Russians to vote in a referendum that was a foregone conclusion, it also — at least in part — continued to confirm doubts about the veracity of the result. Foreign journalists had been largely cleared from Crimea before the vote and no independent ballot monitors were allowed.
The referendum was marked by the extremity of the pro-Russia propaganda. Billboards told Crimean citizens that the choice was between Crimean voting for becoming Russian or becoming Nazi. This was in reference to about 10% of Ukraine’s parliament comprising far-right or neo-Nazi party representatives.
The referendum question, too, was whether Crimeans wished to join Russia immediately, or if they wished to be independent, leaving open the option of joining Ukraine at a later date. That Crimea is currently a part of Ukraine was not identified in the referendum.
But backed by Russian troops on the ground and Russian naval ships blockading the strategic port at Sevastapol, the question of nuance over language was only one of a litany of critical problems facing the technically unconstitutional referendum.
The real question now is whether Russia acts to incorporate Ukarine, as passed by its own Parliament two weeks ago. The alternative is that Russia’s President Valdimir Putin could use the vote in favour of unity with Russia to further pressure Ukraine into “voluntarily” turning away from the European Union and returning to the Russian economic camp.
With an estimated 60,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders too, and considerable dissent and pro-Russian sympathy in eastern Ukraine, the government in Kiev will be disinclined to try to wrestle back control of Crimea by military means. At best, this would spark a civil war, which would leave Ukraine divided. At worst it would lead to a Russian invasion, which Ukraine would not be able to stop.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government’s friends in the West remain conflicted on what action to take over Russia’s heavy-handedness in Crimea. Germany in particular is taking a softer line on proposed economic sanctions than other EU countries.
Economic sanctions are likely. This then plays into the hands of the Kremlin’s hard-liners, who have long been in favour of a split with the West. Instead, they are seeking to strengthen ties with an increasingly powerful China. Some even want a deliberately confrontational relationship with the West, by way of reasserting Russia’s status as a power worthy of the world’s attention.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry says he still hopes for a compromise arrangement with President Putin, in a bid to resolve the Ukraine crisis. The difficulty with this is, increasingly, there is no mood in Moscow for a deal. In any case, as Russians will tell you, in Russian there is no equivalent for the English word “compromise”.
In linguistic theory there is, broadly, a view that the language that is available defines one’s ability to conceptualise — if the word does not exist then neither does the corresponding idea. If this leaves what English speakers might regard as a gap in how Russians thereby understand the world, they might take even less comfort from the further fact that, in Russian, there are seven different words for “enemy”.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University