How Fast Could Russia Begin Annexing Crimea?

Mar 17, 2014 at 4:26 PM ET

SHKOLNAY, CRIMEA—In the ruined, abandoned buildings of this former Soviet space center not far from Crimea’s capital, weeds grow from the cracked walls next to heroic paintings of spaceships and lunar vehicles.

Beyond the collapsed buildings of the space center and the silently rotting residential structures that once housed the Soviet troops who protected this installation, a vast radar tower is still staring at the sky. But a closer look reveals that it, too, is brown with rust.

A more poignant reminder of the heroic Soviet age may be difficult to find on this peninsula, where old-fashioned Russian nationalism seems strongly intertwined with a nostalgic longing for the glory days of the USSR.

“Russia will now rebuild all this, I am 100 percent sure,” says Viktor, the security guard posted at the gates of the once-important space center. Here the Soviets secretly plotted to beat the Americans to the moon, an attempt that was abandoned in the early ’70s.

On the morning after the Crimean referendum, in which 97 percent of voters approved plans to join Russia, according to local officials, the Crimean government declared the region an independent state. It said it would soon ask for admittance to the Russian Federation.

Crimean officials said they would soon introduce the Russian rubel as a parallel currency and move the country’s clocks two hours forward to Moscow time. They also declared Ukrainian law to be invalid on the peninsula and all state-owned property to belong to Crimea.

But it was unclear whether the hopes of the region’s majority Russians could be fulfilled quickly or even at all, especially those relating to a quick improvement in living standards. This seems to have been one of the reasons for the large support of annexation.

“There will be a big investment in education and a rise in pensions,” says Luiza, a middle-aged schoolteacher in the town of Perevalne. “This goes without saying. I am sure of this. I have many relatives in Russia, and I know how they live.”

While economic indicators indeed show that Russia is a richer country than Ukraine, experts have warned that a quick closing of the gap is unlikely. According to one estimate, Crimea could cost Russia around $3 billion a year: as a poorer-than-average region within Ukraine, it has so far been a net recipient of Ukrainian federal largesse.

As none of the myriad technicalities have so far been worked out, transferring from one federation to another is more likely to produce pain than gain, at least initially. Russian visa requirements could also mean that fewer Western tourists will now come to Crimea, likely hitting one of the region’s main industries.

Many local citizens say the referendum empowered them after many years of neglect by the Ukrainian central government. But ironically, if the annexation goes ahead, Russia’s centralized and highly authoritarian political system means that most of these issues are, in fact, likely to be decided in Moscow, not here.

The sudden switch is also likely to precipitate chaos in many walks of life. Liubov Kalmakova, a Simferopol-based lawyer, says all her legal knowledge is now essentially useless. Beyond her own personal predicament, it is also unclear what rules applied in business and personal transactions on the peninsula.

Others may be presented with a rather more dramatic problem. Officials for Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an Islamist organization that says it works to strengthen the religious identity of the region’s Tatar Muslim minority, say they are expecting a Russian crackdown. Hizb-ut-Tahrir is banned in Russia.

“Here we have been working very openly: We’ve organized conferences, rallies, we have offices,” says Enver Kadirov, who runs a legal advisory office associated with the movement. “Now all this will probably end. We may have to go underground, and our leaders may get prosecuted.”

It is also unclear what would happen to the now surrounded Ukrainian military bases. The Ukrainian defense ministry said on Sunday it had agreed on a truce until March 21. At one base in the town of Perevalne, nothing seems to have changed since the Russian “siege” started at the end of February.

“We’re just hoping for a quick resolution,” says a young woman named Irina, whose husband was one of the soldiers inside the base, and who had come out to bring him some cigarettes. “But they have taken an oath, and you can only do that once. I don’t see how they could take a new one for a different country.”