The quick, predictable vote by Crimea to rejoin Russia comes as no surprise due to that region’s historical ties to Moscow and the distrust among some residents toward Ukrainian officials, said a Crimean native who now lives in Spokane.
Andrey Khomutov, who moved to Spokane two months ago, was born in Crimea in 1961 but moved to Russia in his teens. Since then, he’s lived in nine other countries, including working as a university lecturer last year in North Korea. He was a Fulbright scholar teaching in Moldova from 2011 through 2012.
About 97 percent of Crimean voters in Sunday’s referendum cast ballots in favor of breaking from Ukraine and rejoining Russia.
The vote has escalated tensions between the United States and Europe on one side and Russia on the other.
Sunday’s vote is both a rejection of western Ukraine and an opportunity by some Crimeans to pull themselves back into the Russian orbit, Khomutov said on Monday.
“For many people in Crimea, they have felt like an occupied country (under Ukrainian rule) for most of the past 24 years,” he said.
But Spokane’s large Ukrainian community generally regards the move to join Russia as a stealing of territory, said Nataliya Spellman, 30, a U.S. citizen who moved to Spokane in 2004 after spending her first 20 years living in central Ukraine.
“For us, it is like someone taking Hawaii or California,” she said. “In our country, the Crimea is a great tourism area; everyone goes there to enjoy the Black Sea. When I was married in 2007, we went there on our honeymoon,” Spellman said.
Many Ukrainians in America are directing their anger toward Moscow by coining a name for Russian President Vladimir Putin, she said: “We call him Putler. Like Hitler, mixed with Putin’s name.”
Crimea’s history reflects the shifting alliances that followed World War II. In 1954 the Soviet government transferred the Crimea region from Russia to the Ukrainian Republic.
In 1990, after the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine declared itself an independent nation. Ever since, many of the Russian-ancestry residents of Crimea felt the Ukrainian leaders saw them as a source of revenue and little else.
Khomutov said opposition by Crimeans to western Ukraine had been tepid or unseen.
Then came the violent unrest earlier this year that led to mass protests in western Ukrainian cities and the eventual ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.
That political turmoil allowed Moscow to fan anti-Kiev sentiments, Khomutov said.
“Many people in Crimea are Russified. They now look to Russia because they know the Ukrainian economy is very bad and they think they will gain by being part of Russia,” he said.
“Plus, they also see the Ukrainian government cannot do anything. It is clearly unable to operate as a democracy. So the Crimean people don’t want to be part of that,” he said.
Khomutov is a dual Russian and U.S. citizen. Because he was born in Crimea, he finds himself concerned about its future.
He is also a former Fulbright Scholar, being given a two-year teaching assignment with a university in Moldova, an independent former Soviet region in between Ukraine and Romania.
Had he been in Crimea, Khomutov said he would have voted to make Crimea a more autonomous region within Ukraine, because that would help move it closer to the West and toward more interaction with U.S. and European cultures and economies.
The United States has responded to the vote by imposing a series of sanctions on some Russian and Ukrainian political figures. President Barack Obama also ordered a freeze on the U.S.-based assets of several Russians considered responsible for interfering with Ukrainian sovereignty.
Khomutov has said the United States government’s primary goal should be helping Ukraine establish economic and political stability.
“Ukraine is being preyed on by external powers. Russian actions are not contributing to stability there. The United States could do a lot more,” he said.