The Crimean parliament has announced a March 16 referendum on independence from Ukraine, becoming either an independent region allied with Russia or, eventually, an outright province of Russia. No chances are being taken on the outcome of this referendum. Just in case the Russian troops, Russian long-range artillery, Russian armor units – and, according to some reports, Russian minefields planted on the Ukrainian border – didn’t telegraph the desired outcome strongly enough, there is no option for voting “no” on the printed ballot – you can only vote for either autonomy or membership in the Russian Federation. Ballots without one of these options checked will be discarded as invalid. Oh, and they’re printing up about half a million more ballots than Crimea has voters, so independence might just pass with over 100 percent support.
Something tells me the dominant Russian-aligned bloc in Crimea isn’t too worried about the outcome of this referendum. Vladimir Putin might even blow off watching the election coverage on TV and switch over to “The Walking Dead” that evening.
David Cameron and Angela Merkel have agreed that any Russian attempt to legitimise next Sunday’s referendum in Crimea will result in further consequences, implying stronger sanctions.
The prime minister and the German chancellor agreed a statement after a working dinner in Hanover on Sunday night.
In what is in essence a twin-track approach, the two leaders also said they were still working to persuade the Russians to engage with a western contact group designed to start a diplomatic process in Ukraine. The referendum is seen as an attempt to annex Crimea, and the west as well as Turkey have condemned the referendum as unconstitutional and legally dubious.
EU leaders agreed at a heads of government summit last week to escalate sanctions if Russia did not start to engage in a diplomatic process in days; as yet there has been little sign of Russian willingness to seek a diplomatic outcome on the ground.
Cameron and Merkel went so far as to describe the independence referendum as “illegal” in a joint statement, warning “any attempt by Russia to legitimize the results would result in further consequences.”
There haven’t really been any major consequences thus far, beyond a bit of visa-cancellation pressure against a few officials, although there is talk of applying serious economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia for Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Russia responded to this talk by saying it might just shut down international inspections of its nuclear arsenal under the START treaty, which is exactly the sort of thing critics of the START treaty warned they might do. And then there’s all that Russian oil to think about.
British foreign secretary William Hague foresaw “great danger of a shooting conflict” if Russian forces advanced beyond the Crimean border:
Asked by the BBC’s Europe editor, Gavin Hewitt, what would happen if Russian troops went beyond the Black Sea peninsula to enter “mainland” eastern Ukraine, Hague said: “There would be far reaching trade, economic and financial consequences. It would bring the great danger of a real shooting conflict. There is no doubt about that.”
Asked whether Britain and the EU would advise the Ukrainians not to take up arms against the Russians, Hague said: “We have commended all of their restraint so far. It is not really possible to go through different scenarios with the Ukrainians and say: in these circumstances you shoot and in these you don’t. We have commended their restraint. They have not risen to any provocation from Russia.”
The odds of a dangerous confrontation seem even worse when one considers how badly Russia seems to be spoiling for a fight. They’ve taken to accusing Western powers of deliberately fomenting the Euromaidan protests that led to the ouster of kleptocrat Viktor Yanukovych. Russian media has been warning about an impending invasion of Crimea by Ukrainian troublemakers, and by troublemakers they mean “fascists.”
Ukrainian troops besieged by Russian forces in Crimea claim the Russians have been deliberately trying to goad them into firing the first shot, with a Ukrainian officer telling Time, “Everyone knows that at first blood, their hands will be untied, and that will be the end of it.”
The new Ukrainian government is not pleased about the prospect of losing Crimea in an emergency appendectomy without anesthesia. The Washington Post has the latest from Kiev:
Ukraine???s acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, told reporters Saturday that Ukraine will never cede its claim to Crimea no matter what the outcome of the referendum. Lawmakers in the Russian parliament have said they consider the vote legitimate, and they will support Crimea???s return to Russia.
???Crimea is and will be Ukrainian territory and we will not give up Crimea to anyone,??? Deschytsia said.
It’s a bit harder to get the latest from Crimea, because the Russian occupation forces have developed their customary allergic reaction to media coverage:
Reports on Russian troop movements in Crimea are difficult to verify, in part because about 40 military and civilian observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe were blocked from entering Crimea for the third day in a row Saturday as they traveled by bus through the Armyansk checkpoint. Tatyana Baeva, a spokeswoman for the OSCE, said the group was turned back by unidentified armed men who fired warning shots. No one was hurt.
Other confrontations have been more menacing. Late Friday night, masked men in one of the local militia groups that are blocking military bases tried to overrun a Ukrainian base outside Sevastopol. The intruders left without firing a shot. But Ukraine???s Channel 5 television said its journalists were beaten by the pro-Russian militiamen as they covered the confrontation.
The instability in Ukraine in general, and particularly in Crimea, led the State Department to issue a travel warning Saturday advising Americans to avoid Ukraine for the time being.
Anyone who isn’t ethnic Russian might want to think about avoiding Crimea, beginning no later than March 16.