Today the Ukraine faces a referendum in which Crimean citizens are called to cast their vote to decide whether Crimea, inhabited by a majority of ethnic Russians, should opt to remain in Ukraine with greater autonomy, or decide for a total secession from Kiev.
The vote comes after weeks of tension between the Ukrainian new interim government – that took power in Kiev after the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych – and the Kremlin that is determined to keep its influence on the region.
The United States and the West, as many people in Ukraine, expect a majority of citizens in Crimea to vote in favor of secession. Western governments’ threat to respond to Russian invasion with sanctions and their rejection of the referendum as illegal did not prevent Russia from backing it.
Furthermore, in the past two weeks Moscow has strengthened its military presence in the Crimean Peninsula, deploying thousands of troops and taking control of Ukrainian military posts in the region. Despite the moves, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has denied the participation of Russian military personnel in the action, claiming that the invading men belong to regional self-defense troops.
On Saturday, more Russian troops were reported to have crossed the northeastern border of Crimea, entering into the city of Strilkove, in the region of Kherson.
The region is of strategic importance to Crimea, because the peninsula gets fresh water, electricity and natural gas from there. According to the Ukrainian border guards, Russians declared that their presence in Kherson was aimed at preventing possible terrorist attacks targeting the local energy facilities.
On Sunday, a crowd of ethnic Russians eager to vote for secession stormed a polling station in the Crimean city of Sevastopol shortly after its opening. Several news agencies reported of a partying atmosphere near voting stations, with people showing happy faces, dancing at the sound of Russian folklore music and celebrating their looming separation from Ukraine.
A local told to CNN that he voted in favor as he wanted “to join Russia and live like Russians, with all their rights.” Other pro-Russian voters declared to be “spiritually close” to Russia. CNN also reported to have photographed a voter casting a double vote, which raises serious questions about the validity of the vote.
ABC News said that members of the Tatar community and ethnic Ukrainians seem to be boycotting the vote, while many of them raised fears that the secession might result in an ethnical cleansing of non-Russian citizens of Crimea.
The referendum comes one day after the U.N. Security Council voted a resolution declaring it invalid that Russia was able to block with its veto. Out of the 15 nations called to vote, 13 of them backed the resolution, while China abstained.
According to Ukraine’s interim president Oleksandr Turchynov, the result of the vote has already been planned by the Kremlin in order to justify its invasion and start a war that “Will destroy people’s lives and the economic prospects for Crimea.”
While the referendum for the Crimean secession could lead to strict western sanctions against Russia or even to the latter’s exclusion from the G8 group of countries, it is likely that Ukraine faces the hardest consequences as well as more political turmoil.
By Stefano Salustri