IT IS crunch time in Crimea. Today the referendum on whether the region should join Russia or remain part of Ukraine is being held – and the divisions surrounding the vote are as stark as the choice the people of Crimea have to make.
During talks on Friday between US secretary of state John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, no common ground on the Ukraine crisis was found.
The Russians said they would respect the result – which will almost certainly be a yes vote – while the US will regard it as illegal and illegitimate, given that it will take place under an effective occupation by a foreign power. Kiev and the EU will also not recognise the result.
No doubt, Moscow is hoping the referendum will give ts military intervention in Crimea a tangible legitimacy it has so far lacked.
Up until now the Kremlin has had to come up with a lot of hard words about protecting its “compatriots” from the clutches of an illegitimate government in Kiev that is under the spell of neo-fascists.
This claim does not ring true. While the Ukrainian government came into office in extraordinary and bloody circumstances that have given its detractors plenty of ammunition, it has the backing of the country’s parliament, which is still dominated by the Party of Regions, the old party of Viktor Yanukovych, the disgraced former president.
Moscow has also maintained – as a further justification for its intervention – that neo- fascists now hold sway over the government, and that the far-right threatens Jews, Russian speakers and anybody else considered not to be true Ukrainians.
While it is true Ukraine’s far right was active during the recent Maidan protests in Kiev, its high media profile was not reflective of its actual political influence, and it certainly does not control the government.
In an open letter to Russian president Vladimir Putin penned by Ukraine’s Jewish leaders, leading academics and human rights campaigners, Moscow’s claims of anti-Semitism and anti-Russian behaviour were refuted.
“Meanderings about ‘forced Ukrainisation’ and ‘bans on the Russian language’ that have been so common in Russian media are on the heads of those who invented them. Your certainty of the growth of anti-Semitism in Ukraine also does not correspond to the actual facts,” they wrote, adding: “We do not wish to be ‘defended’ by sundering Ukraine and annexing its territory.”
Critics of the Kremlin have said it is ironic that Russia talks about fascism in Ukraine when its policies towards Crimea bear a disturbing similarity to those used by Hitler to rip away the German-dominated Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Back then, as now, a foreign government used the need of “restoring order” as an excuse for intervention along with protecting “compatriots”, despite them being citizens of another country.
Moscow’s line about protecting and possibly bringing back under the sheltering wing of the motherland its peoples hewn away by historical mistakes and injustices also has a disturbing echo of Hitler’s dreams of “one nation, one people”.
It is probable that Moscow uses rhetoric about the far right and threats to citizens to hide its desires to ensure it retains navy bases in Crimea – and to intimidate, and possibly destroy, the Ukrainian government.
Moscow regards Kiev as a threat not only because it is pro-western but also because it was borne into office by a massive wave of resentment against the corruption and autocracy that also permeates Russian politics and helps maintain Moscow’s ruling elite.
Crush Kiev now before anybody in Russia gets the same idea, the Kremlin might be thinking.
It is to be hoped that this desire to crush will not develop into a full-scale invasion of eastern Ukraine. Bloody fighting between pro and anti- Russian groups has already claimed lives and could, once again, give Moscow the pretext to move in to restore order and protect its compatriots. Moscow has built up troop numbers on the borders but this could be just heavy-duty sabre-rattling, as an invasion would mean taking over ethnically diverse and complicated regions, and result in fighting.
Unlike its position on Crimea, Kiev would be almost certain to go to war to protect the east of the country.
The prospect of war has increased concerns in other countries in the region already feeling the heat of Moscow’s policies.
In the tiny former Soviet republic of Moldova, Russian troops in the breakaway republic of Transnistria have been put on alert and bolstered by the arrival of special forces in an apparent attempt to intimidate the pro-western Moldovan government.
To the north, the Lithuanian press has reported that Moscow has decreed that goods bound for Russia imported via Lithuania’s main port of Klaipeda will no longer be accepted. This is, apparently, in retaliation for the Lithuanian parliament condemning the Crimea invasion.
These countries, along with Ukraine, now await the Kremlin’s next move with deepening anxiety.
Timeline: How protests against Kiev government led to crisis on peninsular
• 21 November, 2013: President Viktor Yanukovych’s government announces it’s abandoning an agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union and will instead seek closer co-operation with Moscow. Protesters take to the streets.
• 1 December: A protest attracts around 300,000 people at Kiev’s Independence Square, the largest since the 2004 Orange Revolution. Activists seize Kiev City Hall.
• 22 January, 2014: Three protesters die during a confrontation between police and demonstrators manning barricades.
• 28 January: In concessions to the opposition, the prime minister resigns and parliament repeals harsh anti-protest laws that set off the violence.
• 18 February: Protesters attack police lines and set fires outside parliament after it stalls on constitutional reform to limit presidential powers. Riot police respond to the violence by trying to push protesters off Independence Square. At least 26 people die and hundreds are injured.
• 20 February: Hours after a truce is announced, violence between protesters and riot police resumes. More than 80 people, mainly protesters, are killed by gunshots.
• 21 February: Under a European-mediated plan, protest leaders and Yanukovych agree to form a new government and hold an early election. Parliament slashes his powers and votes to free his rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison. Yanukovych flees Kiev after protesters take control.
• 22 February: Parliament votes to remove Yanukovych and hold new elections. Tymoshenko is freed.
• 23 February: Ukraine’s parliament assigns presidential powers to its new speaker, Oleksandr Turchynov, an ally of Tymoshenko. Pro-Russia protesters start rallying against the new authorities in Crimea, where Russia has a major naval base.
• 27 February: Masked gunmen seize regional parliament and government buildings in Crimea. Yanukovych is granted refuge in Russia.
• 28 February: Ukraine says Russian troops have taken up positions around strategic locations on the Crimean peninsula. Turchynov says he has put armed forces on full readiness due to the threat of “potential aggression”.
• 1 March: Troops under apparent Russian command take over Crimea without firing a shot. The Kiev government and its western supporters are powerless to react.
• 2 March: Ukraine appeals for international help, fearing a wider Russian invasion. The Group of Seven suspends preparations for June’s G8 summit in Russia.
• 6 March: Crimea’s parliament says the region wants to join Russia and voters will decide in a 16 March referendum.
• 12 March: Obama meets with Ukraine’s interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk at the White House in a show of support for the new Ukrainian government and declares the US would “completely reject” the Crimea referendum.
• 14 March: A last-ditch diplomatic effort before the referendum fails in London, where Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov meets with US counterpart John Kerry amid threats of sanctions against Russia.