As Crimea prepares to vote Sunday on whether or not to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, Western diplomats are ramping up the rhetoric in an attempt to slow what is rapidly becoming a worldwide crisis. But from London to Washington to Moscow, Russian and Western leaders are at an impasse over the fate of millions who will go to the ballot box under the watchful eyes of Russian troops.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated the obvious Friday: Differences remain between Moscow and the United States following negotiations in London aimed at ending the crisis in Ukraine. After several hours of talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Lavrov confirmed there was “no common vision” between the two nations.
Sunday’s vote in Crimea—Ukraine’s strategic Black Sea peninsula, home to 2 million people—is widely expected to back secession and, potentially, Russian annexation. The new government in Kiev believes the vote is illegal, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government claims it does not recognize the new Ukrainian leaders as legitimate.
If Crimea votes to secede, U.S. and EU officials plan as early as Monday to slap sanctions on Russian officials and businesses accused of escalating the crisis and undermining Ukraine’s new government. Congress has authorized no sanctions beyond what President Barack Obama can impose through executive order, but EU officials told Reuters they’re targeting at least 120 influential Russians. Lavrov claimed Friday that Russia will “respect the results of the referendum” in Crimea and warned the West against retaliating. “Our partners also realize that sanctions are counterproductive,” he said.
Amid the maneuvering, Obama met Wednesday in the Oval Office with new Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, praising him and the Ukrainian people as the two sat for photos. The meeting was aimed at showcasing the United States’ commitment to Ukraine. Yatsenyuk, a 39-year-old, pro-Western official who speaks fluent English, defiantly declared that his country “will never surrender” in its fight to protect its territory.
Yatsenyuk upped the ante Thursday when he traveled from Washington to New York, to address the UN Security Council. In his speech, he alleged Russian “military aggression” in Crimea, and dramatically switched from English to Russian to ask Russia whether it wants war.
European and U.S. leaders have repeatedly urged Moscow to pull back its troops in Crimea and stop encouraging local militias there, who are hyping the vote as a choice between re-establishing generations of ties with Russia or returning to echoes of fascism from Ukraine’s World War II era, when some residents cooperated with Nazi occupiers.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said clashes overnight Thursday in the eastern city of Donetsk showed that Ukrainian authorities had lost control of the country and could not provide basic security. The clashes broke out, however, when a hostile pro-Russian crowd—egged on by Russian agents, the West says—confronted pro-government supporters. At least one person died and 29 were injured. Russia used the clashes to warn it reserves the right to intervene in eastern Ukraine to defend ethnic Russians, though Lavrov in London claimed, “Russia doesn’t and can’t have any plans to invade southeastern regions of Ukraine.”
But that hasn’t stopped Russia from sending thousands of troops to its long border with Ukraine, a move U.S. officials have called an intimidation tactic cloaked as military exercises. The Russian drills announced Thursday included large artillery exercises involving 8,500 soldiers in the Rostov border region alone.
“It’s foremost Ukraine’s internal crisis,” Putin said Thursday. “But, regrettably, we have been drawn into these events.”
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said while it was “not too late” for the Crimea referendum to be canceled, it was important to be “realistic” about the prospects. Reports abound of pro-Russian intimidation through beating, kidnapping, or shredding of IDs required at the polls. More than 20,000 Russian troops now inhabit the peninsula. British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant claims a “free and fair referendum cannot possibly be held where voters are casting their ballots under the barrel of a gun.”