In the referendum, Crimean voters will have two choices: join Russia or remain a strongly autonomous region within Ukraine as outlined in the 1992 constitution. The Crimean parliament, likely following guidance from the Kremlin, has chosen to reject the option of outright independence; including it in the referendum would have diluted the pro-Russian vote. Soon after the parliament's decisions, Russia's Security Council met to discuss them. Meanwhile, Russian lawmaker Sergei Mironov announced that next week the Russian Duma will consider a bill on simplifying procedures for joining the Russian Federation.
The referendum is designed to formalize Russia's already strong hold over Crimea and bolster its legal stance in reinforcing its military positions there. European and U.S. leaders continue to call for Russia to respect Ukraine's territorial integrity and recognize the new interim government in Kiev.
It is no coincidence that the decision to fast-track Crimea's referendum comes as European leaders gather in Brussels to discuss responses to Russia's military moves in Crimea. Some countries, especially Poland and the Baltic states, have pushed for sanctions. Other countries, prioritizing their close economic ties with Russia, have shied away from making concrete decisions on a unified European response. The Crimean parliament's move toward joining Russia and the announcement of a referendum in 10 days is intended as a signal of Russia's consolidation of its position in the Crimean Peninsula and its strong negotiating position in relation to the European Union.
The majority of Crimea's residents are ethnic Russians, and leadership of the peninsula's Crimean Tatar minority (around 10 percent of the population) has already declared that Crimean Tatars will not participate in the referendum. As a result, the referendum likely will result in a landslide endorsement of Crimean accession to the Russian Federation. The Kremlin thus could annex Crimea if it chooses, or it could use the threat of imminent annexation to gain concessions regarding Ukraine from the European Union and Ukraine's own weak interim government. The annexation of Crimea, therefore, hinges on the decision-making of a divided European Union and a weak interim Ukrainian government.
The Kremlin's move to support outright annexation rather than Crimean independence is part of the Russian government's long-term strategy to pressure the European Union to cease its integration efforts in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova — three former Soviet countries that are key to Russia's security strategy. These countries also have been the focus of the West's drive to expand EU membership to Russia's borderlands. By annexing or threatening to annex Crimea, Russia is sending a strong message to capitals across Europe that it will not tolerate the further expansion of Western institutions into its periphery.