Moves by Russia on March 1 heightened security tensions in Ukraine's autonomous republic of Crimea, deepening concerns of an imminent Russian military takeover of the peninsula. The newest turn of events began when the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement alleging that a group of unidentified armed men from Kiev attempted to seize the Interior Ministry building in Simferopol — though this has not been confirmed by authorities in Kiev. In response, the chairman of the Council of Ministers of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for assistance in "ensuring peace and tranquility" in Crimea.
Putin responded positively to the appeal, sending Russia's Federation Council — the upper house of the Russian parliament — a request for the use of Russian armed forces in Ukraine, which was quickly and unanimously approved. Russia has warned that any provocation from Ukraine in Crimea could lead to a response from Moscow, and this latest event could be just the provocation sought by the Russian military.
However, while the request refers to Ukrainian territory in general, any deployment would likely be limited to parts of Crimea rather than mainland Ukraine. Kiev, however, cannot be certain of ultimate Russian plans. In the weeks leading up to Russia's 2008 military intervention in Georgia, Moscow did not color its moves with legal nuance. It simply invaded. So the show by Putin and the Russian parliament could be a move in the war of nerves — especially as protests have spread to other pro-Russian areas in eastern Ukraine such as Donetsk and Kharkiv.
Already Russia has beefed up its military presence in Crimea, though according to Moscow this has only been at existing, Russian-owned military sites in line with agreements between the two countries that govern Russia's Black Sea Fleet. However, there have been unofficial security personnel deployed to airports in Simferopol and Sevastopol, as well as border checkpoints near mainland Ukraine that appear to be loyal to Moscow but not official Russian troops. Russian armed forces could be used to fortify these positions. Already there have been unconfirmed reports that more than 6,000 Russian special operations forces have been transported to Crimea in the past few days.
Concurrent with the appeal for Russian assistance, Aksyonov announced that a referendum on the political status of Crimea will take place on March 30, almost two months earlier than previously planned. This could set the stage for a formal declaration of further autonomy or full independence of Crimea and possibly union with Russia. Such a move would not only formalize Russia's influence over Crimea but also complicate any plans by Kiev to seek integration with the European Union due to EU rules on ambiguous borders.
It is unlikely that the new Ukrainian government is in a position to do much about this trajectory in Crimea, both because of the growing Russian firepower in the region and the overwhelmingly pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea. Newly appointed Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk urged Russia to pull back its troops in Crimea and return them to their military bases, but the Ukrainian military is not in a position to challenge Russia in Crimea. The European Union and the United States have also called for Russia to show restraint, but they too are unlikely to intervene militarily, though a NATO session has been called for March 3 to discuss the situation in Ukraine. At this point, a more formal Russian military and political presence in Crimea seems to be just a matter of time.