The prospects for a diplomatic solution to what some are calling Europe's worst crisis of the 21st century are growing dimmer by the day, with less than a week to go before Crimeans are set to vote on whether to leave Ukraine and join Russia.
The Mar. 16 referendum would offer Crimeans the option of either becoming part of Russia, or declaring their territory an independent state that's still formally part of Ukraine. But Crimea's pro-Russian legislature is already preparing a "roadmap" for joining Russia, including adopting the Russian rouble, dropping Ukrainian as an official language, and moving their clocks two hours forward to Moscow time.
Now Russia is signaling that it might be willing to take the unprecedented and politically explosive step of admitting Crimea into Russia, perhaps as an "autonomous republic" as it was in Ukraine.
If Russia did annex Crimea, it could mean a significant escalation of the crisis. In the past, Russia has supported breakaway territories such as Transnistria in Moldova and Nagorno Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Following its brief war with Georgia in 2008, Russia recognized the independence of two Georgian territories, Akhazia and South Ossetia, sundering a sovereign country. Western powers did something similar in 2008 by granting independence to Kosovo, which had been wrested from Serbia by NATO in a 1999 war.
But to actually bite off and swallow a chunk of sovereign territory is much rarer. Until now, Russia's effective seizure of Crimea has been relatively bloodless and enjoys widespread local support. But any move to annex it would likely spark intense global condemnation of Russia and turn a temporary crisis into a permanent bone of contention between Moscow and the West.
Russia's parliament will reportedly consider new legislation this week to "simplify procedures" for part of a foreign country that wants to join Russia. And the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, Valentina Matviyenko, said over the weekend that Moscow welcomed Crimea's referendum and slammed Western critics of the Crimean referendum.
"I wonder why no one said that a referendum on Scotland’s independence, scheduled for September this year, is a priori illegal. We have not heard such opinions," ITAR-Tass quoted her as saying. "Then why should the people of Crimea be deprived of their legal right to self-determination?"
Ukraine's interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, due to visit Washington on Wednesday to discuss the crisis with President Barack Obama, told journalists that Kiev will never surrender "a centimeter of Ukrainian land," which was won with "Ukrainian blood" in past generations.
Mr. Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel Sunday that Russia shares with the West a "common interest in de-escalating tension and returning the situation [in Ukraine] to normal as soon as possible," according to the Kremlin website.
But he went on to declare that the Crimean referendum is completely legal and that the main problem in Ukraine is the Kiev government's failure to rein in the "rampages" of right-wing extremists in the country.
Neither the Russian and Crimean parliamentarians nor the interim government in Kiev and its Western backers have the surest legal footing for their respective positions.
Generally, secessionist referendums like those in Crimea have been regarded as illegal under international law if they lack support from their respective country's central government. London agreed to the Scottish independence vote, for example, making it legal. However, there have been exceptions like Kosovo, which Serbia opposed but the West recognized as legitimate.
At the same time, Kiev's arguments against Crimean secession have been grounded in part in Ukraine's constitution – which the Maidan movement arguably ignored when it pushed to oust President Viktor Yanukovych, who was democratically elected in 2010. And Crimea was not "won" by Ukraine – it was given to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, after some 200 years as part of Soviet Russia and the Russian Empire.
As the potentially game-changing Crimean referendum draws closer, the narratives on all sides appear to be hardening and a diplomatic solution looks further away than ever.