Russia puts security stranglehold on Crimea as referendum nears

Crimea cancels flights as pro-Russian forces tighten their grip ahead of Sunday's referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine, whose interim prime minister is due to meet President Obama today.

Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, stand guard outside a Ukrainian military unit in the village of Perevalnoye outside Simferopol, Tuesday, March 11, 2014.

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Security is tightening around Ukraine's Crimean peninsula ahead of Sunday’s referendum on whether to join Russia or become an independent state. 

All flights to and from Crimea’s main airport – except for those from Moscow – are suspended, reports Agence France-Presse, which says that pro-Kremlin militants took over air traffic control yesterday. CNN reports that flights from Kiev, Istanbul, and a few other unnamed cities have been suspended for the rest of the week.

The Crimean deputy prime minister confirmed the flight limitations today, telling Voice of Russia that the decision was made “bearing in mind the possible influx of provocateurs,” and that “all limitations will be lifted after March 17.”

Pro-Russian forces – “a mixture of civilians wearing red armbands, Cossacks, and policemen loyal to the new pro-Russian regime” – are also checking bags and passports of travelers on Crimean roads and train stations, according to a separate AFP report.

The snap referendum in Crimea has escalated tensions between Russia, which has indicated that it will accept a Crimean vote for annexation, and the Kiev government and its Western backers, who call the vote illegal and illegitimate, in what is being called the worst East-West conflict since the cold war.

Underscoring the geopolitical stakes, the interim prime minister of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is in Washington today to appeal for more economic and diplomatic aid. He is due to meet President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and congressional leaders. He will address the United Nations tomorrow.

While US officials have been clear that they will not intervene militarily in the area, Mr. Yatsenyuk will likely push for military aid. Before he left Kiev, Yatsenyuk told the Ukrainian parliament that "he wanted the United States and Britain, as guarantors of a 1994 treaty that saw Ukraine give up its Soviet nuclear weapons, to intervene both diplomatically and militarily to fend off Russian ‘aggression,’ ” according to Reuters.

In Ukraine’s parliament yesterday, both the acting president and acting defense ministers issued warnings about Russian strength and depicted Ukraine as outmatched by its giant neighbor's forces, according to Reuters:

In parliament, the acting defence minister said that of some 41,000 infantry mobilised last week, Ukraine could field only about 6,000 combat-ready troops, compared with more than 200,000 Russians deployed on the country's eastern borders. The prime minister said the air force was outnumbered 100 to one.

Acting president Oleksander Turchinov warned against provoking Russia, saying that would play into Moscow's hands, as he announced plans to mobilise a National Guard, though he gave little detail of its size or expected functions.

In Washington, lawmakers are focused on economic aid for Ukraine and penalties for Russia, rather than military support. Mr. Kerry has confirmed $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine, which the House has passed legislation to authorize. Yesterday, the House passed a nonbinding resolution that declares support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, The New York Times notes.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Moscow correspondent warns that “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”:

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.

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