Crimeans will hit the polls on Sunday and vote to either receive greater autonomy within Ukraine or join the Russian Federation. The vote is expected to go in Russia’s favor, since over 58% of the population are ethnic Russians.
The polls will open at 8:00AM local time (2:00AM ET) and close at 8:00PM. Reuters reports the unofficial results will be announced late Sunday night and official results will come in one or two days later.
The West declared the referendum illegal, and Ukraine Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said Ukraine will not give up any land to Russia. The US tried to punish Russia with visa bans and ended trade talks and military engagements. President Obama told Russia there will be more sanctions if Putin justifies more aggression towards Ukraine.
How did Crimea and Ukraine get here? Here is a quick history:
Crimea has always identified itself as Russian instead of Ukrainian. Protesters stormed Independence Square in Kyiv in late November after then-President Viktor Yanukovych, who was backed by Russia, rejected a trade deal with the European Union for a bailout from Russia. During the protests, Crimea quietly took steps to protect their Russian interests in case Yanukovych was overthrown.
Parliament ousted Yanukovych on February 22 and elected pro-West officials. At the same time, Crimea ousted their Kyiv-appointed officials and replaced them with pro-Russians. Gunmen and Russian forces took over government buildings, hospitals, military bases, and border posts and set up checkpoints on the Crimea border. These forces stopped flights at the airport except for those to and from Moscow.
Crimea parliament dissolved the government and appointed Russian Unity Party leader Sergei Aksyonov as acting prime minister. He immediately appealed to Russia President Vladimir Putin for help and more military to secure the peninsula. Putin and Aksyonov view the new government in Kyiv as fascist and tyrannical. Putin said he had a right to protect Russians and Russian interests in Crimea and he received major backlash from the West.
Then, on March 6, Crimea’s parliament formally asked to join the Russian Federation. Putin quickly agreed to the proposal and Crimea scheduled a referendum for March 16. Crimean politicians traveled to Russia, and the Russian parliament said Crimea would be more than welcome to be part of Russia. The parliament even pushed through legislation to make it easier to annex countries that ask to join Russia.
The peninsula is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and Putin insists those are the only soldiers in Crimea. However, Ukraine soldiers claim there are over 30,000 Russian soldiers in the country.
Russia also took over the media and pushed pro-Russia messages to influence people to endorse their occupation of Crimea. Journalists were detained at the checkpoints, where gunmen took equipment and protective gear. Radio Free Europe reported at least five journalists and activists were missing. Interfax-Ukraine reported Ukrainian television stations did not work, but Russian television stations worked perfectly fine. Billboards across the cities portrayed the new Kyiv government as Nazis.
Crimea and Russian officials appear to not care if the West and Ukraine do not recognize the referendum. Ukraine soldiers must surrender after the election or they will be considered illegal. Russia moved soldiers to Ukraine’s east border and Ukraine interim president Oleksandr Turchynov warned the country Russia may invade if they win in Crimea.
The Crimean Tatars, who are one-tenth of the population, are trying to remain optimistic if Crimea is annexed. In Bakhchysaray, Tatars told reporters officials confiscated Ukrainian passports and promised Russian ones after the referendum. Others take turns protecting the mosques, because they are not sure if Russians will respect the buildings or them. After World War II, Joseph Stalin forced the Tatars, who were a majority in Crimea, to move to Central Asia. The people only started to return to their homeland in the late 1980s.