Kiev, Asharq Al-Awsat—The leaders of the Group of 7 countries will not recognize the outcome of Crimea’s upcoming referendum intended to decide the future of the disputed region.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the leaders of the US, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and Italy—along with the EU—said the vote would violate Ukraine’s constitution and called on Russia to “cease all efforts to change the status of Crimea contrary to Ukrainian law and in violation of international law.”
Crimea’s parliament voted last Thursday to break away from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, to be followed by a public referendum on the issue scheduled for Sunday.
The situation in Crimea is the most critical escalation in the crisis in Ukraine since former President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted on February 22 following months-long protests in Kiev.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, the former head of Ukraine’s external intelligence service, Mykola Malmuzh, said that Ukrainian authorities were “in touch with the UN, the US and the G7” to prevent a military escalation with Russia. He did acknowledge, however, that any action taken by Ukraine at the present time would be “too late.”
Crimea is already home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, stationed in Sevastopol, and more Russian troops have been pouring into the peninsula—some allegedly dressed in civilian clothes—since Yanukovych was removed.
Malmuzh said that Ukrainian intelligence had video footage showing a large flow of Russian troops into the Crimea region, with a number of them dressed in civilian clothing.
He said it was crucial “to act before the referendum” but also stressed the necessity of the Crimea issue remaining a political dispute and not becoming a military conflict.
The resolution to the situation should remain a domestic matter between the Ukrainian central and regional governments, he said, and not become an international matter. But he later said that “the situation in Crimea concerns the world at large as well.”
Malmuzh believes that Moscow has been planning for some time to repeat the Kosovo and Georgia scenarios, where it has previously used military force to assert its regional interests.
He neither confirmed nor denied the possible existence of underground intelligence communication with the Russian military to resolve the crisis.
Other analysts have lent more weight to the possibility of a confrontation in Crimea after Sunday’s referendum. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Valerij Chalyj, a board member at Kiev’s Razumkov Center for Political and Economic studies, said: “I expect that after March 16 we will see a Russian military intervention and fighting between the two sides.”
He added that Russian forces would seek to pressure Ukrainian troops until they left Crimea. But he added that he did not expect any Russian invasion to last long, because “Moscow is aware that annexing Crimea will require them to set aside 5 billion euros a year for the region, a responsibility they will not want to bear for a long time.”
Chalyj, a former deputy foreign minister, also said that the central government in Kiev has begun to send military aid to the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Crimea, though he said: “This has come too late and should have started earlier.”
Last week, Crimea’s deputy prime minister said that in the event of ‘yes’ vote to join Russia in the referendum, all Ukrainian troops in Crimea would be considered occupiers and forced to surrender or leave the region.
Chalyj said that if “the West does not act decisively, Russia may repeat its actions in Crimea in the Baltic States or possibly in Poland,” all of which are members of the EU.
On Tuesday, Victor Yanukovych appeared again in Russia during a televised press conference, insisting he was “still the legitimate president of Ukraine but also the supreme commander of the army.”
He added: “I haven’t stopped my duties as president early; I am still alive.”
Yanukovych also promised to return to Kiev when circumstances allow him to and denounced the presidential election in Ukraine scheduled for May.
Chalyj expects there could be more than 30 candidates for the presidency, but said that “in the end, the president will be one of three people: industrialist Petro Poroshenko, former boxer Vitaly Klitschko, or former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.”
Irina Bekeshkina, a sociologist and director of a Kiev-based think tank on democracy, mentioned during a seminar attended by Asharq Al-Awsat in Kiev that her organization had conducted a poll which showed Poroshenko was leading, followed by Klitschko and then Tymoshenko.
However, the presidential election may not prove to be as important as the upcoming legislative elections. During the height of the anti-Yanukovych protests, parliament reverted to the 2004 constitution which limits the powers of the president, giving more power to the country’s prime minister.