It’s a big day for shaping reality in and around Ukraine. A referendum, thrown together at extraordinarily short notice, will ask Crimeans if they want to rejoin Russia. Everyone already knows what the answer will be; the real question is whether the vote is legitimate.
Some clear facts. Crimea was until 1954 part of Russia. Crimea is now part of the sovereign nation of Ukraine. Most residents of Crimea are ethnic Russians, and many have expressed a preference for belonging to Russia. The government of Ukraine has had no say in the staging of the referendum, and strongly opposes it. Russian troops (or at least troops who look very like Russians) have taken control of Crimea, are facilitating the referendum, and will be militarily unopposed should they choose to enact a yes vote.
The rights and wrongs of the vote are much less clear, and that is where the opportunity — and urgent need — to shape reality lies. Russia is stressing the will of the people of Crimea, which does seem to be firmly in favour of secession. The West is stressing the sovereignty of Ukraine; secession is illegitimate unless the government agrees to it. Russia counters by arguing that the current government in Kiev is itself illegitimate, the result of an extremist coup d’etat. The West points to the deeply corrupt and vicious government it replaced as the real illegitimacy.
All of this can be seen as a grand contest to win over world opinion. Putin could take Crimea any day he likes: no one is going to intervene militarily. But the referendum, the UN resolution criticising it, and all of the speeches, demonstrations and declarations about what is or is not illegitimate are where the real battle is. Once upon a time imperial Russia or the Soviet Union would have been free to annexe any local territory it wanted, but modern Russia is too economically interconnected with the rest of the world to act with total disregard to its views. Whatever the outcome of today’s referendum, Russia will only take Crimea if Putin feels confident that at least part of world agrees with his definition of Crimean reality.