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May 12, 2014

'Criminal Farce' Referendum in Eastern Ukraine

Separatists claim victory while Russia nods in approval.

Is Crimea enough for Russia? That seems to be the question as a hastily arranged weekend referendum found voters in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine reportedly backing the creation of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” The margin was supposedly 90-10 in favor of breaking from Ukraine, similar to a Crimean referendum held in March, but trusting those numbers is another matter. If Donetsk’s independence from Ukraine actually comes to pass, it won’t be long before Russia hits the “annex” button.

The balloting took place despite a “plea” from Russian President Vladimir Putin for a postponement in favor of further dialogue. Yet the Kremlin put out a statement on the referendum, saying, “We condemn the use of force, including of heavy weapons against civilians. … [I]n Moscow, we respect the will of the people of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and are counting on practical implementation of the outcome of the referendum in a civilized manner, without any repeat of violence and through dialogue.” Ukraine’s government denounced the referendum as a “criminal farce,” and the U.S. and other Western governments won’t recognize the results.

Meanwhile, Putin celebrated Victory Day, the annual commemoration of the Nazi defeat in World War II, in Crimea, reviewing Russian battleships docked at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. Ukrainian leaders blasted Putin’s visit, calling it “a provocation that once again confirms how Russia is deliberately escalating tensions in Russian-Ukrainian relations.”

Those tensions are mounting in Ukrainian border regions, as Putin’s claim that Russian troops are withdrawing from the Ukrainian border can’t be confirmed by NATO reports. Putin sent 40,000 soldiers there during the height of hostilities earlier this spring, before the annexation of Crimea weeks later.

Yet Russia is making other moves, both internally and around the region, all of them in the old Soviet style. The independent news sources of the Russian blogosphere became more restricted thanks to a “blogger law” treating sites with 3,000 or more visitors a day like newspapers and eliminating online anonymity. Meanwhile, Russia’s deputy prime minister for defense paid a Victory Day visit to the Moldovan region of Transnistria, a narrow strip of land along Moldova’s border with Ukraine. The region has harbored pro-Soviet sentiment for a number of years, and the Russian minister, Dmitry Rogozin, didn’t help matters when he reportedly called Russia’s role one of a “guarantor of security for the Republic of Transnistria.”

In response to continuing tensions, the Obama administration hastened the removal of Russia from a trade program intended for developing nations called the Generalized System of Preferences. Russia was already slated for phase-out by 2016, but will now be dropped sooner. The change will eliminate a tariff break that benefited Russia to the tune of $544 million in 2012.

The move likely won’t do much to get Russia’s attention, though. Maybe Barack Obama will come up with a real zinger of a hashtag to finally teach Putin a lesson.

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