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Upcoming Referendum Crucial in Ukraine Conflict, Expert Says

By Mark Tarallo

A March 16 referendum on the political future of the Crimean region may turn out to be a key flashpoint in the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, a leading Ukrainian expert told a CSO Roundtable teleconference on Thursday.

Matthew Clements, editor of IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review and the company’s lead analyst on Ukraine, provided the CSOs with a short overview of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, as events continued to unfold in the Crimean Peninsula. The referendum, a vote on whether or not Crimea should secede from Ukraine and join Russia, will be a telling event in the crisis.

“The likelihood of violent protests in the eastern and southern region of the country will rise substantially in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, and the situation in Crimea will likely embolden the pro-Russia camp in these regions,” Clements said during the teleconference. The CSO Roundtable is a membership group within ASIS of the senior-most security executives from the world’s largest organizations.

Earlier Thursday in Ukraine, the Supreme Council of Crimea voted to become part of the Russian Federation and moved up the referendum on annexation from March 30 to March 16. Afterward, the conflicting parties immediately expressed competing interpretations of the council’s action. Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said the council’s decision was illegitimate because the Crimean government is “working under the barrel of a gun.” The council’s vice chairman, however, said the ruling meant that Crimea is part of Russia “from today,” and a few members of the Russian State Duma said that body may consider annexation as early as next week.

Later in Washington, President Obama denounced the referendum, and said it violated Ukraine's constitution and international law. “Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine,” Obama said at the White House. “In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.”

In terms of the current situation on the ground, Clements assessed the probability of further Russian military intervention in Ukraine as “moderate to low, primarily as many of Moscow’s key goals, such as retaining influence over Ukraine, all have been met through its intervention in Crimea.

“However, it is worth bearing in mind that it is a very fragile situation, and events on the ground could rapidly escalate out of control,” Clements added.

For example, any violent actions against ethnic Russians living in eastern or southern Ukraine could potentially escalate the conflict, Clements said. So could military actions taken against Russian soldiers stationed in the Crimea by Ukrainian military or security forces.

An escalating conflict could include heavy artillery battles, as well as Russian air strikes on Ukrainian targets. If the conflict did escalate, there would also be a “low risk that the Russian military would advance further into Ukraine and possibly onto Kiev,” Clements said.

But even if the conflict escalates,, it is “highly unlikely” that NATO or armed forces from western countries would get involved. “There is certainly no desire in the West for a military confrontation with Russia,” Clement said. However, neighboring countries such as Poland and Romania could take measures to increase their border security, if fighting breaks out in Ukraine, he added.

Economic conflict between Russia and west could also increase. Earlier Thursday, President Obama signed an executive order to authorize sanctions against "individuals and entities responsible for activities undermining democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine." At this point, it is unlikely that the United States or Europe would apply very significant economic sanctions on Russia, but limited ones could target Russia’s oil and gas industries, Clement said. Russia would likely retaliate, possibly by refusing to pay off its international debt, he added.

Nonetheless, despite the fragile current situation, a peaceful resolution is still possible, Clements said. The next few months will be crucial; if the referendum passes without significant violence, the risk of a wider conflict decreases.
“There is some desire on both sides to avoid further conflict,” Clements said.

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