Crimean Lawmakers Take Steps To Join Russia

The crisis in Ukraine took another confusing turn Thursday. Just what the vote by Crimea's parliament means is unclear. But a referendum on becoming part of Russia has been scheduled for March 16.

Another twist was added to the already complicated and confusing crisis in Ukraine when Crimea's parliament voted Thursday to join the Russian Federation and set a public referendum on that issue for March 16.

According to The Guardian, it isn't clear what the parliament's vote actually means, and "how this works alongside the referendum. ... Also unclear is what Russia's answer will be to a referendum vote — is Moscow now pushing ahead for full annexation or is this a plot to make some eventual de facto independent state solution look like a compromise?"

In what might be a signal of how Russia will react, NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow that lawmakers there are preparing a bill that would simplify the addition of new territories to Russia.

Reuters adds that "Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Ukraine, including the Crimean parliament's appeal to let the region join Russia, at a meeting of his Security Council on Thursday, RIA news agency quoted his spokesman as saying."

In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Interim Economy Minister Pavlo Sheremeta said his nation's newly installed central government believes it would be unconstitutional for Crimea, an autonomous republic within Ukraine, to seek to split off and join the Russian Federation.

Crimean lawmakers had said last week that they hoped to hold a referendum on May 25 about whether to seek even more autonomy for the region. Later, they moved the date up to March 30. Now, they're seeking a vote in just 10 days and appear to be seeing it as a question over whether to confirm their decision about joining Russia, The Guardian's Shawn Walker reports.

As Reuters adds, "the sudden acceleration of moves to formally bring the Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority and has effectively been seized by Russian forces, under Moscow's rule came as European Union leaders gathered for an emergency summit to seek ways to pressure Russia to back down and accept mediation."

Crimea has been the focus of attention for more than a week now as the ripple effects of the protests that led to last month's ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych have spread.

Military units, which Putin insists are local "self-defense forces" but witnesses and reporters say are Russian troops, have seized key locations across the Crimean Peninsula and surrounded Ukrainian military bases. Putin says Russia needs to protect the ethnic Russians in Crimea, who make up a majority of the population there. So far, no shots have been exchanged. For the most part, Ukrainian forces have stayed on their bases.

Secretary of State John Kerry and other western diplomats have been pressing Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to accept a diplomatic solution to the crisis — most likely involving foreign monitors on the ground in Crimea. Kerry met with Lavrov in Paris on Wednesday and they are expected to talk again today in Rome on the sidelines of a conference about Libya.

Meanwhile, European Union officials are huddling in Brussels today for an emergency meeting about the situation in Ukraine. On Wednesday, the EU offered the new leaders in Ukraine a $15 billion package of loans and grants to shore up that nation's crippled economy.

Summing up the history and importance of Crimea to Russia and Ukraine isn't possible in just a few sentences, of course. The Parallels blog, though, has published several posts that contain considerable context:

-- Crimea: 3 Things To Know About Ukraine's Latest Hot Spot

-- Crimea: A Gift To Ukraine Becomes A Political Flash Point

-- Why Ukraine Is Such A Big Deal For Russia

We've previously summed up what set off months of protest in Kiev and ultimately led to Yanukovych's dismissal by his nation's parliament last month:

"The protests were sparked in part by the president's rejection of a pending trade treaty with the European Union and his embrace of more aid from Russia. Protesters were also drawn into the streets to demonstrate against government corruption."

It was after Yanukovych left Kiev and headed for the Russian border that troops moved to take control of strategic locations in Crimea. That peninsula is important to Russia not only because of the large ethnic Russian population, but also because it's home to Russia's strategically significant warm-water naval base on the Black Sea.

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