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The Obama administration and its allies couldn't prevent an overwhelming majority of Crimea's residents from voting to secede from Ukraine. It's looking increasingly likely that they also won't be able to prevent Russian strongman Vladimir Putin from annexing the restive Ukrainian province.
Western powers spent much of the last week asking Putin and Crimea's new pro-Russian government to cancel the secession referendum, but the appeals failed and residents of Crimea turned out in droves Sunday to vote. There had never been much doubt about what the outcome would be in the pro-Russian peninsula of Ukraine, but the margins were still startling: with 50 percent of the votes counted, more than 95 percent of voters opted to join Russia and secede from Ukraine, according to local Crimean election officials. The officials said 80 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots.
In separate statements Sunday, the United States and European Union called the vote illegal and refused to recognize its results. "This referendum is contrary to Ukraine's constitution, and the international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
In a statement from all 28 member states, the E.U. called the vote "illegal' and called on Russia to return its troops to their barracks. "The European Union has a special responsibility for peace, stability and prosperity on the European continent and will continue pursuing these objectives using all available channels," read the statement.
Russia's State Duma has said it will discuss whether to annex Crimea, making it a "federal subject" of the Russian Federation, on March 21. If Moscow decides to move ahead, Washington and its allies have already said they won't recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea. As with Russia's recognition of the separatist Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, Crimea's absorption into Russia is likely to be contested by the international community for years, if not decades, to come.
President Obama emphasized his refusal to accept Russian control over Crimea during a tense Sunday phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Obama, according to a later White House statement, said the referendum "would never be recognized by the United States and the international community" and that a clear path toward resolving the crisis diplomatically remains in play. U.S. officials hoped to broker a deal giving Crimea wide autonomy under Kiev, a diplomatic "off ramp" rejected by a number of Crimean voters. The referendum offered voters the choice of absorption into Russia or remaining in Ukraine but with greater autonomy. According to local officials, voters sided overwhelmingly with joining Russia.
A number of hawks in Congress reacted angrily to the latest events and stepped up calls for imposing tougher economic sanctions against Russian officials and businesses. "No more reset buttons. No more 'Tell Vladimir I'll be more flexible,'" Sen. John McCain told CNN. "Treat him for what he is - an individual who believes in restoring the old Russian empire."
The Obama administration and European Union began sanctioning Russia this week, beginning with asset freezes and visa bans targeting members of Putin's inner circle and several top Russian oligarchs. Congress is also drafting a hard-hitting sanctions bill, but its fate remains uncertain because of a dispute over an unrelated provision about reforming the International Monetary Fund.
"The sanctions that we passed out of the Foreign Relations Committee are very biting, one of a kind," Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the panel, told Fox News. He referred to a new sanctions bill passed by the committee last week that has yet to be voted on by the entire Senate.
But many observers note that U.S. economic sanctions alone are unlikely to influence Putin or Russia's elite governing class given the relatively small amount of annual trade between the two countries. EU sanctions, on the other hand, could deliver a powerful blow to Russia, but could also destabilize Europe's post-recession economies.
The residents of Crimea have willingly chosen to join Putin's Russia. And rhetoric aside, it's far from clear that the West will manage to preserve Ukraine's territorial integrity any more successfully than it did with Georgia's.