The referendum that took place in Crimea is both irrelevant and deeply significant. Irrelevant because it has no standing in the law of the country to which it applies, and because it took place while the autonomous region was under military occupation. International bodies are unlikely to recognise its outcome: the UN security council voted by 13-1 to condemn it on Saturday, with only Russia voting against. The referendum is significant, however, because it represents a giant step on the road to Russian annexation, and because it reveals a little more of the nature of that country's president, Vladimir Putin.
Like many a strongman before him, Mr Putin is motivated as much by fear as boldness. He has embarked on the path of dismembering Ukraine in part because he fears for Russia if its neighbour is seen to escape into a bright European future. Ever since the mass protests that surrounded his controversial return to the presidency in 2012, Mr Putin has worked hard to prevent himself being ejected on a wave of pro-democratic sentiment of the kind that ran around the world following Tunisia's revolution in December 2010. Having seen his protege Viktor Yanukovych toppled in Kiev, he has been rolling back the gains of glasnost with renewed vigour.
Just when the Russian people have needed independent media most, the government has been crushing it. Last Wednesday, Galina Timchenko, the editor of the popular independent Russian news website Lenta.ru, was fired and replaced with a Kremlin sympathiser, after running an interview with a member of the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector. Many of the website's reporters resigned in protest, saying as they did so: "The trouble is not that we've lost our jobs. The trouble is that you've got nothing to read." The only independent TV station, Dozhd, which had dared to cover anti-government demonstrations in Kiev, was dumped from all major cable networks in February; news websites have been blocked; the general director of the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station was sacked and replaced with a conservative.
There is opposition to the Crimean intervention – thousands marched in Moscow on Saturday – but, faced with a full-scale assault on the truth, it is unsurprising that many Russians believe in Mr Putin's worldview, in which western-backed "fascists" have created "anarchy" in Ukraine that only Russia can resolve. Unsurprising, too, that Mr Putin's approval rating has climbed to a three-year high in the past month on the back of his handling of Ukraine and the Sochi Olympics. Almost half of Russians polled in a recent survey thought there was a real threat from bandits and nationalists to Russians in Ukraine, while more than half thought Russian troops could be deployed there legally.
Through a series of crackdowns and interventions in civil liberties, Mr Putin is turning a soft autocracy into a highly repressive state that appears to be run by a small group of Putin confidants within the Kremlin and whose character is increasingly nationalistic and paranoid about the west. Vladimir Yakunin, the head of Russian Railways and a friend of Mr Putin, expressed this in a recent interview. "We are witnessing a huge geopolitical game in which the aim is the destruction of Russia as a geopolitical opponent of the US or of this global financial oligarchy," Mr Yakunin said. Part of his solution is a plan for a Soviet-style mega-project in the east of the country, as far as possible from the meddling west.
EU foreign ministers meet on Monday to consider action against a list of high-level Russian officials in light of the Crimean referendum. The US will likely follow suit, and further European sanctions are in the offing: the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has warned darkly of "massive" economic and political damage to Russia unless Mr Putin changes course. If the sovereignty of Ukraine is to be defended, there are few other options. East and west appear locked on the path to a new and dangerous divide.
Pic - "Crimea Non Suffit!"