Foreign affairs
March 16, 2014

Crimeans head to the polls Sunday to vote in a referendum on whether the peninsula should break away from Ukraine and join Russia. The United States, its allies, and the interim Ukrainian government have assailed the vote as a Russian stunt with no constitutional legitimacy. The Group of 7 last week said in a statement the referendum was "contrary to Ukrainian law and in violation of international law," adding that it "would have no legal effect."

However, Russia on Saturday vetoed a proposed U.N. resolution that would have preemptively declared the referendum's results invalid. Officials expect Crimea will resoundingly vote to split from Ukraine, delivering a victory to Moscow, which sent troops into the region earlier this month.

"The result has been pre-planned by the Kremlin as a formal justification to send in its troops and start a war that will destroy people's lives and the economic prospects for Crimea," Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine's interim president, said. Jon Terbush

brace yourself
8:08 a.m. ET
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Donald Trump got up extra early on Tuesday to let everyone know he is ready to save the first Democratic debate of the 2016 presidential election. CNN is already bracing for tonight's ratings to be a fraction of the record-breaking Republican debate's, with experts saying the relatively small Democratic primary field and lack of a reality TV star in the running make the event less of a draw.

That's where Trump comes in:

He added in a second tweet that CNN ought to be informed that it's not the "Democratic Debate, rather the Democrat (s) D!"

While Trump acts as if he's been cajoled into the public service of live-tweeting the debate, other Republicans are also trying to keep the spotlight on themselves Tuesday: Rand Paul, for example, is going to live stream his entire day. But for those planning to watch the debate regardless, at least there are now options for livening it up: Trump or, if that's not your cup of tea, you could always resort to a drinking game. Jeva Lange

Iran nuclear deal
8:00 a.m. ET
Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Iran's state news agency said that the Iranian parliament had approved the nuclear deal negotiated with the U.S. and five other world powers. The vote was 161 in favor, 59 against, 13 abstentions, according to the IRNA news agency; 57 other lawmakers either didn't vote or even attend the session. The Guardian Council, a body of 12 senior clerics, will now review the accord, and could send it back to parliament for reconsideration. The final wild card is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on the nuclear deal but has said parliament should decide.

Hardliners tried to sink the deal until the end, and some wept after the vote. Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, a spokesman for President Hassan Rouhani, welcomed the "historic decision," saying: "Members of parliament made a well-considered decision today showing they have a good understanding of the country's situation." Peter Weber

Democrats Debate
7:01 a.m. ET
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The five declared Democratic candidates for president will debate each other in Las Vegas on Tuesday night, but the CNN moderators are expected to focus the debate on the two leading contenders, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Also on the stage will be former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, and former Sen. Jim Webb (Va.). "The debates will alter the race," said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic strategist and veteran of President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. "Clinton will no longer be running against herself," she said, adding that time is running out for the bottom three candidates, and one in particular: "This is the last best chance for Martin O’Malley."

The Democratic Party is pretty united on policy issues, so CNN will be trying to spark fights over whatever fissures it can find whenever possible. The candidates, meanwhile, will likely play to the Democratic base. "There is a consensus around the idea that the path to the nomination and the path to the White House necessitates mobilizing the Obama coalition," said former Obama official Dan Pfeiffer, referring to the growing ranks of young, liberal, minority, and unmarried female voters whose support helped elect and re-elect Obama. "That works for us because two things have happened: The country has moved to the left on social issues and economic issues, and the politics of national security now lean more toward avoiding the next Iraq than looking for the next Iraq."

The debate will start at 9 p.m. ET and last about two hours. CNN is streaming the debate on its website if you don't have cable, and also offering virtual-reality coverage for NextVR customers. Peter Weber

Crisis in Syria
6:04 a.m. ET

On Tuesday, as Syrian pro-government demonstrators were holding a rally celebrating Russia's military support in front of the Russian Embassy in Damascus, the capital, at least two shells landed inside the embassy compound, The Associated Press reports. It's unclear if there were any casualties, AP said, attributing the attack to insurgent groups in the Damascus suburbs.

Russia's intervention in the multisided civil war has prompted at least some of the disparate rebel factions to band together, The Wall Street Journal notes. Similar alliances have formed between more moderate U.S.-backed groups and the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, among other factions, pretty regularly over the past four and a half years, but rebel groups say that having a common Russian enemy might make these alliances more enduring. As the Reuters video below shows, the Russian-backed Syrian military has claimed several victories over the past few days, at least briefly retaking towns captured by insurgents over the past year. Peter Weber

last night on late night
5:08 a.m. ET

Over the weekend, The New York Times ran an article on the "overwhelmingly white, rich, older, and male" millionaires and billionaires financing the 2016 presidential race — just 158 families have contributed $176 million in the first phase of the campaign, or half of all money donated. On Monday's Late Night, Seth Meyers took a closer look at what that means for the election and democracy.

One effect is that campaigns last a lot longer than they used to in the era before the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. These days, Meyers said, "candidates with little or no support can keep running because at any point, a super PAC could revive their campaign" — which, he added, explains Bobby Jindal's continued run. Another side effect, Meyers said, is that "candidates have to do increasingly ridiculous things to curry favor with the wealthy donors." The most pernicious effect, though, is that when the winning candidate takes office, he or she is indebted to a handful of very wealthy people, and that affects the laws that are passed. He ended with some examples and a quote from Charles Koch that, Meyers aid, sounds "like every Batman villain right before they get caught." Watch below. Peter Weber

Peter Weber

last night on late night
4:29 a.m. ET

Kirsten Dunst was on Monday night's Jimmy Kimmel Live to talks about Season 2 of Fargo, the FX drama in which she has a starring role. Jimmy Kimmel said the show is great and Dunst agreed: "It's nice to promote something and not have to lie about it." Kimmel asked her to elaborate about which projects she's lied about, and she wisely declined. Dunst put on weight for Fargo, Kimmel noted, then asked, "Is it a nightmare or is it a fun thing to have to gain weight for a role?" Dunst chose option C.

"Well, listen: I was in Calgary," she said. "It was cold, and so I ordered in a lot of pizza, a lot of Thai... I just had different cheeses and breads together, and now I'm like, 'Yeah, I gained weight for this role.' But really I just sat in my bed, watched Friday Night Lights, and, like, ate." Kimmel pivoted to Friday Night Lights, and for fans of the show, Dunst's Fargo costar and boyfriend were in the show and original movie, respectively, and she has a lot of juicy gossip she won't tell you. Enjoy the tease below. Peter Weber

Colbert Nationalism
3:59 a.m. ET

Monday's Late Show audience was pumped about Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate. "You just made the people at CNN turgid," Stephen Colbert said after their cheers. He introduced Tuesday night's lineup — well, at least two of the five candidates — then noted that CNN is really hoping for a sixth: Vice President Joe Biden. "They've got an extra podium, just in case Biden drops by, like you do," Colbert said. "You know, this year's presidential debates are basically an open-mic night — could be Biden, could be Carrot Top."

But CNN isn't just hoping Biden will drop by — reporter Jim Acosta spun a pretty elaborate fantasy involving Biden, aviator glasses, and a yellow Corvette. As long as "we're reporting breaking, up-to-the-minute fan fiction," Colbert said, why stop at Biden making a surprise appearance? For the next minute or so, Colbert poked fun at Acosta and one-upped him, unveiling his own podium for Biden and fantasizing about who else might show up at the Democratic debate. The "bizarro world" Donald Trump might give you nightmares. Watch below. Peter Weber

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