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Foreign affairs

Is Crimea's vote to join Russia legitimate?

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As Crimea barrels toward a referendum that would in all probability make the peninsula a part of the Russian federation, the Kremlin is falling back on the principle of self-determination to justify the move. Russia says it is equivalent to Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008, which was opposed by Russia and supported by the West.

Let's set aside for a moment the fact that Vladimir Putin's government has violently squelched autonomy movements within the federation, and has been a zealous proponent of the notion that sovereign states have wide authority to resolve internal disagreements. (You can bet that China, Putin's longtime ally on these matters, is a little alarmed at his change of heart.) Would Crimea's vote be legitimate?

To be generous, it is badly compromised. The referendum was set in motion by the Crimean parliament, whose leader, Sergei Aksyonov, was installed by force in the wake of the fall of the government in Kiev. Furthermore, the referendum will take place with Russian troops in control of Crimea's state institutions, which hardly screams a free and fair vote.

Crimea has genuine cultural and historical ties to Russia. But the referendum is coming at the end of a gun.