We are a few days away from the results of the Crimea referendum. The EU and the USA need to think through what they will say and do if the Crimean people vote to join Russia and leave the Ukraine.
The current EU position seems to be that the referendum will not be legal or binding on the Ukrainian government, because the Ukrainian government did not agree to it. There are several difficulties with taking this stance.
The first is that the government itself in the Ukraine is not elected. It draws its authority, such as it is, from a vote of the Ukrainian Parliament. Many people in the Crimea do not accept the authority of this interim Crimean administration.
The second is that if the referendum is fairly and sensibly conducted and produces a strong majority for leaving the Ukraine, the lack of support for this referendum in the Ukrainian Parliament could be offset or compromised by the strength of the result in Crimea. The result would serve to highlight the gap between the wishes of the Ukrainian Parliament on the one hand, and the wishes of the Crimean people on the other.
The third is that the referendum itself does have the support and the organisation of the Crimean government and Parliament behind it. Whilst this is currently a subsidiary body to the Ukrainian Parliament, it does not mean it is without democratic authority. What if the UK Parliament had refused consent to a Scottish referendum, yet Mr Salmond had gone ahead and held one. Many would think his support for it as the elected First Minister made it of more than passing interest. The rest of the UK would have to respond to any strongly expressed wish of the Scottish people to leave the UK.
The fourth big problem for the west is the presence of the Russian army and navy, or their loyal helpers, in all the key places in the Crimea, promising or threatening to support the wishes of the Crimean people. The west argues this is an illegal outrage, but it is also a fait accompli which the west is unlikely to challenge militarily. If you wish to assert the supremacy of the Ukrainian Parliament views over those of the Crimea, it would be easier to do so if the Ukrainian army still had command of the territory.
I suspect the truth is that if the Crimean people vote strongly to leave the Ukraine they will do so. There will need to be negotiations over important arrangements, and provision made for the military personnel of the Ukraine currently blockaded by Russian sympathising troops and ships to transfer to the Crimea or to leave and continue in employment in the rest of the Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government and their friends in the EU had better start thinking through how they will respond to this fast moving situation, when they have allowed most of the momentum and the power so far to rest with the Crimean government and their Russian allies.