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After Crimea, the Only Question is "What's Next?"

03/18/2014 12:17 EDT | Updated 05/18/2014 05:59 EDT

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Ukrainian kozaks on Maidan Square in Kyiv perform the traditional call to arms. Credit: M Bociurkiw

The mood on Maidan Square in central Kyiv remains decidedly grim after a referendum widely branded as illegal and illegitimate took place in Crimea on Sunday. Two Ukrainian kozaks loudly beat drums in a rhythm that is normally used in the call to arms. It serves to heighten the sense of foreboding.

Now that Crimea has been hived off from mainland Ukraine, "what next?" is the question on everyone's minds. Will the insatiable appetite of the hungry Russian bear be satisfied with the Crimean peninsula, or will Russia invade eastern Ukraine on the pretext of protecting key assets or Russian-speaking citizens?

Mychailo Wynnyckyj, an associate professor at the prestigious Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, cites polls that say only 17 per cent believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin will stop his aggression with the annexation of Crimea. Their fears are backed by people who know the Putin mindset well.

Indeed, former Putin adviser Andriy Ilarionov says the Russian leader is determined to destroy Ukraine, and to correct what he sees as the grave historical mistake of the country gaining independence when the Soviet Union broke apart.

To Putin, having a rogue state on his doorstep, one that allowed its main capital square to be occupied by thugs and extremists for months, is unacceptable.

Ukrainians are also facing the real possibility that they may soon be a nation at war. TV ads asking people to donate to the Armed Forces and news footage showing troop movements has come as a real shock to most. Some Kyiv residents, fearing further violence similar to that witnessed in Kharkiv and Donetsk have retreated to other regions of the country.

Ukrainian armed forces have mobilized in a show of force on the country's eastern border with Russia. Over the weekend, the cash-strapped interim government allocated about $680 million to help rehabilitate the armed forces -- in the process cutting some social services.

A law allowing for the formation of a National Guard was passed, training has intensified, and there has been mass mobilization of 20,000 reserves is set to begin this week..

"Ukraine's government seems to have finally begun real preparations for war," said Wynnyckyj.

There are those who feel the Ukrainian government has acted too passively -- and too late. Not moving to seal its eastern borders and prevent waves of Russian provocateurs from entering the country is seen as a major blunder. Why Kyiv waited so long to mobilize its armed forces is another mystery.

Other than having to deal with an imminent threat from Russia -- as well as disturbances in many cities -- the government is having to prepare for a humanitarian crisis out of Crimea. Already, at least 250 families have left for the safety of the western mainland city of Lviv.

The Crimean Tartars, who make up about 300,000 of the 1.8-million population of the peninsula, say they could face persecution should Russia take over Crimea. In all, 36 per cent of the population are Ukrainian or Tartar decent. Activists from mainland Ukraine who had visited Crimea in the past few days have come back with horrific reports of harassment and intimidation.

"Don't go to Crimea with any Ukrainian national insignia" one AutoMaidan activist told a Kyiv news conference today.

Government ministers in Kyiv are also busily deciding how to move forward with Crimea under Russia. The fate of water, electricity and gas links are just some of the items that need to be decided.

And now with Crimea gone, can the country still go ahead with scheduled Presidential elections on May 25? Some analysts suggest there's major work to be done to change electoral and related laws in order to take into account the removal of Crimea.

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