Lawmakers in Crimea's pro-Russia regional parliament have voted 78 to 0 to join the Russian Federation, the latest in a series of coordinated steps by lawmakers in both Russia and Crimea to try to clear legal barriers for the Kremlin to annex the Ukrainian peninsula.
Lawmakers in Crimea also announced on March 6 that they had pushed forward the date of a local referendum on the issue to March 16, nearly 10 weeks ahead of the date they had initially set for an independence referendum.
Rustam Temirgaliyev, the first deputy prime minister of Crimea, said the parliament's decision for Crimea to join Russia "takes effect the moment it was made, that is, beginning today." Temirgaliyev said the March 16 referendum was merely needed "for the people of Crimea to confirm this decision made by the parliament."
In fact, such a referendum would be required under draft legislation due to be discussed in the Russian Duma by March 17 that would make it legal -- under Russian law -- for the Kremlin to accept Crimea as a part of Russia.
It has been apparent that Russian lawmakers in Moscow and pro-Russian members of Crimea's local legislature have been coordinating their efforts at least as far back as February 28 -- the day Russian forces seized two airfields in Crimea along with other strategic positions outside of Russia's Black Sea Fleet base at Sevastopol.
Just hours after the Russian deployments began, the pro-Russian Crimean lawmakers announced May 25 as the initial date -– the same day as an early national presidential election -- for a regional referendum on whether Crimea should declare independence from Ukraine.
Moscow Moves In Tandem
February 28 is also when draft legislation was introduced in Russia's State Duma that aims to simplify the process for Moscow to incorporate territories in foreign states into the Russian Federation.
Specifically, the draft Duma legislation says Moscow can accept "a part of a foreign country" into the Russian Federation "if the decision was approved or in accordance with a request from the organs of state power of that part of the foreign country." Also, any request to join Russia must be approved by "a referendum conducted in accordance with the laws of the foreign state in the territory of that part of the foreign state."
All of the sponsors of the bill are from the Duma faction of A Just Russia, the left-leaning pro-Kremlin party. The leader of that Duma faction and principle sponsor of the bill, Sergei Mironov, visited Crimea on February 27.
A day later, on February 28, faction member Yelena Mizulina posted a video on A Just Russia's party website explaining their justification for the bill. "Russia must be ready for any situation, including if under the results of a referendum or if legitimately elected organs of the government of the region appeal to Russia with a request to join that region to the Russian Federation," she says in the video. "We ourselves cannot initiate this, but we must have the legal mechanisms to respond to such an appeal."
On March 6, members of A Just Russia's Duma faction said their bill would have its first reading in the lower chamber of the Russian parliament as early as March 11. The Duma's official agenda says the first reading could be as late as March 17.
Meanwhile, Duma Deputy Leonid Slutsky of the ruling United Russia party announced that he will host Crimean regional lawmakers at the Duma on March 7.
Slutsky -- chairman of the Duma's Committee for the CIS, Eurasian Integration, and Relations with Compatriots -- also suggested on March 6 that consideration of the draft Duma legislation won't begin until March 16 or 17 -- after the referendum has taken place and after Russian President Vladimir Putin has weighed in on the bill.
"The State Duma will review any draft law on the subject when the referendum [in Crimea] takes place and when the leadership of the Russian Federation determines its position, because this subject is in the competence of the leadership of the Russian Federation," Slutsky said.
'Faulty Premise' In International Law
In Brussels, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said the Crimean parliament's decision to join Russia had no legal basis. "This is [an] illegitimate decision and this so-called referendum has no legal grounds at all," he said. "That is the reason why we urge Russian government not to support those who claim separatism in Ukraine. Crimea was, is, and will be an integral part of Ukraine."
Indeed, even with Crimean and Russian lawmakers working in tandem to craft complementary legislation, legal experts say that without the participation of authorities in Kyiv or voters across the rest of Ukraine, Russian annexation of Crimea would violate the foundations of "territorial integrity" under international law.
"No state may appropriate an area of another state simply on the basis of a referendum of the people in that state. That is a violation of territorial integrity," explains Barry Kellman, a professor of international law at DePaul University in Chicago. "If there was a province in Canada that, for whatever reason, decided that it really wanted to go with the United States, and the United States said: 'Yeah, sure. Be our 51st state.' -- No. That is an infringement on territorial integrity. There is no right of regional self-determination that would allow a state to do that. So the premise is faulty as a matter of international law."
WATCH: Crimean lawmaker Sergei Tsekov explains the decision.
Sergei Tsekov, leader of the Russian Community of Crimea, told journalists outside the Crimean parliament building the decision to "reunite with our motherland" was one he is sure "most Crimean residents will be happy about." He added: "We decided not to follow the path of independence. We state clearly that we support the revival of unity between Russia and Crimea. We are for the autonomous republic of Crimea to join Russia as a subject of Russia."
But there are factions in Crimea that oppose the move, including the 22 lawmakers who either abstained from the March 6 vote or did not attend. Refat Chubarov, the leader of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, said in Simferopol on March 6 that Crimean Tatars will not recognize the results of the referendum.
With additional reporting by Robert Coalson