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Real threat of armed conflict in Ukraine, former ambassador to Ukraine, Russia says

Above: Canada’s former ambassador to both Ukraine and Russia, Christopher Westdal, joins Tom Clark to discuss what could happen once the Crimea referendum is wrapped, and how Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s upcoming trip to Ukraine could go.

KYIV, Ukraine — The results of this weekend’s Crimea referendum are a foregone conclusion. What countless people around the world are waiting to see, though, is how the world reacts to a vote in favour of the region joining Russia.

If Russia gets Crimea, does it stop there, or is this all a prelude to war?

“I think there’s a real danger of armed conflict,” Canada’s former ambassador to both Ukraine and Russia, Christopher Westdal, said in an interview on The West Block with Tom Clark. “These are days of great drama and danger. I think that Crimea is a line in the sand that is being crossed.”

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Before the vote took place Sunday, Canada, the United States and the European Union deemed it illegal and said they would not recognize the results.

The vote took place several weeks after Russian-led forces took control of Crimea, a predominantly ethnic Russian region. Its residents say they fear the Ukrainian government that took over when pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted last month will oppress them.

Russia raised the stakes Saturday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armoured vehicles, took control of a village near the border with Crimea, in the first military move outside the peninsula. The forces also took control of a nearby natural gas distribution station, claiming the need to prevent possible acts of terrorism there.

WATCH: Global National’s chief political correspondent Tom Clark gets the very latest in Eastern Ukraine with colleagues Mike Armstrong in Donetsk and Paul Johnson in Crimea, where citizens were casting ballots on whether to join Russia.

“Were there to be a fight between Ukrainians and Russians, effectively a Slavic civil war, that would jolt the security structure of Europe,” Westdal said. “I don’t think, and I pray that’s not in prospect, but these are dangerous times. And all the time we speak, a single shot could lead to extensive violence.”

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Russia’s ambassador to Canada last week told Tom Clark, who has brought special coverage of the situation from Ukraine for the past two weeks, there is no way the situation will escalate into full-blown war.

Canada, along with other Western states, has imposed sanctions on Russia. Canada has cut bilateral military activities with Russia and recalled its ambassador from Russia. The United States imposed visa restrictions on opponents of Ukraine’s government in Kyiv and paved the way for upcoming financial sanctions.

But that hasn’t shaken Russian President Vladimir Putin’s conviction that his military’s presence in Crimea, a former Soviet republic, is necessary.

Westdal said that coordinated economic sanctions likely won’t have much of an effect on Putin, and might even signal a misunderstanding of the crisis.

“I think that this is a crisis about security, and I think it needs to be addressed in those terms,” he said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will head to Ukraine later this week, where he will be the first G7 leader to travel there and meet with the interim government amid growing instability and violence between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists.

In Ukraine, Harper will meet with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to discuss how Canada and its allies can provide support following Thursday’s announcement from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird that Canada will contribute $220 million to an international effort to stabilize the Ukrainian government’s finances.

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The visit serves to confirm Canada’s recognition of the new government in spite of Moscow’s stance, Westdal said.

“But [Harper] will have a lot of baggage. He will be carrying the hopes, and now the deep fears, of Canadians” he said.

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