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An elderly voter marks their ballot paper before casting it in a mobile ballot box during voting in a referendum in the village of Pionerskoye outside Simferopol March 16.VASILY FEDOSENKO/Reuters

As Crimeans head to the polls to vote in a referendum on whether to join Russia, the real question isn't the result but what happens next. Here are five things to watch:

What will Russia do?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted the referendum is a legitimate expression of the will of the Crimean people, but that doesn't mean the territory will immediately become part of Russia after the vote. The Russian parliament, the Duma, will consider legislation to annex Crimea on March 21. That gives diplomats a few days to find a compromise, something the Ukrainian government says it still wants. Ukraine has said it is willing to consider granting more powers to Crimea, which is already an autonomous region, and holding a national referendum. The government has also backed down on a recently-passed language law that many saw as restricting the use of Russian. The law was seized on by Mr. Putin and others as proof of Kiev's attempts to undermine ethnic Russians in Crimea, who make up a majority of the population.

What will Ukraine do?

The government of Ukraine has argued repeatedly that the referendum violates the country's constitution and that Russia has invaded the country. On Saturday, Members of Parliament in Kiev voted to dissolve the Crimean parliament, a move ignored by Crimea's new pro-Russian Prime Minister who argues the Ukrainian government is illegitimate because it took power in a coup. Ukraine could take more practical steps such as restricting the flow of water, food, electricity and natural gas to the peninsula. It could also stop paying pensions and social benefits and withdraw cash from banks. So far the government has pledged to continue operating as though Crimea was part of the country.

What will Crimeans do?

While there is little doubt the referendum vote will be in favour of annexation, there are thousands of Crimeans who don't want to be part of Russia. Ukrainian officials say about 600 people have left the territory for Western Ukraine and Turkey. Most of them have been Tatars, a largely Muslim minority that makes up about 15 per cent of the population. There are concerns in Kiev that many more people could leave after the vote and officials say they are preparing contingency plans.

What will the Ukrainian soldiers do?

There are thousands of Ukrainian troops in Crimea and most have been confined to military bases, surrounded by Russian troops and so called self-defence forces. The stand offs have been largely peaceful and Russian soldiers at some bases chat with their unarmed Ukrainian counterparts. But there has been growing pressure on the Ukrainian troops to join a new Crimean force, with enticements of better pay if they do and threats of arrest if they don't. The Ukrainians have refused so far and the government in Kiev recently passed a law to boost soldiers' pay. Officials in Kiev have not said whether troops will be evacuated after the vote or told to remain virtual hostages.

What will the West do?

The United States and the European Union have promised to slap sanctions on Russia after the referendum, but there have been few specifics. The sanctions are likely to involve travel bans, visa restrictions and some asset freezes. Analysts say there are limits to how far the West is likely to go. Russia is the world's largest energy exporter and the biggest producer of industrial metals, such as titanium which is used to build airplanes. It is also a key market for EU goods and Russian companies make up a considerable portion of the London Stock Exchange. The U.S., EU and the International Monetary Fund have pledged financial support to Ukraine's new government and Ukrainian officials will be in Brussels on Monday to begin working out details. But much of that cash depends on Ukraine reforming its institutions to weed out corruption and increase transparency, something the country has been unable, or unwilling, to do before.