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A Crimean Tatar holds a banner which reads: "Crimea + Ukraine=Heart" during a protest in front of a local government building in Simferopol, Crimea, on Feb. 26, 2014.

Darko Vojinovic/AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempt to convince a nervous Crimean Tatar population of the benefits of Russian rule appear to have spectacularly failed.

A day after Mr. Putin spoke by telephone with Mustafa Dzhemilev, a senior member of the Mejlis, the main Crimean Tatar organization here, another key Mejlis member told The Globe and Mail that the NATO alliance should "do all it takes, including military conflict" to keep Russia from annexing this peninsula.

"If you don't, these guests will be in your lands too," said Ali Khamzin, who handles foreign relations for the Mejlis. "If you step back, you may as well give Russia Poland and the Baltic States too. You'll eventually face Putin yourselves."

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While most Crimea residents seem comfortably blasé about the idea of joining the Russian Federation – there were few displays of pro- or anti-Russia sentiment on the streets here yesterday, just two days before a referendum that will decide this region's future – the 250,000 who identify themselves as Crimean Tatars are vehemently opposed and planning to boycott Sunday's vote.

The Crimean Tatars – Muslims who make up about 13 per cent of the region's population – have only shown their strength once so far in the struggle for Crimea, rallying thousands in front of the local government buildings on Feb 27. Since then, the Mejlis has asked its followers to stay home, fearing violent clashes with pro-Russian activists.

Crimean Tatars remember the two centuries they previously spent under Russian rule as a time of often-violent persecution. Two-thirds of the Crimean Tatars who lived here were driven out by the armies of Tsar Alexander II following the 18th-century capture of Crimea from the Ottoman Empire.

But this isn't just about ancient history to today's Crimean Tatars. Most of them were born in faraway Uzbekistan, where their families were deported in 1944 by Josef Stalin. They were only allowed to return in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Khamzin said Mr. Putin's phone conversation with Mr. Dzhemilev had been a step forward, because Mr. Putin "said he understands the tragedy of the Crimean Tatars and said he's ready to aid and cooperate with us."

But Mr. Khamzin said the Crimean Tatars were still opposed to any return to Russian rule. "Ukraine is closer to us because it has also suffered from the Tsars and under the Soviets. We want to build a country together with Ukraine."

Mr. Khamzin said it was too early to predict how the Crimean Tatar population would react if events unfolded as predicted, with Russia absorbing the peninsula after Sunday's referendum. He said the Mejlis was committed to peaceful action, but added that "I can't deny the existence of some young hotheads" among the Crimean Tatar population.

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He said there was little the Crimean Tatar population could now do to affect its fate. "The solution to the Crimean issue, the Crimean crisis, no longer depends on the Crimean Tatars or any resident of Crimea, but rather with the gamblers who are playing a much bigger game."

Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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