Crimea’s Moscow-oriented leaders declared a 96,7-percent vote to break with Ukraine and join Russia in a referendum, as Western powers said was illegal and will bring immediate sanctions.
When only half of the votes were counted, the head of the referendum commission, Mikhail Malyshev, said that 95.5 percent had chosen the option of annexation by Moscow. Turnout was 83 percent, he added – a high figure given that many who opposed the move had said they would boycott the vote. Final results were not expected until Monday.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called the referendum a “circus” directed at gunpoint by Moscow, referring to the thousands of troops that now occupy the peninsula, which has traded hands repeatedly since ancient times. He also threatened dire consequences for the Crimean politicians who had called the vote, saying separatist “ringleaders” wanted to destroy Ukrainian independence “under the cover of Russian troops”.
Underlining how Moscow’s military takeover of the peninsula two weeks ago has driven Russia and the West into a crisis with echoes of the Cold War, Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama spoke by telephone and, according to the Kremlin, the Russian and U.S. presidents agreed on a need to cooperate to stabilize Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Moscow that Washington would not accept the outcome of the vote, which is to favour union with Russia for a region which has a Russian-speaking majority. The White House also warned that Moscow should expect sanctions, while European Union, which has major trade ties with Russia, will decided on possible similar action in Brussels on Monday.
“The United States has steadfastly supported the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine since it declared its independence in 1991, and we reject the ‘referendum’ that took place today in the Crimean region of Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
“This referendum is contrary to Ukraine’s constitution, and the international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law. Russia’s actions are dangerous and destabilizing,” Carney added.
However, Putin told Obama the referendum was legitimate, as he expressed concern about the failure of Ukrainian government to put down violence against Russian speakers in the country.
“Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin drew attention to the inability and unwillingness of the present authorities in Kiev to curb rampant violence by ultra-nationalist and radical groups that destabilize the situation and terrorize civilians, including the Russian-speaking population,” the Kremlin said.
Putin also telephoned the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Sunday and told her the referendum in Crimea, condemned by the west, complied with international law.
Russia’s lower house of parliament will pass legislation allowing Crimea to join Russia “in the very near future”, news agency Interfax cited its deputy speaker as saying on Monday, says Reuters.
“Results of the referendum in Crimea clearly showed that residents of Crimea see their future only as part of Russia,” Sergei Neverov was quoted as saying.