Polls have closed in Crimea’s contentious referendum on seceding from Ukraine and seeking annexation by Russia.
The vote, unrecognised both by the Ukrainian government and the West, offered voters on the strategic Black Sea Peninsula the choice of seeking annexation by Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy.
Secession was expected to be approved overwhelmingly amid a high turnout.
Opponents of secession appeared to largely stay away, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play and land grab by Russia.
Even before the votes were counted the US announced it was rejecting the vote.
The White House said the referendum is contrary to Ukraine’s constitution and warned the world won’t recognise the results of a vote held under what it says are “threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law”.
A written statement from the White House calls Russia’s actions in Ukraine “dangerous and destabilizing.”
The US is urging other nations to “take concrete steps to impose costs” against Russia.
A vote backing secession would not only leave Russia facing strong sanctions by the West but could encourage the pro-Russian sentiment that is rising in Ukraine's east and lead to further divisions in the nation of 46 million. Western Ukraine and the capital of Kiev are strongly pro-West and Ukrainian nationalist.
The referendum comes two weeks after Russian-led forces seized control of Crimea. Locals say they fear the new Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last month will oppress them.
“It’s like they’re crazy Texans in western Ukraine. Imagine if the Texans suddenly took over power (in Washington) and told everyone they should speak Texan,” said Ilya Khlebanov, a voter in the Crimean capital of Simferopol.
Ukraine’s new prime minister insisted again that neither Ukraine nor the West will recognise the referendum, which he said was conducted at gunpoint.
“Now, on the territory of the autonomous republic of Crimea under the stage direction of the Russian Federation, a circus performance is under way: the so-called referendum,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a government meeting. “Also taking part in the performance are 21,000 Russian troops, who with their guns are trying to prove the legality of the referendum.”
Russia raised the stakes yesterday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armoured vehicles, took control of the Ukrainian village of Strilkove and a key natural gas distribution plant nearby – the first Russian military move into Ukraine beyond the Crimean peninsula of 2 million people. The Russian forces later returned the village but kept control of the gas plant.
Today in response, Ukrainian soldiers were digging trenches and erecting barricades between the village and the gas plant.
“We will not let them advance further into Ukrainian territory,” said Serhiy Kuz, commander of a Ukrainian paratrooper battalion.
Despite the sanctions threat, Russian President Vladimir Putin has vigorously resisted calls to pull back in Crimea. At the United Nations yesterday, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal. China, its ally, abstained and 13 of the 15 other nations on the council voted in favour – a signal of Moscow’s isolation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Mr Putin by phone today, proposing that an international observer mission in Ukraine be expanded quickly as tensions rise in the east. Her spokesman said she also condemned the Russian seizure of the gas plant.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke and agreed to support constitutional reforms in Ukraine that could ease the tensions, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
Ukraine’s Regional Policy Minister Volodymyr Groisman said the new government was already working on giving towns and regions more autonomy but said there were no plans to turn Ukraine into a federation.
In Donetsk, one of the main cities in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russia demonstrators called for a referendum similar to the one in Crimea and some of stormed the prosecutor-general’s office.
In Sevastopol a Russian naval warship still blocked the port’s outlet to the Black Sea, trapping Ukrainian boats.
The fate of Ukrainian soldiers trapped in their Crimean bases by pro-Russian forces was still uncertain. Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities have said if those soldiers don’t surrender after today’s vote, they will be considered “illegal”.