Crimea's Moscow-backed leaders declared a 96% vote in favour of quitting Ukraine and annexation by Russia in a referendum held yesterday (16 March) Western powers said was illegal and will bring immediate sanctions. EU ministers gather in Brussels today to decide on visa bans and freezing the assets of top Russian officials.
As state media in Russia carried a startling reminder of its power to turn the United States to "radioactive ash", President Barack Obama spoke to Vladimir Putin on Sunday, telling the Russian president that he and his European allies were ready to impose "additional costs" on Moscow for violating Ukrainian territory.
The Kremlin and the White House issued statements saying Obama and Putin saw diplomatic options to resolve the gravest crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War.
But Obama said Russian forces must first end "incursions" into its ex-Soviet neighbour, while Putin renewed his accusation that the new leadership in Kiev, brought to power by an uprising last month against his elected Ukrainian ally, were failing to protect Russian-speakers from violent Ukrainian nationalists.
Moscow defended a military takeover of the majority ethnic Russian Crimea by citing a right to protect "peaceful citizens". Ukraine's interim government has mobilised troops to defend against an invasion of its eastern mainland, where pro-Russian protesters have been involved in deadly clashes in recent days.
With three-quarters of Sunday's votes counted in Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula that is home to 2 million people, 95.7% had supported annexation by Russia, chief electoral official Mikhail Malyshev, was quoted as saying by local media.
Turnout was 83%, he added - a high figure given that many who opposed the move had said they would boycott the vote.
US and European officials say military action is unlikely over Crimea, which Soviet rulers handed to Ukraine 60 years ago. But the risk of a wider Russian incursion, as Putin probes Western weaknesses, and tries to restore Moscow's influence over its old Soviet empire, leaves NATO calculating how to help Kiev without triggering what some Ukrainians call "World War Three."
Highlighting the stakes, journalist Dmitry Kiselyov, who is close to the Kremlin, stood before an image of a mushroom cloud on his weekly TV show to issue a stark warning. He said: "Russia is the only country in the world that is realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash."
On Lenin Square in the centre of the Crimean capital Simferopol, a band struck up even before polls closed as the crowd waved Russian flags. Regional premier Sergei Aksyonov, a businessman nicknamed "Goblin", who took power when Russian forces moved in two weeks ago, thanked Moscow for its support.
The regional assembly is expected to rubber-stamp a plan to transfer allegiance to Russia on Monday before Aksyonov travels to Moscow, although the timing of any final annexation is in doubt. Putin may choose to hold off a formal move, as diplomatic bargaining continues over sanctions that many EU states fear could hurt them as much as they do Russia.
"Cherish Putin, he is a great, great president!" said Olga Pelikova, 52, as fireworks lit up the night sky and fellow Crimeans said they hoped to share in Russia's oil-fueled wealth after two decades of instability and corruption in Ukraine.
But many ethnic Tatars, Muslims who make up 12% of Crimea's population, boycotted the vote, fearful of a revival of the persecution they suffered for centuries under Moscow's rule.
"This is my land. This is the land of my ancestors. Who asked me if I want it or not?" said Shevkaye Assanova, a Tatar in her 40s. "For the rest of my life I will be cursing those who brought these people here. I don't recognise this at all."
A pressing concern for the governments in Kiev and Moscow is the transfer of control of Ukrainian military bases. Many of the bases are surrounded and under control of Russian forces, even though Moscow formally denies it has troops in the territory beyond facilities it leases for its important Black Sea Fleet.
On Sunday, the Ukrainian and Russian militaries agreed on a truce in Crimea until 21March,Ukraine's government said.
Crimean leaders have said Ukrainian troops can serve Russia, or have safe passage out of the region. But some leaders in Kiev have said they expect their forces to defend their positions.
The White House said in a statement on the call with Putin that Obama "emphasised that Russia's actions were in violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and that, in coordination with our European partners, we are prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions".
The European Union will raise the stakes on Monday, by slapping sanctions on officials. EU diplomats were haggling over a list of people in Crimea and Russia who will be hit with travel bans and asset freezes for actions which "threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine."
An initial list of 120 to 130 names will be whittled down to perhaps "tens or scores" before EU foreign ministers take the final decision in Brussels on Monday, diplomats said. Ministers are also expected to cancel an EU-Russia summit scheduled for June in Sochi, where Putin last month hosted the Winter Olympics.
The EU is working to revive a trade and aid deal with Ukraine which ousted president Viktor Yanukovich rejected in November in favour of cash from Moscow, triggering protests that led to bloodshed in Kiev and his flight to Russia last month.
The risk of Europe becoming locked in a damaging spiral of economic retaliation with Moscow, from which it buys much of its energy, depended on Russia, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said ahead of the EU meeting in Brussels: "I would do anything possible to avoid sanctions, because I believe everybody will suffer if we get into sanctions," he said.
The US administration is also preparing to identify Russians to punish with visa bans and asset freezes that Obama authorised this month. It, too, is likely to act on Monday.
The Kremlin statement again highlighted concerns, largely dismissed by Kiev and its Western allies, that Russian-speakers who make up a sizeable minority of Ukraine's 46 million people were facing violence and intimidation since Yanukovich fell.
"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 destabilise the situation and terrorise civilians, including the Russian-speaking population," it said.
Putin suggested European security monitors should be sent to all parts of Ukraine because of the violence, it said.
There were pro-Russian rallies in several Ukrainian cities on Sunday, including one in Kharkiv where protesters burned books at a Ukrainian cultural centre, where two pro-Russian activists were shot dead on Friday in a fight with members of Right Sector, a nationalist group that emerged during battles with riot police amidst the pro-European protests in Kiev.
In Donetsk, heart of the industrial east, where a Ukrainian nationalist was killed in a clash last week, some welcomed the outcome in Crimea and hoped they too might vote to join Russia.
"This is a total victory. A 100 percent win," said one man who gave his name as Roman. "We here in Donetsk support Crimea. We don't support the Kiev authorities that are ruling today."
In Kiev and the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, the mood was sombre. "This isn't a referendum - it's a show for the Russians to legitimise taking over," said Kyrylo Sergeev in the capital. Another man in Kiev, Vasyl Olinyk, said: "This could be war, not between Ukraine and Russia but, maybe World War Three."
As Ukrainian television channels played patriotic songs over images of tanks rolling in to reinforce the eastern border, where the president says Russia has massed troops ready to invade, the head of the national security council said a Moscow plot, codenamed "Russian Spring", to foment violence and justify invasion was failing to garner significant support.
"The plan has failed," Andriy Paruby said. "Despite all the Kremlin's technical powers, we have managed to keep control."
A Western official briefed on security discussions suggested NATO governments were taking the risk of invasion seriously.
"Putin would be mad to invade Ukraine," he said, forecasting a quick victory over Ukraine's armed forces being followed by a long insurgency and civil war. "He is much better playing it long, fomenting rebellion among the ethnic Russians and waiting until the very weak Ukrainian government collapses.
"However ... Putin may decide to go for the jugular ... He has the means and he may decide to exploit events as they unfold to achieve his long-term strategic end: re-establishment of Russian power in its 'near abroad'."
On Saturday, Moscow saw the largest opposition protest in almost two years. Although smaller than protests that he faced after parliamentary elections in 2011, Saturday's anti-war rally, which witnesses said attracted around 30,000 people, is a sign that his intervention in Ukraine might provide a rallying point for an opposition movement that had run out of steam.
On Sakharov Avenue, site of the first large anti-Putin rally in December 2011, when tens of thousands protested against electoral fraud, demonstrators waved Ukrainian and Russian flags as well as EU flags like those carried by pro-European demonstrators in Kyiv's Maidan square.
The march appeared to be the largest opposition rally since June 2012, although police put the turnout at around 3,000.
"I am ashamed for Russia and our people," said publishing company employee Valentina Legonkova, 69, who was carrying a Ukrainian flag, although she is Russian.
"We are behaving towards Ukraine like swine," she said. "We will soon be on the level of North Korea."
Some chanted "Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes!", a slogan also borrowed from Kyiv, others "Down with Putin!", "No to war!", "No to fascism!" and "Russia without Putin!"
One placard read: "Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Ukraine 2014", likening Russia's actions to the Red Army's suppression of east European reform movements in the Cold War.
"My duty is to show support for the Ukrainian people in its desire to live independently from the dictatorship of the elder brother," said Moscow teacher Irina Seseikina.
The protest taps into a wider vein of discontent, strongest among the Moscow middle class, who are also appalled at rising corruption, political repression and censorship under Putin.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz made the following statement on Sunday's referendum in Crimea.
"I regret that this referendum took place as it was illegitimate, illegal and has complicated future efforts to resolve the crisis. This ballot was valid neither under the Ukrainian nor international law.
The European Parliament fully supports territorial integrity of Ukraine. A united Ukraine must be able to determine its future freely.¨
"I would like to repeat my condemnation of Russia's military incursion into Crimea. It was a breach of international law and a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. Arguments that a military action is needed to protect an ethnic minority were often used in that in past, with disastrous consequences."
The President of the European People's Party (EPP) and Chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, Joseph Daul, made the following statement on today's so-called referendum in Crimea, Ukraine:
“The results of today’s referendum are like the chronicle of a death foretold, where the citizens of Crimea, under Russian bayonets, had actually only one option. The referendum has been organised by a self-proclaimed and illegitimate authority in violation of the Ukrainian and Crimean constitutions and therefore we do not recognise its results. Crimea is part of Ukraine, which is a sovereign state with a legitimate government. We will not accept any changes to the internationally recognised borders of Ukraine,” said Joseph Daul.
He added: “If a country wants to be treated as a partner, as an equal, then certain behaviour is no longer acceptable in the XXI century. Sanctions against it must be applied immediately. On behalf of the EPP political family I call on the international institutions to suspend Russia from the G-8, OSCE, I will ask our EPP Group colleagues at the Council of Europe to do the same by invoking Article 8. I welcome the postponement of the accession of Russia to OECD.”
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament, insisted that the referendum is void:
“A valid referendum can only be held without the threat of violence and intimidation, exactly the opposite of what is happening in the Crimea right now. Russian forces have invaded Crimea, thus violating international law and Putin has organised a so-called referendum under the gaze of Russian troops. The fact that the 41% non-Russian speakers could not even tick the box to remain as an autonomous region within Ukraine says everything. It is proof that this referendum is nothing more than a farce. Russian occupation of Crimea might be accomplished but it shall not be recognised. The choice of Putin to push his country into self imposed isolation is regrettable and will likely, in the long run, prove fatal for his presidency.” According to Verhofstadt, the EU and its Foreign Ministers should remain true to their threats and impose sanctions on Russia, namely an asset freeze targeted at a select number of individuals close to the Russian regime and a visa ban for officials that promoted the occupation. If the situation remains blocked, targeted economic measures must be put in place as well. It is also unthinkable that individual EU Member State consider continuing selling weapons and military equipment to Russia after it has annexed part of Ukraine. “It is time to speak plainly to Putin. Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine. Valid and legal referendums are not held at the point of a gun.”
- 17 March: EU ministers meet in Brussels to decide sanctions on Russia;
- 20-21 March: EU leaders hold regular Spring Summit in Brussels, Ukraine may sign political chapters of EU Association Agreement.
- 20 March: Russian parliament expected to ratify Crimea’s annexation.