SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine: Fireworks exploded and Russian flags fluttered above jubilant crowds Sunday after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
The United States and Europe condemned the ballot as illegal and destabilizing and were expected to slap sanctions on Russia for it.Ukraine’s new government in Kiev called the referendum a “circus” directed at gunpoint by Moscow, referring to the thousands of Russian troops now in the strategic Black Sea peninsula after seizing it two weeks ago.
But after the polls closed late Sunday, crowds of ethnic Russians in the regional Crimean capital of Simferopol erupted with chants in the main square, overjoyed at the prospect of once again becoming part of Russia.
The referendum offered voters the choice of seeking annexation with Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy. After 50 percent of the ballots were counted, Mikhail Malishev, head of the referendum committee, said more than 95 percent of voters had approved joining Russia.
Opponents of secession appeared to have stayed away, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play and land grab by Russia.
The Crimean parliament will meet Monday to formally ask Moscow to be annexed, and Crimean lawmakers will fly to Moscow later in the day for talks, Crimea’s pro-Russia prime minister said on Twitter.
In Moscow, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, suggested that joining Russia was a done deal.
“We understand that for 23 years after Ukraine’s formation as a sovereign state, Crimeans have been waiting for this day,” Naryshkin was quoted as saying by the state ITAR-Tass news agency.
Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky said the annexation could come in as soon as three days, according to Interfax.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the referendum was conducted in “full accordance with international law and the U.N. charter.”
Ukraine’s new prime minister insisted that neither Ukraine nor the West would recognize the vote.
“Under the stage direction of the Russian Federation, a circus performance is underway: the so-called referendum,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Sunday.
“Also taking part in the performance are 21,000 Russian troops, who with their guns are trying to prove the legality of the referendum.”As soon as the polls closed, the White House again denounced the vote.
“The international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence,” it said in a statement. “Russia’s actions are dangerous and destabilizing.”
Russia raised the stakes Saturday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armored 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.
Ukrainian soldiers were digging trenches and erecting barricades Sunday 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 threat of sanctions, Putin has vigorously resisted calls to pull back in Crimea. At the United Nations Saturday, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal.
However, Putin spoke with President Barack Obama and supported a proposal from Germany to expand an international observer mission in Ukraine, the Kremlin said Sunday in a statement after the vote.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also spoke with Putin Sunday, wants more observers sent to tense areas, particularly in eastern Ukraine, her spokesman said. Putin told Obama that such a mission would be welcome but would need to be extended to all regions in Ukraine, the Kremlin said.
In Donetsk, one of the main cities in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russia demonstrators called Sunday for a referendum similar to the one in Crimea.