Under the gaze of Russian military forces Sunday, citizens of Crimea voted overwhelmingly in favor of splitting off from Ukraine to become a part of territorial Russia, a development likely to further stoke Cold War-style tensions that have been escalating for weeks between Moscow and the West.
The United States and other countries promptly rejected the referendum as illegitimate, and President Obama called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday afternoon to reiterate that stance.
“President Obama emphasized that the Crimean ‘referendum,’ which violates the Ukrainian constitution and occurred under duress of Russian military intervention, would never be recognized by the United States and the international community,” the White House said in a statement Sunday evening that threatened “additional costs” for Russia and suggested the Kremlin had paths to avoid them.
With about three-quarters of the votes counted, more than 95 percent were in favor of joining Russia, according to a Crimean Electoral Commission count, which prompted celebrations among the province’s ethnic Russians.
“We want to go back home, and today we are going back home,” Viktoria Chernyshova, a 38-year-old businesswoman, told The Associated Press at a square in Simferopol where revelers pulled out Russian flags and decorated a statue of communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. “We needed to save ourselves from those unprincipled clowns who have taken power in Kiev.”
The vote and resulting celebrations prompted outrage in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where a group of interim leaders have appeared powerless against Russian military and political meddling in Crimea since Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was driven from power last month by a series of massive protests.
Moscow responded to the Yanukovych ouster by sending troops into the majority ethnic-Russian Crimean Peninsula. The move triggered the U.S. to build up its own military assets the region.
Although analysts say the threat of a U.S.-Russian military confrontation remains unlikely, the growing presence of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border and fanned out across Crimea has rattled the Obama administration and U.S. lawmakers.
Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, said Sunday that the “sham referendum” may be only the first step and noted that the events of the past few months would have sounded ridiculous only a few years ago.
“This is a threat to the territorial integrity of Europe. Who knows who’s next? It was laughable five years ago to think that Russia would march on Ukraine. Five years from now, it may be a NATO country that’s in jeopardy,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Moscow’s show of force prompted the White House to say that Crimea’s secession vote, even before the expected results were announced, was “administered under threats of violence and intimidation” from Moscow.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who met with Mr. Obama at the White House last week, denounced the “so-called referendum” as a “circus performance … under the stage direction of the Russian Federation.”
Outside recognition or not, Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov said on Twitter that his parliament would meet Monday and formally ask Russia to annex the province. Some lawmakers then would fly to Moscow for talks, he said.
What remains to be seen is whether the White House will carry through with threats to impose economic sanctions on Russia, which the administration accuses of intruding on Ukraine’s sovereignty in violation of European and international law.