- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2014

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.

SEE ALSO: Sen. Murphy: ‘Sham referendum’ in Ukraine ‘isn’t fooling anyone’

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.

White House spokesman Jay Carney also said the referendum was being held “contrary to Ukraine’s constitution, and the international community will not recognize the results.”

PHOTOS: Reaction to voting

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.

In its statement on the phone call, the White House said Mr. Obama emphasized that Washington is “prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions.”

While Mr. Obama told Mr. Putin there “remains a clear path for resolving this crisis diplomatically,” he said such resolution “cannot be achieved while Russian military forces continue their incursions into Ukrainian territory and that the large-scale Russian military exercises on Ukraine’s borders only exacerbate the tension,” the White House statement said.

European Union leaders are slated to meet in Brussels on Monday to decide whether they may impose their own economic sanctions on Russia. The EU said in a joint statement Sunday that Crimea’s referendum was “illegal and illegitimate.”

In an executive order signed early this month, Mr. Obama paved the way for biting U.S. sanctions that could target what the administration described as any “individuals and entities” deemed to be threatening peace and stability in Ukraine.

The House pushed through a bill last week that would broadly support such sanctions.

Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said Sunday that “Congress and the president must impose tough sanctions and other measures on those who have brought about this crisis.”

He added that “the phony referendum in Crimea is a throwback to the Soviet era” and asserted that the Obama administration “should be working overtime to help break Putin’s energy grip on Ukraine and Eastern Europe.”

His comments echoed those of other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who have cited the developments of the past few weeks as reasons for a major U.S. shift in energy policy to wean the region from dependence on Russia’s natural gas and oil.

The thrust of their argument has been that Washington is not doing enough to facilitate the export of U.S. natural gas to Europe. With the Ukraine crisis as a backdrop, the call for such an export push is receiving unprecedented traction in Washington.

But foreign policy and energy analysts generally agree that it may be irrelevant — at least in the immediate term — because it would take years for U.S. exports to flow in such a way that has any significant impact on Europe’s overall energy picture. The U.S. does not have a single terminal capable of processing natural gas for export to Europe, and it likely would take at least three years to build one.

In the meantime, dependence on Russian national gas that flows through pipelines crisscrossing Ukraine is working behind the scenes to dissuade Washington’s allies in Western Europe from countering Moscow with anything more than angry rhetoric.

Germany, which has emerged during recent years as perhaps the most influential player in European geopolitics, remains the No. 1 buyer from Gazprom, the state-owned energy monopoly in Moscow.

Such realities are likely what prompted Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, to declare Sunday that Russia is “a gas station masquerading as a country.”

Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Mr. McCain said that “in the long term,” Washington should think seriously about “working to get energy supplies to Ukraine and other countries in Europe.”

More immediately, Mr. McCain said, the U.S. should be providing military support to Ukraine and imposing economic sanctions on Russia.

“I think that economic sanctions are a very important step,” he said, adding that Washington should simultaneously resume a plan for missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic — a plan Mr. Obama halted during his first term in the wake of strong opposition from Moscow.

David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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