Lawmakers in Crimea declared their intention Thursday to split from Ukraine and join Russia instead, and scheduled a referendum in 10 days for voters to decide the fate of the disputed peninsula. Russia's parliament, clearly savoring the action, introduced a bill intended to make this happen.
The Obama administration slapped new visa restrictions against pro-Russian opponents to the new Ukraine government in Kyiv, and cleared the way for upcoming financial sanctions, as the West began punishing Moscow for refusing to withdraw its troops from the strategic region that also houses Russia's Black Sea fleet.
Ukraine's prime minister said the Crimean lawmakers' decision is illegitimate, as a European Union official warned that results of any referendum will not be recognized by the West.
The 100-seat parliament in Crimea, which enjoys a degree of autonomy under current Ukrainian law, voted 78-0, with eight abstentions in favour joining Russia and for holding the referendum on March 16. Local voters will also be given the choice of deciding to remain part of Ukraine, but with enhanced local powers.
"This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kyiv," said Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the local Crimean legislature, "We will decide our future ourselves."
In Moscow, a prominent member of Russia's parliament, Sergei Mironov, said he has introduced a bill to simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia and it could be passed as soon as next week, the state news agency ITAR-Tass reported.
A senior Western diplomat said that the EU leaders, meeting in Brussels to discuss their response to Moscow's move, "will send a clear message that the referendum won't be recognized." The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't allowed to discuss the leaders' closed-door talks publicly.
On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its population has the right to determine the region's status in a referendum. Putin called a meeting of his Security Council on Thursday to discuss Ukraine.
Crimea's new leader, Sergei Aksyonov, said his government was in regular contact with the Russian officials, including those in a large Russian delegation now in Crimea.
Speaking at Crimea's government meeting late Wednesday, Aksyonov said the strategic peninsula is fully under the control of riot police and security forces joined by about 11,000 "self-defence" troops. All or most of these troops are believed to be Russian, even though the Russian president and defence minister have denied sending in the military other than those stationed at the home port of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.