In a referendum watched closely around the world, residents in Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula voted Sunday on whether to demand greater autonomy or split off and seek to join Russia. The vote has been condemned as illegal by the United States and European countries.
The referendum comes two weeks after Russian-led forces seized control of Crimea, a predominantly ethnic Russian region on the Black Sea that hosts a key Russian naval base. Its residents say they fear the new Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last month will oppress them.
Ukraine’s new prime minister insisted again Sunday that neither Ukraine nor the West will recognize the referendum, which they say is being conducted at gunpoint.
“Now, on the territory of the autonomous republic of Crimea under the stage direction of the Russian Federation, a circus performance is underway: the so-called referendum,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a government meeting. “Also taking part in the performance are 21,000 Russian troops, who with their guns are trying to prove the legality of the referendum.”
Russia raised the stakes Saturday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, took control of a Ukrainian village outside Crimea — the first military move beyond the peninsula of 2 million people. The Russian forces also took control of a nearby natural gas distribution station, claiming the need to prevent possible terrorist acts.
Serhiy Astakhov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Border Guard, told The Associated Press on Sunday that Ukrainian forces retook control of the village late Saturday after negotiations with the Russian forces, but the Russian still controlled the gas plant.
If the referendum passes, Russia faces the prospect of quick sanctions from Western nations. So far, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin has vigorously resisted calls to pull back in Crimea. At the United Nations, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal, and China, its ally, abstained in a sign of Moscow’s isolation on the issue.