Crimea 'will return to Russia' as 95.5pc reject Ukraine in poll
CRIMEA said it would become part of Russia again last night after a referendum on the region's future saw an overwhelming majority vote to break away from Ukraine.
In a poll denounced as "illegal and illegitimate" by the West, 95.5pc of voters said they would prefer to be ruled from Moscow, according to preliminary results.
But before the voting booths had even closed, Britain and America had condemned the vote as a gun-enforced sham designed to legitimise the Kremlin's annexing of the region.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "I condemn the fact that this referendum has taken place, in breach of the Ukrainian constitution and in defiance of calls by the international community for restraint.
"Nothing in the way that the referendum has been conducted should convince anyone that it is a legitimate exercise."
The White House said the vote was held under "threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention".
Both Washington and the European Union will now impose sanctions against Russia, including visa bans and asset freezes.
"In this century, we are long past the days when the international community will stand quietly by while one country forcibly seizes the territory of another," said Jay Carney, a White House spokesman.
Russian President Vladimir Putin showed no sign of backing down yesterday. In a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he insisted the referendum was legal and that Moscow would respect the result.
Yesterday's vote took place in relatively orderly fashion, with little obvious evidence of voters being intimidated. But the ballot papers themselves offered only two choices – one option of full union with Russia, the other of almost complete independence from the rest of Ukraine. There was no option to retain the status quo and retain existing links with Ukraine's pro-Western government, as some in Crimea would prefer.
Sergey Aksyonov, who was installed as Crimea's regional leader after Russia's military takeover, insisted that voters had been able to cast their ballots freely, despite the presence of pro-Russian militiamen at many polling stations.
He said Crimea's regional government would make a formal application today to join the Russian Federation.
Meanwhile, tensions remained high throughout the rest of eastern Ukraine, where clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators claimed three lives over the weekend.
In the city of Donetsk yesterday, hundreds of pro-Russian activists attempted to storm a local state security building to protest about the detention of a local pro-Moscow leader.
Arsen Avakov, Ukraine's interior minister, blamed "professional provocateurs" from Russia, who he said were fomenting anti-Western feeling. Arseny Yatseniuk, Ukraine's prime minister, said that a new 20,000-strong National Guard would be created to hunt down such troublemakers.
He also threatened harsh penalties for separatist "ringleaders", whom he accused of trying to destroy Ukrainian independence "under the cover of Russian troops".
"We will find all of them and bring them to justice and try them in Ukrainian and international courts," he said.
The scene at the polling station at Simferopol's High School No 9 looked no different to any routine local election. The queues outside the school were orderly, and there was no sign of intimidation. On the ballot paper, however, there was little in the way of real choice.
Option one was to re-unify with Russia. Option two was to declare de facto independence from the rest of Ukraine. Option three – to remain as part of Ukraine as before – did not have a box. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of those who turned out to vote yesterday were firmly in favour of the options for which there was a box to tick.
"We're returning to our own land," said Leonid (74), a retired physiotherapist, who arrived before voting opened at 8am. "It's been Russian for 200 years. Today we return." (© Daily Telegraph, London)