UKRAINE lurched toward break-up when lawmakers in Crimea unanimously declared they wanted to join Russia and would put the decision to voters in 10 days – and Russian lawmakers pushed a bill to facilitate a handover.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's hand was almost certainly behind the move, but it was not clear whether he is aiming for outright annexation, or simply strengthening his hand in talks with the West.
The EU announced limited punitive measures against Putin's government and the US said it was imposing travel restrictions on opponents of Ukraine's new government. Both were discussing further sanctions.
President Barack Obama condemned the planned referendum, saying it "would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law".
Crimea's parliament rammed through what amounted to a declaration of independence from Ukraine, announcing it would let the Crimean people decide whether they want to become part of their gigantic neighbour to the east.
"This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev," said Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the legislature.
Ukraine's prime minister swiftly denounced the action: "This so-called referendum has no legal grounds at all," said Arseniy Yatsenyuk.