Crimea MPs vote to join Russia
MPs in Crimea have voted to join Russia and called a March 16 referendum on whether to break away from Ukraine and become part of the Russian Federation.
"This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev," Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the Crimean parliament, said. "We will decide our future ourselves."
The 100-seat parliament in Crimea, which enjoys a degree of autonomy under current Ukrainian law, voted 78-0, with eight abstentions in favour of holding the referendum, and for joining Russia.
Local voters will also be given the choice of deciding to remain part of Ukraine, but with enhanced local powers.
There was no immediate response from the Ukrainian central government to the vote.Yesterday Ukraine's prime minister said Crimea would remain part of Ukraine.
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.
On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its residents have the right to determine the region's status in a referendum. Mr Putin called a meeting of his Security Council today to discuss Ukraine.
A referendum had previously been scheduled in Crimea on March 30, but the question to be put to voters was on whether their region should enjoy "state autonomy" within Ukraine.
Earlier, Crimea's new leader said pro-Russian forces numbering more than 11,000 now control all access to the peninsula in the Black Sea and have blockaded all military bases that have not yet surrendered.
The West has joined the new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev in demanding that Russia pull its forces back from Crimea, but little progress was reported after a flurry of diplomatic activity in Paris involving US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
European Union leaders were meeting for an emergency session in Brussels today to decide what sort of sanctions they can impose on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Moscow has threatened to retaliate if any punitive measures are put in place.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in Brussels for the summit, said Russia was continuing to stir up trouble.
"We ask Russia to respond whether they are ready to preserve peace and stability in Europe or (whether) they are ready to instigate another provocation and another tension in our bilateral and multilateral relations," Mr Yatsenyuk said.
In Simferopol, Crimea's capital, about 50 people rallied outside the local parliament Thursday morning waving Russian and Crimean flags. Among the posters they held was one that said "Russia, defend us from genocide."
"We are tired of revolutions, maidans and conflicts and we want to live peacefully in Russia," said one of the bystanders, Igor Urbansky, 35. "Only Russia can give us a peaceful life."
Maidan is the name of the central square in Kiev where tens of thousands of protesters contested the rule of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia.
Not all in this city favoured the MPs' action.
"This is crazy. Crimea has become Putin's puppet," said Viktor Gordiyenko, 46. "A referendum at gunpoint of Russia weapons is just a decoration for Putin's show. A decision on occupation has already been made."
Svetlana Savchenko, another Crimean MP, said the choice she and her fellow deputies took in favour of joining Russia will force Moscow to make a decision.
"This is our principled position," she said. "Now the Russian Federation must begin a procedure - will it take us in or not."
Under the Soviet Union, Crimea belonged to the Russian Federation until it was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Concern that the turmoil could engulf eastern Ukraine grew after hundreds of demonstrators - many chanting "Russia! Russia!" - stormed a government building yesterday in Donetsk, a major industrial centre near the Russian border.
Clashes between protesters and police broke out early today in Donetsk as police cleared demonstrators from the regional administration centre. The Ukrainian flag once again was hoisted over the building, and about 100 Ukrainian Interior troops could be seen in and around it. Two large trucks were parked in front to block the approach.
The European Union has extended 15 billion dollars (£9bn) in aid to help support the new Ukrainian government, which took over in late February after months of protests drove out Mr Yanukovych, the Moscow-supported president.
The EU also imposed asset freezes against 18 people held responsible for embezzling state funds in Ukraine, including Yanukovych, his son and some of his closest allies.
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.
Mr 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 Russia has denied sending in the military other than those stationed at the home port of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.
The Obama administration slapped new visa restrictions on pro-Russian opponents of the new Ukraine government in Kiev and cleared the way for financial sanctions as the West began punishing Moscow for its occupation of Crimea.
The new restrictions targeted an unspecified and unidentified number of people and entities that the Obama administration accused of threatening Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial borders. They were announced in Washington as Secretary of State John Kerry headed into a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Rome.
The anticipated financial sanctions will penalise "those who are most directly involved in destabilising Ukraine, including the military intervention in Crimea, and does not preclude further steps should the situation deteriorate," the White House said in a statement.
The penalties will deepen significantly if Russia presses into areas of Eastern Ukraine, senior administration officials said, adding that there is currently no indication Moscow will take that step. The officials also indicated that the penalties could be ratcheted down if Russia pulls back its troops in Crimea and recognises Ukraine's new government.