Crimea votes to join Russia, accelerating Ukraine crisis
Crimea's parliament voted to join Russia today and its Moscow-backed government set a referendum within 10 days on the decision in a dramatic escalation of the crisis over the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula.
The sudden acceleration of moves to bring Crimea formally under Moscow's rule came as European Union leaders gathered for an emergency summit to seek ways to pressure Russia to back down and accept mediation.
The Crimean parliament voted unanimously "to enter into the Russian Federation with the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation". The vice premier of Crimea, home to Russia's Black Sea military base in Sevastopol, said a referendum on the status would take place on March 16.
The announcement, which diplomats said could not have been made without Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval, raised the stakes in the most serious east-west confrontation since the end of the Cold War.
Far from seeking a diplomatic way out, Putin appears to have chosen to create facts on the ground before the West can agree on more than token action against him.
EU leaders had been set to warn but not sanction Russia over its military intervention after Moscow rebuffed Western diplomatic efforts to persuade it to pull forces in Crimea, with a population of about 2 million, back to their bases. It was not immediately clear what impact the Crimean moves would have.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a Twitter message: "We stand by a united and inclusive #Ukraine."
French President Francois Hollande told reporters on arrival at the summit: "There will be the strongest possible pressure on Russia to begin lowering the tension and in the pressure there is, of course, eventual recourse to sanctions."
The new Ukrainian government has declared the referendum illegal and opened a criminal investigation against Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Askyonov, who was appointed by the region's parliament last week. The Ukrainian government does not recognize his authority or that of the parliament.
A Crimean parliament official said voters will be asked two questions: should Crimea be part of the Russian Federation and should Crimea return to an earlier constitution (1992) that gave the region more autonomy?
"If there weren't constant threats from the current illegal Ukrainian authorities, maybe we would have taken a different path," deputy parliament speaker Sergei Tsekov told reporters outside the parliament building in Crimea's main city of Simferopol.
"I think there was an annexation of Crimea by Ukraine, if we are going to call things by their name. Because of this mood and feeling we took the decision to join Russia. I think we will feel much more comfortable there."