SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine – Pro-Russian lawmakers in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea sparked a showdown reminiscent of the Cold War on Thursday, accelerating their bid to leave Ukraine and join Russia in a move that President Barack Obama, the new government in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, and European leaders described as provocative and illegal.
Lawmakers in the autonomous region voted Thursday to join the Russian Federation and hold a referendum March 16 to validate the decision.
The regional parliament, now led by Sergei Aksyonov – a businessman and politician known around Kiev as the “Goblin” because of his alleged ties to organized crime – said it would nationalize Ukrainian state industries and begin setting up government ministries separate from Ukraine, which Crimea joined in 1954 when the nation was still a satellite of the Soviet Union.
“This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev,” Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the Crimean legislature, said Thursday. “We will decide our future ourselves.”
In Washington, Obama said the world was “well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” as his administration imposed sanctions on Russians and Ukrainians involved in Russia’s military intervention in Crimea.
European leaders also sounded alarms, denouncing the referendum plans as unacceptable.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters after an emergency summit called by the 28-member European Union that if talks between Russia and Ukraine didn’t progress quickly, “asset freezes, travel bans, those things mentioned by the Americans, will be very firmly on the agenda.”
It remained unclear whether Thursday’s provocative moves in Crimea were part of Russia’s precise calculations. But the extent of Moscow’s grip on the largely ethnic-Russian region suggested that separatist leaders here were coordinating their actions with Russia, said Cliff Kupchan, head of the Russia and Eurasian team at the Eurasia Group, a political and business consultancy in Washington.
“Russian troops are all over the place,” he said. “An ethnic-Russian leader is calling the shots in Crimea. Could there be a smidgen of spontaneity in his actions? Yes. Is it credible that he is acting without coordinating with Moscow? I don’t find that credible.”
In any case, Russia’s parliament, the Duma, said Thursday that it would begin debating bills aimed at simplifying legislation to allow Crimea’s accession to Russia after the referendum and a decision by Russia’s leadership on the matter.
In Kiev, Ukrainian officials called for dialogue with Crimea’s lawmakers even while denouncing their moves.
“This is an illegitimate decision, and this so-called referendum has no legal grounds at all,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told reporters in Brussels, where he met with EU leaders. “That’s the reason why we urge the Russian government not to support those who claim separatism in Ukraine.”
The pro-Russian lawmakers, who took control of the Crimean parliament last month, had already called for a March 30 referendum on the region’s future. But the moves Thursday marked not only an acceleration of the vote but a far more robust declaration of secession from Ukraine, where months of protests led to the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych last month.
The coming vote raised the prospect of violence among those who want to remain part of Ukraine. Observers also said that they had little confidence that the referendum would be fair.
The declaration Thursday, however, was wildly popular among the ethnic Russians who make up the majority on the Crimean Peninsula.
Store and road signs in the region are almost exclusively in Russian, not Ukrainian. Russian flags are flown from far more rooftops than are Ukrainian flags. School classes are taught in Russian, and it is the language most commonly spoken on the streets. Many residents say they do not understand a word of Ukrainian.
At a square in front of Sevastopol’s City Hall, where a sign saying “Kiev doesn’t tell us what to do” was taped to a front column, people wearing ribbons in the red, white and blue stripes of the Russian flag said they hate pro-Western Ukrainians, Obama and America equally.
“Of course, everyone will vote to be part of Russia, because we are Russian people,” said a woman carrying a small pennant bearing a likeness of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We want it tomorrow.” She refused to give her name, saying she does not trust Americans.