By Volodymyr Verbyany, Stepan Kravchenko and Helena Bedwell Mar 16, 2014
Crimeans are voting on whether to secede from Ukraine as the government in Kiev said it’s closing the country’s borders with 60,000 Russian troops massed across its eastern, southern and northern regions.
Voting across the Black Sea peninsula started at 8 a.m. While the Ukrainian government in Kiev, the European Union and the U.S. all consider the referendum illegal, four-fifths of Crimea’s 1.5 million voters may take part, according to the region’s prime minister. The only exit poll, conducted by the local Republican Institute of Social and Political Studies, is expected shortly after balloting ends at 8 p.m.
“I voted for Russia as only Russia can save us from war in the region,” Nadezhda Kolkina, a 64-year-old pensioner, said near a polling station in the region’s capital, Simferopol, as banners proclaiming “Together with Russia” festooned the surrounding area. “I am crying because this is a special day.”
The ballot is deepening one of the worst crises since the Cold War as the West threatens to ratchet up sanctions if Russia doesn’t back down. With Russian troops deployed along the Ukrainian border, the government will mobilize as many as 15,000 volunteers in the next 15 days to defend the nation, Ukraine’s Acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said at a cabinet meeting in Kiev today.
Reports of Russia’s increasing military presence follow on the heels of accusations by Ukraine yesterday that its neighbor’s troops entered the Kherson region on the Azov Sea from the Crimea peninsula they already occupy. The Foreign Ministry in Kiev issued a statement protesting the seizure by Russian soldiers of the village of Strilkove.
The latest incursions raise tensions as Crimea holds its referendum on becoming part of Russia. A majority of the region’s residents are ethnic Russians and the measure — which doesn’t offer the alternative of maintaining a united Ukraine — is expected to pass.
While the EU and the U.S. are threatening to tighten sanctions against Russia if it doesn’t pull back, regardless of the outcome of today’s vote, President Vladimir Putin called the referendum legal and told German Chancellor Angela Merkel today that Russia will respect the choice made by Crimea.
Photo by mmoe100
Photos by U.S. Army Alaska,