Even before residents of Crimea headed to the polls Sunday, Ukrainians and Russians knew the result of the vote would be to secede and join Russia. So, when results showed that in excess of 95 percent of the ballots favored joining Russia, it didn’t really turn any heads.
What did, however, was news footage showing ranks of Russian tanks lining the road near Kerch in eastern Crimea, apparently preparing to move, while other footage showed Ukrainian tanks moving to defend the border with Russia in the Donetsk district, on the eastern edge of the country.
The prospect of a beefed up Russian force moving north from Crimea into other parts of Ukraine or Ukrainian tanks engaging potential Russian invaders in the east raised tensions after weeks when the Russian takeover of Crimea was largely without bloodshed.
The interim Ukrainian government pledged to invest an additional $7 billion in its woefully underfunded military.
On Monday, Crimea’s rump government is expected to ask officially that Russia annex the territory. The Russian Defense Ministry said that Ukrainian soldiers still in Crimea had until Friday to leave the territory or face military action by Russian forces.
“No wonder, no surprise, everyone knew the day it was announced what the result would be,” said Taras Berezovets, a political scientist and president of Berta Communications in Kiev.
Crimean officials said 80 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots, which offered only two options: secede from Ukraine and join Russia or revert to the 1992 constitution which gave Crimea vast autonomy. There was no option to maintain the status quo.
With 50 percent of the ballots counted, union with Russia was favored by 95.5 percent, with 3.5 percent choosing greater autonomy. One percent of the ballots were invalidated.
In a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Barack Obama reiterated that the referendum result “would never be recognized by the United States and the international community,” according to a White House statement.
But the statement didn’t indicate any change of heart from Putin despite Obama’s renewed warning that the U.S. is “prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions.”
“President Obama reiterated that a diplomatic resolution cannot be achieved while Russian military forces continue their incursions into Ukrainian territory and that the large-scale Russian military exercises on Ukraine’s borders only exacerbate the tension,” the statement said.
The European Union and European Council heads issued a joint statement, noting there would be consequences, and those would be discussed Monday in Brussels.
“The referendum is illegal and illegitimate and its outcome will not be recognized,” the statement said. “We reiterate the strong condemnation of the unprovoked violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and call on Russia to withdraw its armed forces,” the statement read.
Those denunciations were joined by a council of Crimea’s Tatar minority, which called on Ukrainians and the international community to “confirm that we recognize Ukraine as a sovereign and independent state in the existing borders” and “condemn vigorously an act of aggression committed by the Russian Federation and its plans to annex Crimea.”
The Tatars, who consider Crimea their homeland and trace their history to the era of Genghis Khan, noted that they’ve face more than 200 years of repression under Russian rule. Their population has slumped to just 12 percent of Crimea’s total under a determined Russian campaign to move them out, including a decision by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to relocate them, a move the statement referred to as the “genocide of May 18, 1944, when the whole Crimean Tatar people was subjected to the forcible deportation from its historical homeland.”
The rump Crimean government said that 40 percent of the Tatars participated in Sunday’s referendum, but the Tatar council said the participation rate was only 1 percent.