Eastern Region Of Ukraine To Vote On Joining Russia

Photo courtesy of CBS News.

Photo courtesy of CBS News.

CBS News – Lawmakers in the embattled Crimean region ofUkraine have decided to hold a referendum March 16 on whether Crimea should become part of Russia.

“This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev,” Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the local Crimean legislature, said Thursday. “We will decide our future ourselves.”

The parliament in Crimea, which enjoys a degree of autonomy under current Ukrainian law, voted 78 with eight abstentions in favor of holding the referendum. Local voters will also be given the choice of deciding to remain part of Ukraine, but with enhanced local powers.

According to Russian media, the Crimean parliament also formally requested that Moscow initiate the process by which Crimea could become part of the Russian Federation.

CBS News Moscow bureau chief Svetlana Berdnikova said reports suggested a new bill could be adopted by the Russian parliament as soon as next week, simplifying how regions of foreign states can join the Russian Federation. The State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s legislature, was expected to consider Crimea’s request in meetings next week.

There was no immediate response from the Ukrainian central government to the vote. On Wednesday, Ukraine’s prime minister told The Associated Press that Crimea would remain part of Ukraine.

The move comes amid a tense but thus far peaceful standoff in Crimea as pro-Russian forces — including dozens of trained soldiers wearing no insignia who the Kremlin insists are not Russian troops — have either taken over or surrounded most Ukrainian military bases and ships.

Ukraine is an ethnically divided nation; Crimea is home to a large number of ethnic Russians — with a significant proportion of the regional population describing Russian — rather than the Ukrainian spoken almost ubiquitously in the western half of the country — as their native language.

CBS News’ Elizabeth Palmer reported Wednesday that Ukrainian soldiers were refusing to leave their bases and sailors were refusing demands from Russian forces to abandon their ships. Palmer stood on the banks of a bay in Crimea Thursday morning, with the massive hull of a capsized ship protruding out of the water behind her. Ukrainian forces told her they suspected their Russian counterparts had sunk the vessel overnight to block access to the port.

Russia has effectively taken over the peninsula, which it officially controlled as part of its own territory until the mid-1990s, during the last week, prompting cries of an “invasion” and a “declaration of war” from Kiev’s newly-installed leadership and an ongoing threat of sanctions against Moscow from the U.S. and Europe.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was to hold further discussions Thursday in Rome with Secretary of State John Kerry, who was unable to get Lavrov and leaders from the Ukrainian government to meet face-to-face in Paris the day before.

Foreign ministers from Ukraine, Russia and Western nations did agree Wednesday to continue discussions in the coming days on how to stabilize Ukraine and presented a number of ideas for reaching that goal, Kerry told reporters late Wednesday.

“We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with Ukrainians in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it and overcome the crisis,” Kerry told reporters.

But the high-stakes diplomacy comes with thethreat from the U.S. government, which, according to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, is “looking into a wide range of options” to respond to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, including sanctions and ways to increase Russia’s political and economic isolation.

The White House also announced Thursday that President Obama had signed an executive order authorizing sanctions against “individuals and entities responsible for activities undermining democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine.”

New visa restrictions were also imposed by the White House on Russians and Crimeans who it said were “threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

European Union leaders, meanwhile, were holding an emergency summit in Brussels on Thursday to decide on imposing its own sanctions against Russia.

The EU leaders were gathering as the 28-nation bloc — which depends on Russia for almost a third of its natural gas supply — sought to find the right response to the conflict unfolding just beyond its eastern border in Ukraine.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Europe “needs to send a very clear message to the Russian government that what has happened is unacceptable and should have consequences.”

“Russia today is dangerous,” said Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.

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