NEW: U.S. House approves resolution condemning Russia, urging sanctions
NEW: OSCE chief says Crimea referendum would make things worse
Pro-Russian billboards portray Crimea under the swastika
Russia calls Crimea vote "absolutely legitimate," cites Kosovo precedent
The pro-Russian government of Ukraine’s southeastern Crimean region declared independence Tuesday ahead of a scheduled referendum on whether to join Russia, ignoring international warnings that the vote won’t be recognized.
In the regional capital Simferopol, pro-Russian militiamen guarded the airport and train station, some wearing armbands that proclaimed their allegiance to “the autonomous republic of Crimea.” Flights into the region from Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, were canceled Tuesday, while flights from Moscow appeared to be landing as scheduled.
A guard at the railway station told CNN that he and his comrades were looking out for weapons being shipped in from the rest of Ukraine.
Tuesday’s declaration from the Crimean parliament announced that if its population votes in favor of joining Russia on Sunday, it will ask the Russian Federation if it can join with Moscow. Almost immediately afterward, the Russian parliament announced it would debate whether to accept Crimea as part of the country on March 21.
Ukraine’s interim government, backed by the United States and European powers, has said the upcoming vote is illegitimate.
And from Russia, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – run out of his country in a revolt that triggered the current crisis – insisted he was still the legitimate leader and vowed to return to Kiev “as soon as the circumstances allow.”
Yanukovych fled Kiev on February 22, after three months of protests against his decision to scrap a trade deal with the European Union and embrace closer ties with Russia. Less than a week later, armed men seized the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol and raised the Russian flag above it.
Ukrainian government forces in Crimea have been surrounded in their bases by well-equipped troops wearing uniforms with no insignia – troops Western countries say are Russian but whom Moscow calls local “self-defense” forces. The move has effectively severed the strategic peninsula, which has an ethnic Russian majority, from the rest of Ukraine.
U.S. and Western diplomats have urged Russia to enter into talks with Ukraine, but Russian officials have shown little interest. While the West is preparing sanctions against Russia over the standoff, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, that “there is an off-ramp here,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.
“Any discussion about the future of Crimea needs to take place with the new government of Ukraine at the table, engaged in it, participating in that conversation,” Psaki said. The United States understands that Russia has interests in Crimea, “but those interests in no way justify military intervention or the use of force,” she added.
The U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine and urging economic and other sanctions in response. In a 402-7 vote, lawmakers approved a nonbinding resolution stating that Russia’s action poses a “threat to international peace and security” and calling on Russia to remove “all of its military forces from Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula” other than those that are there in accordance with an agreement on operations of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
The resolution urges the Obama administration to “work with our European allies and other countries to impose visa, financial, trade, and other sanctions on senior Russian Federation officials, majority state-owned banks and commercial organizations, and other state agencies, as appropriate.”
Lavrov said Monday that Kerry had postponed a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss U.S. proposals, which Moscow has effectively rejected. The meeting would have marked the highest-level contact between the two countries since Russian troops took up positions in Crimea.
The head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe also said the referendum would be illegal. Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, the OSCE’s current chairman, said holding the referendum without everyone affected being on board would “provoke tensions instead of leading to sustainable solutions.”
OSCE monitors have been denied entry into Crimea by armed men several times since the crisis began.