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Crimea official says 96.8 percent of voters support joining Russia

Crimea official says 96.8 percent of voters support joining Russia 17.03.2014
Text: FOX News
Photo: Central Navy Portal

The United States and its European allies are expected to announce sanctions against Russia sometime Monday after Crimea's election chief announced that just under 97 percent of voters in the region supported leaving Ukraine and becoming a Russian province in a referendum held Sunday.

Mikhail Malyshev said in a televised news conference that the final tally of voters in favor of joining Russia was 96.77 percent. The announcement was merely confirmation of what had been expected once the referendum was announced by the region's parliament earlier this month.

The election had been denounced as illegal and destabilizing by the U.S., the European Union, and the interim Ukrainian government. The vote offered residents of the strategic Black Sea peninsula the choice of seeking annexation by Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy.

President Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the vote, and the White House said it would reject the results of the referendum held "under threats of violence and intimidation."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also spoke to Putin by phone Sunday, proposing that an international observer mission in Ukraine be expanded quickly as tensions rise in the east. Her spokesman said she also condemned the Russian seizure of a gas plant near the Ukrainian village of Strilkove Saturday.

Opponents of secession appeared to largely stay away Sunday, denouncing the vote as a cynical power play/land grab by Russia. But turnout was reported to be well above the 50 percent that would make the referendum binding.

The Crimean parliament planned to meet Monday to formally ask Moscow to be annexed, and Crimean lawmakers were to fly to Moscow later in the day for talks, Crimea's pro-Russia prime minister said on Twitter. Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky said the annexation could take "from three days to three months," according to the Interfax news agency.

Valery Ryazantsev, head of Russia's observer mission in Crimea and a lawmaker from the upper house of the Russian parliament, said Monday that the results are beyond dispute. He told the Interfax news agency that there are "absolutely no reasons to consider the vote results illegitimate."

Senior officials in Moscow were discussing Crimea's annexation as a fait accompli. Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov said the region could receive tax breaks.

"We want to go back home, and today we are going back home," said Viktoria Chernyshova, a 38-year-old businesswoman. "We needed to save ourselves from those unprincipled clowns who have taken power in Kiev."

Ukraine's new government in Kiev called the referendum a "circus" directed at gunpoint by Moscow, referring to the thousands of troops that now occupy the peninsula, which has traded hands repeatedly since ancient times.

"Today is a holiday!" said 66-year-old Vera Sverkunova, breaking into a patriotic war song: "I want to go home to Russia. It's been so long since I've seen my mama."

The referendum comes two weeks after Russian-led forces seized control of Crimea. Locals say they fear the new Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last month will oppress them.

Putin insisted the referendum was conducted in "full accordance with international law and the U.N. charter." At the United Nations on Saturday, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution declaring the referendum illegal. China, its ally, abstained and 13 of the 15 other nations on the council voted in favor -- a signal of Moscow's isolation.

Andrew Weiss, vice president for Russian and East European studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested the confrontation could intensify.

Russia "is really turning its back on the outside world and is basically going to say to the West, 'Now, go ahead. Show us how tough you are.' And the West, I think, is struggling to come with an adequate response."

Ukraine's Regional Policy Minister Volodymyr Groisman told The Associated Press that the new government was already working on giving towns and regions more autonomy but said there were no plans to turn Ukraine into a federation.

In Donetsk, one of the main cities in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russia demonstrators called Sunday for a referendum similar to the one in Crimea and some of them stormed the prosecutor-general's office.

In Sevastopol, speakers blared the city anthem up and down the streets, giving off a block-party feeling. But the military threat was not far away -- a Russian naval warship still blocked the port's outlet to the Black Sea, trapping Ukrainian boats.

At a polling station inside a historic school, tears came to Vladimir Lozovoy, a 75-year-old retired Soviet naval officer, as he talked about his vote.

"I want to cry. I have finally returned to my motherland. It is an incredible feeling. This is the thing I have been waiting for for 23 years," he said.

But Crimea's large Muslim Tatar minority - whose families had been forcibly removed from their homeland and sent to Central Asia during Soviet times -- remained defiant.

The Crimea referendum "is a clown show, a circus," Tatar activist Refat Chubarov said on Crimea's Tatar television station. "This is a tragedy, an illegitimate government with armed forces from another country."

The fate of Ukrainian soldiers trapped in their Crimean bases by pro-Russian forces was still uncertain. Crimea's pro-Russian authorities have said if those soldiers don't surrender after Sunday's vote, they will be considered "illegal."

"This is our land and we're not going anywhere from this land," Ukraine's acting defense minister, Igor Tenyuk, was quoted as saying Sunday by the Interfax news agency.

But Tenyuk later said an agreement had been reached with Russia that its forces would not block Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea through Friday. It was not clear exactly what that meant.

On the streets of Simferopol, blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags were nowhere to seen but red, white and blue Russian and Crimean flags fluttered in abundance.

Ethnic Ukrainians interviewed outside the Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral of Vladimir and Olga said they refused to take part in the referendum, calling it an illegal charade stage-managed by Moscow. Some said they were scared of the potential for widespread discrimination and harassment in the coming weeks, similar to what happened in parts of nearby Georgia, another former Soviet republic, after its 2008 war with Russia.

"We're just not going to play these separatist games," said Yevgen Sukhodolsky, a 41-year-old prosecutor from Saki, a town outside Simferopol. "Putin is the fascist. The Russian government is fascist."

Vasyl Ovcharuk, a retired gas pipe layer who worked at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, predicted dark days ahead for Crimea.

"This will end up in military action, in which peaceful people will suffer. And that means everybody. Shells and bullets are blind," he said.

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