Voters in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula have cast ballots in a referendum widely expected to endorse joining Russia. The United States and the European Union strongly objected to the vote, and could announce punitive steps against Russia and additional support for Ukraine.
Voter turnout was high and dominated by pro-Russian Crimeans, including retired Soviet sailor Vladimir Lozovoy.
“I want to cry. Finally I have returned to my motherland. It is an incredible feeling. I have been waiting for this for 23 years,” said Lozovoy.
In the Ukrainian capital, some prayed for peace while bracing for open conflict with Russia.
“It is difficult to predict what will happen, but [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will not stop in Crimea, he will want all of Ukraine,” said one churchgoer in Kyiv.
U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, just returned from a trip to Kyiv. Speaking on ABC’s This Week, he did not rule out a showdown.
“Ukrainians are not going to go down (surrender) without a fight. If Russia really does decide to move beyond Crimea, it is going to be bloody and the fight may be long. And [Ukrainians] need help from the United States,” said Murphy.
The White House has promised a swift response to the referendum and any additional Russian advances into Ukraine.
“There most definitely will be additional costs if Russia escalates this conflict rather than de-escalates. And they will be imposed by the United States, but also by our European partners,” said spokesman Jay Carney.
Senator Murphy concedes the United States and the European Union have limited options.
“I do not think there is anything we can do militarily. Clearly, this is a longer term effort to build up the Ukrainian military. But if Monday we announce, with the EU, a set of crippling sanctions against individuals and Russian business entities, that sends a strong message to Putin,” said Murphy.
The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on a package of assistance for Ukraine and punitive steps against Moscow when lawmakers return from a recess next week. The House of Representatives approved a similar package earlier this month.