SIMFEROPOL - Authorities in Ukraine's separatist Crimean republic say voters have overwhelmingly approved union with Russia in a controversial referendum that has Western leaders preparing sanctions against Moscow. On Monday, Crimea's parliament approved the referendum, declared independence, and formally applied to become part of Russia.
It's now official: Crimeans, already effectively under Russian and pro-Russian control, have made the choice to break from Ukraine and join Russia. Following Sunday's pro-Russian vote, Crimea's regional assembly has applied to become part of the Russian Federation.
But what comes next after the referendum, both here on the Black Sea peninsula and among world leaders divided in ways that recall Cold War tensions, is far from clear.
Lawmakers in Moscow promise to push aside legal obstacles to allow Crimea to enter the Russian Federation. But immediate concerns for the region, which has no land border with Russia, include supplying it with energy, water and other basic commodities it now gets from mainland Ukraine.
The larger showdown over what Western leaders call the annexation of Crimea by Russian forces and an illegal referendum looms.
Moscow defends Crimea’s move as upholding the principle of self-determination . A phone call between U.S. and Russian presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin reportedly did little to close the gap.
Foreign observers, invited by Crimea’s pro-Russian government , defended the referendum as keeping to international norms. Belgian monitor Frank Creyelman dismissed critics, including from the new government in Kyiv, that the vote was held at the barrel of a gun.
“It’s a little bit peculiar that the people who say that had a bit of street rioting and got into power like that," said Creyelman.
Moscow also challenges Ukraine’s leadership, which ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych after popular, pro-European protests last month, sparking the current crisis.
But Moscow’s post-Soviet intentions toward its neighbors have been a concern long in the making. And as Washington, the European Union and others refuse to recognize the Crimean vote, Western leaders are nervously watching Russia’s next moves in the rest of Ukraine.