Pro-Russian supporters gathered at Crimea's parliament as lawmakers inside voted unanimously Thursday to break with Ukraine and join the Russian republic. Crimeans are to vote on the measure March 16.
"This means we have reunited with our motherland which we have been a part of for so long," said local parliament member Sergei Tsekov and the chairman of the Russian community of Crimea. "We have reunited with the Russian Federation."
"I am sure that most Crimea residents will be happy about it and will applaud that." he said "And I am sure the majority of Crimea residents will support our decision at the referendum."
The vote is a serious escalation of the crisis on the peninsula, which in the last week has fallen under the control of forces widely believed to be Russian. Lawmakers in Moscow also recently began steps to make joining Russia easier.
Thursday's declaration in Simferopol was immediately denounced in Kyiv, under which Crimea has special status as an autonomous republic.
"This is an illegitimate decision and this so-called referendum has no legal grounds at all," said Ukranian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, "That's the reason why we urge Russian government not to support those who claim separatism in Ukraine. Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine."
Non-ethnic Russians in Crimea were also alarmed by developments, questioning not just the legality of the referendum, but of the current parliament itself, formed after gunmen seized the building last week.
"We don't recognize this government that was voted in unlegitimate way under the pressure of gunmen,” said Crimean Tatar politician Abduraman Egiz. “In all the world, of course this is not acceptable. We cannot accept, we cannot recognize this government."
But those opposed to the move are not only outnumbered by the region's ethnic Russian majority politically. They are also outgunned by the presence of troops loyal to the pro-Russian side.
VOA's Sebastan Meyer also contributed to this report.