Fireworks exploded and Russian flags fluttered above jubilant crowds on Sunday after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. The United States and Europe condemned the ballot as illegal and destabilizing and were expected to slap sanctions on Russia for it.
Ukraine's new government in Kiev called the referendum a "circus" directed at gunpoint by Moscow — referring to the thousands of Russian troops now in the strategic Black Sea peninsula after seizing it two weeks ago.
But after the polls closed late on Sunday, crowds of ethnic Russians in the regional Crimean capital of Simferopol erupted with jubilant chants in the main square, overjoyed at the prospect of once again becoming part of Russia.
The Crimea referendum offered voters the choice of seeking annexation with Russia or remaining in Ukraine with greater autonomy. After 50 per cent of the ballots were counted, Mikhail Malishev, head of the referendum committee, said more than 95 per cent of voters had approved joining Russia.
Crimea referendum and independence
Crimea referendum and independence
1/14 Crimea Referendum
A man shows his shirt with the Russian emblem as he celebrates the results of the Crimean referendum at the Lenin Square in Simferopol
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An elderly retired Soviet Navy officer and his wife take a walk in Sevastopol the morning after the referendum
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A man plays accordion as people dance during celebrations in Sevastopol
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People wave Russian flags as fireworks explode in the sky over Sevastopol following the announcement of the result of the referendum
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A member of a Ukrainian "Maidan" self-defense battalion takes part in training to qualify for service in the newly-created National Guard.
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Pro-Russian protesters hold a Russian, Crimean and Soviet flags during their rally at Lenin Square in Simferopol, Ukraine
7/14 Crimea Referendum
A member of the Crimean election commission waits for voters at the polling station in Belogorsk near Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine
8/14 Crimea Referendum
Polling stations opened in Crimea for a referendum about whether the Ukrainian Black Sea region should join Russia. The vote has been widely condemned by Western governments, who call it illegal and have announced sanctions against Russia if it goes ahead. Thousands of unmarked forces, believed to be Russian, have appeared in Crimea after local Moscow-backed authorities asked Russia for protection against 'extremists' in the new Ukrainian leadership
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A lettering on the facade of the Council of Ministers building reads 'Spring in Crimea' in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine
10/14 Crimea Referendum
People wave Crimean flags at Lenin square in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine
11/14 Crimea Referendum
A poster in Crimea presents a stark choice - Nazism, or Russia - to voters ahead of the referendum
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Protesters against Ukraine’s referendum gather in Simferopol
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Action stations: Preparations for today’s referendum in Simferopol, where Crimea will vote to become part of Russia
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Cossacks guard the regional parliament building in Simferopol during the Crimean referendum
A written statement from the White House calls Russia's actions in Ukraine "dangerous and destabilizing."
The US is urging other nations to "take concrete steps to impose costs" against Russia.
Polls opened at 8am local time, but with Crimea made up of an ethnic Russian majority and many anti-Moscow supporters boycotting the vote, the announcement of preliminary results later today will be little more than a formality.
Ukraine’s acting defence minister today hit out at what he said was the continued build-up of Russian military personnel in Crimea, meaning the referendum is now taking place under the careful watch of around 22,000 occupying troops.
The path that has led Ukraine to this point can be traced to the fact that the ousted President Viktor Yanukovych had two powerful bases of support: Russia, and the pro-Russian regions of the country’s east and south-east.
The eventually bloody protests which led to his deposition began when Yanukovych derailed a long-expected political and economic agreement with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia.
A peace deal between the government and opposition was overseen by EU diplomats, but that arrangement was overtaken within days when protesters took control of the capital, Kiev, and police abandoned posts. Parliament voted to remove the president from power and soon appointed a replacement.
In pictures: Ukraine crisis
In pictures: Ukraine crisis
1/12 Ukraine crisis
People shout slogans during a pro Russian rally at a central square in Donetsk. Pro Russian activists continued to gather on Saturday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, as Russia was reported to be reinforcing its military presence in Crimea.
2/12 Ukraine crisis
In the same pro Russian rally, demonstrators show their support. Ukraine's ambassador to Russia and a deputy Russian foreign minister held a "cordial" meeting on Saturday, Moscow said, without giving details of any discussion of Russian-occupied Crimea.
3/12 Ukraine crisis
Crimean ethnic tatars stand on the roadside as Russian troops move towards to Simferopol in the settlement of Kok-Asan, some 70 kilometres from Simferopol in Crimea.
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Russian troops stand on a roadside in the settlement of Opytnoye, some 70 kilometres from Simferopol.
5/12 Ukraine crisis
Armed members of the first unit of a pro-Russian armed force, dubbed the "military forces of the autonomous republic of Crimea" march before the swearing-in ceremony in Simferopol, Ukraine. Some 30 men armed with automatic weapons and another 20 or so unarmed, were sworn in at a park in front of an eternal flame to those killed in World War II.
6/12 Ukraine crisis
A group of Cossacks march past a statue of Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin in Simferopol as tensions in the area continue to rise.
7/12 Ukraine crisis
An armed member of the first unit of a pro-Russian armed force, dubbed the "military forces of the autonomous republic of Crimea" signs the oath during the swearing-in ceremony in Simferopol,
8/12 Ukraine crisis
9/12 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian soldiers load their armed personnel carriers (APCs) into boxcars in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Pro-Kremlin militia fired warning shots as unarmed foreign observers tried to enter Crimea on the 8th.
10/12 Ukraine crisis
An abandoned naval ship sunk by the Russian navy to block the entrance is seen in the Crimean port of Yevpatorya on March 8th.
11/12 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian sailors stand guard on top of the Ukrainian navy ship at the Crimean port of Yevpatorya.
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Crimea's pro-Moscow leader Sergei Aksyonov speaks to the media in Simferopol on the 8th March. He has defended a decision to hold a referendum on whether the region should join Russia, saying on Saturday that "no one" could cancel the voting.
Russia declared the change a coup d’état, and heavily-armed troops apparently under command from Moscow began securing key positions in Crimea.
The referendum was then announced, despite heavy criticism from the EU and US, with a ballot featuring two options: One, to grant Crimea greater autonomy within Ukraine. The other, which is widely expected to secure the bulk of support, envisions annexation by Russia.
What little actual campaigning there's been in Crimea has taken place under the often menacing gaze of local militia forces, as well as the seemingly Russian military. In the face of overwhelming evidence, Russia denies it has deployed any troops.
The pro-annexation message has been crude but effective, and is aimed at instilling alarm over the new Ukrainian government's purported design to marginalize the country's ethnic Russian population.
One billboard showed two maps of Crimea: one emblazoned in the tricolor of the Russian flag - the same colours as the Crimean one. The other showed it against a crimson background and stamped with a swastika.
If those who vote in Crimea decide to break away from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia, the final decision will be up to Moscow. It has said it won't comment until after the referendum.
The Russian legislative process that would be required to annex Crimea may already be underway. But Crimea's Russia-backed leader Sergei Aksyonov has said the full annexation process could take a year.
Another factor will be what steps the EU and the US take with sanctions to punish Russia for what they regard as an illegal referendum.
The US has already threatened to cut off Russian corporations from the Western financial system. Russia and the EU are big trading partners, and if they begin imposing sanctions on one another that could sharply affect international markets, which already have been rattled by the political chaos in Ukraine and Crimea.
Crimean authorities say if Ukrainian soldiers resolutely occupying their garrisons don't surrender after Sunday's vote, they will be considered “illegal”.
Leaders of the mainly Muslim Crimean Tatar minority, who make up more than one-tenth of the region's population, insist they want to remain part of Ukraine and worry about what fate awaits them in a country they have no desire to join.
Once Crimea's pro-Russian leadership seals some vague semblance of legitimacy through the referendum, attention will likely swing to eastern Ukraine, another heavily Russian-populated area in which the central government is struggling to stamp its authority.
The government in Kiev reported last night that Russian forces had moved across the border to occupy a strategic location in the Kherson region.
A national presidential election set for 25 May is seen by the interim authorities as an opportunity to restore democratic processes in a country currently run by an interim post-revolutionary Cabinet. However, perceptions of an uncertain security situation could undermine confidence in what that vote produces.
Additional reporting by AP and PAReuse content