Crimea MPs set referendum to join Russia

Lawmakers in the embattled Ukrainian region of Crimea have voted to join Russia, in a move likely to further escalate tensions over the peninsula.

Thursday’s vote by the Moscow-backed Crimean parliament comes as European Union leaders are holding an emergency summit in Brussels to discuss how to get Russia to back down from its military incursion into Crimea. U.S. lawmakers are also meeting Thursday to discuss potential economic sanctions against Russia.

Russia has denied that it has sent troops to Crimea in addition to those already stationed there as part of its Black Sea fleet, a claim challenged both by the West and Ukraine’s new leadership in Kyiv.

The parliament of Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula with a majority ethnic Russian population, said Thursday it is scheduling a referendum on joining Russia for March 16. Russian President Vladimir Putin is being asked to consider the appeal.

Commenting on the development, a senior U.S. official said any decisions about the future of Crimea must involve the Ukrainian government in Kyiv.

“With respect to the referendum that was announced, it is the belief of the United States that decisions about Crimea or any part of Ukraine need to be made with the government in Kyiv,” the official told reporters.

Ukraine’s new prime minster, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, has said the referendum on Crimea’s status is “illegitimate” and has “no legal grounds.”

“Crimea is was and will be an integral part of Ukraine,” added he.

Ukraine to defend itself

Ukraine’s armed forces will act if Russian military intervention escalates any further into Ukraine’s territory, Yatsenyuk told a news conference on Thursday.

“In case of further escalation and military intervention into the Ukrainian territory by foreign forces, the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian military will act in accordance with the constitution and laws,” Yatsenyuk said in Brussels.

“We are ready to protect our country,” he said.

Ukrainian forces have so far not responded to the Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula. But this could change if the Russian intervention escalated, he said.

Yatsenyuk, who came to Brussels to discuss the crisis with the leaders of the 28 countries of the European Union, said the talks with EU leaders were only about political and peaceful means of resolving the conflict.

(Crimea’s parliament building in Simferopol. Photo: TheFlyingDutchman/Wikimedia Commons)