KIEV – Crimea declared independence Monday and applied to join Russia while the Kremlin braced for sanctions after the flash point peninsula voted to leave Ukraine in a ballot that has fanned the worst East-West tensions since the Cold War.
Official results from Sunday’s disputed referendum showed 96.77 percent of the voters in the mostly Russian-speaking region opting for Kremlin rule in what would be the most radical redrawing of the map of Europe since Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.
Crimea’s lawmakers also declared the Russian ruble the peninsula’s second official currency and vowed to “disband” the Ukrainian military units stationed across the region — a move that threatens to inflame the raging security crisis on the European Union’s eastern frontier.
The vote was strongly condemned by Washington and Brussels, with EU foreign ministers meeting to discuss sanctions against Moscow.
Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchinov, denounced the vote as a “great farce” and watched from a podium as agitated lawmakers approved a partial mobilization of the army aimed at countering Russian troops’ effective seizure of Crimea.
The ex-Soviet nation’s acting defense minister, Igor Tenyukh, also firmly told reporters that the “troops deployed (in Crimea) will stay there.”
Most of the international community has rejected the referendum as illegal because Russia had vowed to respect its neighbor’s territorial integrity under a 1994 agreement that saw Ukraine renounce its Soviet-era nuclear arms.
But the government in Crimea announced a series of measures to sever ties with Kiev — including seizing Ukrainian institutions and even plans to set the peninsula on Moscow time, two hours ahead.
The White House said President Barack Obama warned Russian leader Vladimir Putin that Washington and its allies would “never” recognize Crimea’s breakaway vote.
Obama warned that “Russia’s actions were in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and that, in coordination with our European partners, we are prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions,” the White House said.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also said Europe needed to send the “strongest possible signals” to Russia at a meeting of the 28-nation bloc’s foreign ministers Monday.
The ministers are widely expected to approve “targeted” sanctions against Russian or pro-Kremlin Ukrainian leaders that could include both travel restrictions and asset freezes.
The measures — reportedly affecting top Russian ministers and presidential aides, but not Putin himself — are meant to demonstrate the West’s united resolve to punish the Kremlin for its overt show of post-Soviet might.
Putin has signaled no intention to turn back from what he describes as his defense of ethnic Russians who, according to Moscow, have come under increasing attack from Ukrainian ultranationalists since last month’s ouster in Kiev of a pro-Kremlin regime by a far more nationalist but Western-leaning team.
The Kremlin said Putin “emphasized” to Obama that the referendum “was fully in line with the norms of international law and the U.N. charter.”
It said Putin pointed out “the well-known precedent of Kosovo” — a mostly Muslim region of former Soviet ally Yugoslavia whose independence is backed by Washington but not recognized by the Kremlin.
Putin on Tuesday will make a special address on the crisis that will be attended by lawmakers from Russia’s two houses of parliament. Crimea’s self-declared leader, Sergiy Aksyonov, also tweeted on Monday that he was flying to Moscow for talks.
Russia’s lower house of parliament is expected to debate legislation on Friday simplifying the process under which the Kremlin can annex another part of a sovereign state.
But the overwhelming margin of victory for the pro-Kremlin camp underscores the mistrust the heavily “Russified” southeast of Ukraine shares for the European leanings of those who rose to power on the back of three months of deadly protests in Kiev.
Alcohol-fueled celebrations swept cities across the diamond-shaped Black Sea peninsula as Russian flags flew and refrains from Soviet-era songs filled the rain-soaked streets.
“We’re free of the occupation!” Lucia Prokorovna said amid bursts of fireworks in Russia’s historic naval port of Sevastopol late Sunday.
“Ukraine was attached to Crimea like a sack of potatoes,” the 60-year-old said in reference to the decision by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushev — a native Ukrainian — to present the peninsula to Kiev as a gift in 1954.
Aksyonov — recognized by Moscow but rejected as illegitimate by Kiev and most of the world — hailed the referendum as a “historic moment.”
“We’re going home. Crimea is going to Russia,” he told those gathered in Lenin Square.
Not everyone in Crimea was happy with the result.
Some ethnic Ukrainians expressed bewilderment at a referendum that presented them with only two choices: join Russia or go back to a 1992 constitution under which Crimea became a de facto sovereign state.
The status quo or better terms with Kiev were not options — a reality that along with the massive presence of Russian troops across the region prompted British Foreign Secretary William Hague to call the vote a “mockery” of democracy.
One of the greatest uncertainties hanging over Crimea itself is how the economically devastated region that relies on Kiev for everything from energy to water can survive in the span it would take to formally be accepted as a part of Russia.
Aksyonov tweeted Monday that Crimea had received a 15 billion ruble ($410-million) aid package from Moscow.
Crimean lawmakers also claimed rights to the pipelines as well as offshore oil and natural gas platforms of Ukraine’s state-owned Chornomorneftegaz and Ukrtransgaz energy firms.
Russia’s finance ministry meanwhile suggested turning Crimea into a temporary low-tax zone aimed at helping the region deal with the transition.
Nationalist voices in Ukraine are calling on Kiev authorities to cut off Crimea from basic supplies in an effort to get its leaders to reverse course.
“Crimea’s access to gas, electricity, water and food staples is in danger — and Russia will not be able to compensate,” said Penta institute analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.