Crimeans Vote In Secession Referendum

Crimea votes on a referendum that would set the stage for secession from Ukraine. Correspondent Gregory Warner joins NPR's Rachel Martin to describe the atmosphere Simferopol.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Weeks after Russia sent armed troops into Crimea, voters there are going to the polls to vote on a referendum that would pave the way for them to join Russia, or remain as part of Ukraine but with great autonomy. Yesterday, members of the U.N. Security Council voted on a U.S.-backed resolution condemning the election, a resolution Russia predictably vetoed. Meanwhile, there are reports Russian forces have expanded their reach into Ukraine, seizing a natural gas terminal. NPR's Gregory Warner is out on the streets of Simferopol, Crimea's capital. He's watching the vote. He joins us on the line. Greg, what are you seeing?

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Well, what I'm seeing is quite a scene. I'm here at Lenin Square. There's a sound stage set up. There are men and women in stilts, Russian flags, Crimean flags, motorcycle riders, crowds, ready to celebrate what they think is surely the expected conclusion of today's referendum, which will be a vote to join Russia. And everybody's in a kind of joyous, anticipatory mood.

MARTIN: Joyous, anticipatory. So it's just a foregone conclusion that the resolution to break away from Ukraine is going to pass?

WARNER: You know, the results of this vote are quite well expected. However, what happens after that is a real question. What will Russia do? Will it recognize this? What will the West do? Will it impose economic sanctions? And now, we're also wondering what Ukraine will do. The Ukrainian prime minister has now said that he will go after, that Ukraine will go after what he calls the separatists. This is a quote. "Even if it take one year, two years to bring them to justice, we will try them in Ukrainian courts. The ground will burn beneath their feet." Very strong words from Ukrainian prime minister who is fully against this Crimean referendum.

MARTIN: And a we mention, there are reports that pro-Russian forces went beyond Crimea last night. What can you tell us about that?

WARNER: This is the most worrying sign, in a sense that Russian troops allegedly, according to Ukraine, landed by helicopter in a small (technical difficulties) outside Crimea called Kherson and they took over a gas plant there. One of the issues here is that Ukraine controls all the gas and electricity and water that come into Crimea, so that would be a way to sort of put some pressure on the separatists. Russia was perhaps trying to prevent that and made this incursion over Crimean border.

The troop build-up just in the last few days has increased to 22,000 Russian troops coming into the Crimean Peninsula. That's according, again, to the Ukrainian government. But that's the worrying sign; what are they going to do next? Are they going to move up in Eastern Ukraine? That's also a worry.

MARTIN: And when does the voting end, Greg? And when will there be results?

WARNER: The voting ends at 10 p.m. tonight. We don't really know when there'll be results. There'll be an initial announcement tonight and hopefully something tomorrow morning. But the Crimean authorities say they have week to count it. But it probably won't take that long.

MARTIN: NPR's Gregory Warner, speaking to us from the streets of Simferopol in Crimea. Thanks so much, Greg.

WARNER: Thanks a lot.

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