Crimea Votes On Secession. What Happens Next?

Crimea is voting Sunday on a referendum that could lead to a separation from Ukraine, but those opposed to the move have no choice but to abstain. Correspondent Gregory Warner talks with NPR's Arun Rath from Simferopol.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Crimeans went to the polls today to decide whether to join Russia and secede from Ukraine. According to Crimean officials, early exit poll results show that more than 90 percent of Crimeans voted to secede.

Gregory Warner is in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, and he joins me now. Greg, where are you, and what's happening?

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Well, I'm in the middle of Lenin Square in Simferopol, and there are hundreds of people here waving Crimean flags, Russian flags and even some Soviet Union flags. And everybody's just very excited, and there's a lot of drunkenness and celebration. People are waiting to have it official to know that Crimea has voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

RATH: Yeah. It sounds extremely festive. What are people there telling you?

WARNER: Well, you know, I talked to a number of people at the polling stations, and people said that, you know, the reason that they were voting for Russia - and everybody I spoke to was voting for Russia, as you can see by the numbers - but people said, well, they were voting for a greater Russia. Some of them said that they wanted stability. Other people said, you know, we've been waiting 23 years for this, 23 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. There's been a lot of Soviet nostalgia.

But the odd thing about this celebratory mood in this crowd is that with such overwhelming election results, so little has been decided. I mean, the west has not recognized this referendum. It was conducted with - under, as Kiev says, a circus directed at gunpoint with 22,000 elite Russian troops walking the streets.

And the Kiev government, of course, says this whole referendum was unconstitutional. Crimea responds by saying, well, you violated your own constitution by having this revolution. So there are these competing claims of illegitimacy. And that doesn't make either side legitimate.

Right now, the question, what will Russia do? Will it annex this peninsula? And then what will the west do? Will it impose economic sanctions as it promises?

RATH: And has there been any reaction from the Ukrainian government in Kiev to what's happened so far today?

WARNER: You know, just in the past 24 hours, there's been this increasingly pugilistic rhetoric coming from the Ukrainian government. Ukraine has said that Russia is imminently attacking. Ukraine also said that Russia did cross Crimea's border and attack a gas plant, took over a gas plant in a nearby peninsula called Kherson.

And right now in Kiev, there are thousands of people signing up for the National Guard. The Kiev says - or Ukraine says that it wants 60,000 people for a National Guard to potentially fight Russia.

The big question in the next few days is going to be the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers that are being held hostage essentially by Russian or pro-Russian troops. Right now, there is, just in the last few hours, been announced a truce between Ukraine and Russia. So that will extend that - or really just delay that question by a few days. But this whole conflict has come with a series of ultimatums. So things are getting very, very tense between these two countries.

RATH: And quickly, Greg, what about the additional troops Russia has been bringing to the border with Crimea? Any sense what happens next?

WARNER: Well, right now, all attention turns to Eastern Ukraine. Eastern Ukraine is Russian-speaking. It favors the deposed president of Ukraine. And there's been violence now in the cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv.

So the question is, will Russia enter mainland Ukraine? President Putin has said that he's very concerned about the violence up in the east, which suggests that he might be thinking about invading that area. Then, of course, all bets are off. This conflict becomes a whole lot bigger.

RATH: NPR's Gregory Warner in Simferopol. Greg, thank you.

WARNER: Thanks, Arun.

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