Crimeans Vote To Leave Ukraine, Join Russia

Crimeans voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to leave Ukraine and join Russia. Morning Edition checks in with NPR's Gregory Warner in Simferopol and Eleanor Beardsley in Kiev for the latest.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On a Monday, this is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Officials in Crimea say more than 96 percent of voters cast ballots yesterday in favor of leaving Ukraine and joining Russia. The U.S. and the EU say that referendum was illegal, and they will not recognize the results. They say it could not be a fair vote with Russian military in control of the region. Today, the White House and European Union say they have imposed new sanctions against senior Russian and Ukrainian officials involved in the incursion into Crimea. We'll have more on that in a few minutes. But for its part, Russia says it will look into officially annexing Crimea this week. Joining us to talk about the latest developments are NPR's Gregory Warner in Simferopol, Crimea, and Eleanor Beardsley in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.

And we're going to go to you, Greg, there in Crimea. What are the results of this referendum? I mean, I've just said partly what they are, but how are people feeling there?

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Sure. And the numbers keep changing, I will say. The original predictions were 85 percent would vote to join Russia. Then the exit polls last night said 93 percent. This morning, the prime minister tweeted 95.5 percent, and the latest number is 96.77 percent. So, that's in favor of being annexed. Clearly, this election was highly irregular. As you mentioned, there are armed people in the streets. Russian biker gangs were showing up at poll stations with leather jackets and Russian flags.

I said, isn't this intimidating? They said they didn't care. There were allegations of multiple voting. Pro-Ukrainian Crimeans mostly boycotted the referendum. They stayed home, because the ballot gave people no option to vote to maintain the status quo of Crimea as part of Ukraine. But, look, at the same time, I talked to a number of voters, they were happily voting for Russia.

Some said that they thought Russia would bring higher salaries. Others wanted security from what they see as violence in Kiev, and more than a few longed for a greater Russia and a return to the days of the Soviet Union. So I would say the mood now is very tense, because the pro-Russian majority is pretty outraged that the Western countries won't accept their vote. And pro-Ukrainian people are staying home, very fearful of an expected violent backlash.

MONTAGNE: Well, Eleanor, down there in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, what is the reaction there?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, Renee, this situation is moving so quickly, that I almost don't know what to think. You know, I've been out on the street. You know, the mood is downcast, almost a resignation that whether the referendum was illegal or not, you know, Ukraine has lost Crimea. One woman was crying. Another man said to me: Putin has won. But let me tell you: I have just come out of a press conference with the Ukrainian defense minister, and the government is taking an entirely different tack. It's a very aggressive stance.

He said: Crimea is, was and always will be ours. Russian troops are illegally there. The world is with us, and the Ukrainian military is in full readiness, mobilized in the east and south, and ready to act. Everyone was sort of stunned. And then he took one question, and went out. So that's where I am right now.

I feel a gap between what I'm feeling in the streets - sort of a resignation - and then this aggressive stance by this Ukrainian government, which has called this referendum a circus act at the end of a gun.

MONTAGNE: Well, Eleanor, let me stick with you. What do you expect next there in Kiev?

BEARDSLEY: Well, there's - everyone is looking east, because, you know, they feel that with these large Russian-speaking populations in eastern cities like Donetsk and Kharkiv, that the Russians have their eye on that next. The Ukrainian government said it's closed the border. It's tightly monitoring the border to keep out these gangs of rabble rousers that the Ukrainian government says they're coming in, fomenting trouble, and then giving the Russian military the excuse to come in and protect the people.

So, they want to keep these people out, and I've just been told that troops are on full readiness. So, you know, I'm left with the feeling that if there's any other move by the Russian military or Russian forces, that the Ukrainian military is going to act. That's the way I feel right now, after listening to the defense minister.

MONTAGNE: And Greg there in Crimea, what are you expecting next there?

WARNER: Well, officially Crimean authorities said that today, they will formally ask Russia to annex their peninsula, and then President Putin is due to address the Russian parliament tomorrow. In terms of activists I've talked to, you know, they say they welcome promised economic sanctions from the West to put pressure on Russia, but they are very scared of a war. Remember, this referendum came out because of a perceived threat from Kiev. So this rhetoric from Ukraine is definitely making people more and more scared of what might happen.

Two more journalists allegedly disappeared today. There were more militia in the city streets today than any day I've been here. And then, of course, there are thousands of soldiers being held hostage in military bases in Crimea. Originally, they had a deadline of today to leave the territory or abandon Ukraine and join Crimea.

I went over to one of those bases. I talked to the commander. He said he's trying to keep up morale, playing patriotic movies and patriotic music, but these guys are trapped and they could become pawns in the standoff, or, weirdly enough, hostages in a conflict and enemy combatants in newly declared foreign territory.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you both. That's NPR's Gregory Warner in Simferopol, Crimea and also NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Kiev, Ukraine.

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