Above: President Barack Obama convenes a National Security Council meeting in the Situation Room of the White House to discuss the situation in Ukraine, March 3, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
KIEV, Ukraine (March 6, 2014) (CNN) — We’re leaving. No, you’re not.
That’s where the crisis in Ukraine stood Thursday after lawmakers in Crimea voted in favor of leaving the country for Russia and putting it to a regional vote in 10 days.
It’s an act that drew widespread condemnation, with Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk calling the effort to hold such a referendum “an illegitimate decision.”
“Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine,” he said.
It was a sentiment echoed by a number of world leaders, with U.S. President Barack Obama calling the proposed referendum a violation of international law.
“Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine,” Obama said in a brief statement from the White House on Thursday. “In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.”
It’s not clear how easily the region could split off from Ukraine even if the referendum endorses the move.
The developments came at a dizzying pace Thursday as Yatsenyuk joined emergency talks in Brussels, Belgium, called by leaders of the European Union who support the Kiev government and want to de-escalate the crisis.
The EU and the United States announced plans to freeze the assets of Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted as Ukraine’s president after he turned his back on a trade deal with the EU in favor of one with Russia. The rejected trade deal prompted months of protests that culminated in February with bloody street clashes that left dozens dead and Yanukovych out of office.
Interpol said it is reviewing a request by Ukrainian authorities that would allow for the arrest of Yanukovych on charges of abuse of power and murder, an allegation tied to the death of protesters.
Moscow has denounced the events that led to Yanukovych’s ouster as an illegitimate coup and has refused to recognize the new Ukrainian authorities, putting the two countries on a collision course over control of the Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted he has the right to use military forces in Ukraine if necessary to protect ethnic Russians under threat in Crimea. Ukrainian officials say there is no such threat and that Putin the threat as an excuse to take control of the region.
In a sign of perhaps just how serious the confrontation between Russia and the West has become, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met face to face to try to calm tensions.
The two have agreed to continue talking “over the course of the next hours, the next days” to try to find a political solution to end the crisis, Kerry told reporters following the meeting.
But some signs point to a growing divide between Russian and the West on the issue.
The EU nations announced Thursday they will suspend bilateral talks with Russia on visa matters and have threatened travel bans, asset freezes and cancellation of the EU-Russia summit.
At the EU talks, Yatsenyuk said the proposed referendum “has no legal grounds at all.”
“That’s why we argue that the Russian government should not support those who claim separatism in Ukraine.”
He urged Russia to pull back its forces from Crimea and engage diplomatically. “If they are ready to talk, we are — and we made it very clear,” he said.
Putin has denied claims by Ukrainian officials and Western diplomats that Russia has sent thousands of troops into the region in recent days. Russia says the heavily armed troops, who are in uniforms without insignia and who have reportedly encircled Ukrainian bases, are local “self-defense” forces.
As the standoff in Crimea continued, Ukrainian authorities announced the arrest Thursday of a leader of a pro-Russian movement in the eastern city of Donetsk. Authorities said he is a Ukrainian national named Pavlo Gubarev, a self-proclaimed governor of Donetsk.
U.S. visa ban imposed
Amid what is quickly becoming one of the most serious diplomatic crises to arise between Russia and the West since the Cold War, there was a flurry of diplomatic posturing:
— EU leaders meeting in Brussels condemned “Russia’s unprovoked violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity,” calling the referendum for Crimea’s future unconstitutional, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said. “The situation must de-escalate and failure by Russia to do so will have serious consequences on our bilateral relationship,” he said.
— German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday the European Union wants to do everything it can to settle the Ukraine crisis diplomatically, but said that if there’s no “diplomatic possibility,” steps such as asset freezing and visa limitations are possible.
— Obama signed an executive order laying the groundwork to impose sanctions against individuals and entities responsible for the crisis. If Russia continues “this violation of international law” in Ukraine, “the resolve of the United States and our allies and the international community will remain firm,” he said.
— The U.S. State Department imposed a visa ban on Russian and Ukrainian officials and others that is says are responsible for, or complicit in, threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
— Russian lawmakers are drafting a law that would allow the nation to confiscate assets belonging to U.S. and European companies if sanctions are slapped on Moscow, Russian state media reported Wednesday.
— Kerry spoke at some length with Lavrov in Rome on Thursday, on the sidelines of a meeting on Libya. He urged Russia to begin talks with Ukraine and allow international monitors into the Crimean region to see firsthand how the crisis is playing out on the ground, a senior U.S. official told reporters after the meeting Rome.
— The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a financial aid package for Ukraine, authorizing up to $1 billion in loan guarantees.
Voting for Russia or Ukraine?
The parliament in Crimea installed a new, pro-Moscow government late last month — as armed, pro-Russian men besieged the parliament building — and does not recognize the authorities in Kiev.
Citizens will be allowed to vote on March 16 on whether they want an autonomous republic of Crimea within Russia; or within Ukraine.
The autonomous region has a 60% ethnic Russian population, having been part of Russia until it was ceded to Ukraine in 1954 by the Soviet Union. But not everyone may be as keen on coming under Moscow’s direct influence. About 25% of the peninsula’s population is Ukrainian and about 12% is Crimean Tatar, a predominantly Muslim group.
Michael Crawford, a former British ambassador in Eastern Europe, cautioned that whatever the result of the vote, it may not come to fruition.
“It does not follow that if Crimea votes to join Russia, that anyone will accept it,” he said.
“For Russia to start cherry-picking bits of the former Soviet Union, cranking up referenda in Kazakhstan or Latvia or wherever you like, to try to carve off bits, would be against international law, and it would be something Vladimir Putin has said he doesn’t want to do.”
Yatsenyuk said that if Ukraine is broken up, the world will have trouble ever getting another country to give up its nuclear weapons program.
Why? In 1994, Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal in return for guarantees — signed by the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia — of its territorial integrity and independence.
What happens now to Ukraine “will have an impact on nuclear nonproliferation programs,” Yatsenyuk said.
CNN’s Michael Holmes reported from Kiev, Chelsea J. Carter wrote and reported from Atlanta, and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in London. CNN’s Anna Coren in Simferopol, Matthew Chance in Odessa and Tim Schwarz in Kiev contributed to this report. CNN’s Elise Labott, Michelle Kosinski, Susan Garraty, Susannah Palk and Yon Pomrenze also contributed.
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