The Crimean region voted on Sunday about whether to demand greater autonomy from Ukraine or split off and seek to join Russia, in a referendum that has been condemned as illegal by the United States and European countries.
The vote took place several weeks after Russian-led forces took control of Crimea, a predominantly ethnic Russian region. Its residents say they fear the Ukrainian government that took over when pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted last month will oppress them.
Russia raised the stakes Saturday when its forces, backed by helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, took control of a village near the border with Crimea, in the first military move outside the peninsula. The forces also took control of a nearby natural gas distribution station, claiming the need to prevent possible acts of terrorism there.
Serhiy Astakhov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Border Guard, told The Associated Press on Sunday that Ukrainian forces retook control of the village Saturday evening after negotiations with the Russian forces but that they still control the distribution center.
If the referendum passes, Russia faces the prospect of sanctions from Western nations, but Moscow has vigorously resisted calls to pull back in Crimea.
In Sevastopol, Crimea’s key port and the site of the Russian naval base, more than 70 people surged into a polling station within the first 15 minutes of voting Sunday.
“Today is a holiday,” said one of them, 66-year-old Vera Sverkunova. Asked how she voted, she broke into a patriotic war song: “I want to go home to Russia. It’s been so long since I’ve seen my mama.”
Speakers blared the city anthem up and down the streets, giving Sevastopol a feeling of a block party. A Russian naval warship stood blocking the outlet leading from the port to the open Black Sea.
Since Yanukovych fled to Russia, Crimea has come under control of local militia forces, as well as heavily armed troops under apparent command from Moscow.
Crimea’s pro-Russia authorities say that if Ukrainian soldiers resolutely occupying their garrisons don’t surrender after Sunday’s vote, they will be considered “illegal.”
But Ukraine’s acting defense minister, Igor Tenyuk, said in an interview published Sunday by the Interfax news agency that “this is our land and we’re not going anywhere from this land.”
In Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based under a lease agreement with Ukraine, enthusiasm for the referendum was high, with voters lining up outside polling stations before they opened.
“Today is an important day for all Crimea, Ukraine and Russia,” said voter Manita Meshchina. “I think that people are expecting the majority of people will vote ‘yes.’ What it means is that people believe and think they need to be with Russia.”
At a polling station 850097 set up inside a historic school building in downtown Sevastopol, Vladimir Lozovoy, a 75-year-old retired Soviet naval officer, began tearing up as he talked about his vote today. Other voters cried out “Well Done! Hurrah”
“I want to cry. I have finally returned to my motherland. It is an incredible feeling. This is the thing I have been waiting for for 23 years and finally it has happened,” he said.
Crimea’s large Tatar Muslim minority opposes annexation to Russia.