SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Ukraine lurched toward breakup Thursday as lawmakers in Crimea unanimously declared they wanted to join Russia and would put the decision to voters in 10 days. President Barack Obama condemned the move and the West answered with the first real sanctions against Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was almost certainly behind Thursday’s dramatic developments, but it was not clear whether he is aiming for outright annexation, or simply strengthening his hand in talks with the West.
Crimea’s parliament rammed through what amounted to a declaration of independence from Ukraine, announcing it would let the Crimean people, 60 percent of whom are ethnic Russian, decide in a March 16 referedum whether they want to become part of their gigantic neighbor to the east.
“This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev,” said lawmaker Sergei Shuvainikov. “We will decide our future ourselves.”
Ukraine’s prime minister swiftly denounced the action. “This so-called referendum has no legal grounds at all,” said Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The country’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, later said Ukraine would move to dissolve Crimea’s parliament, but such an action would have virtually no practical effect.
In Moscow, a prominent member of Russia’s parliament, Sergei Mironov, said he introduced a bill to simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia and it could be passed as soon as next week. Another senior lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky, said the parliament could consider such a motion after the referendum.
Earlier this week, Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its population has the right to determine the region’s status in a referendum. A popular vote would give Putin a democratic fig leaf for what would effectively be a formal takeover — although it was too early to tell whether such a move would actually go forward.
For Putin, Crimea would be a dazzling acquisition, and help cement his authority with a Russian citizenry that has in recent years shown signs of restiveness and still resents the loss of the sprawling empire Moscow ruled in Soviet times. The peninsula was once Russia’s imperial crown jewel, a lush land seized by Catherine the Great in the 18th century that evokes Russia’s claim to greatness as a world power.