SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine, March 16 (RIA Novosti) – Residents of Ukraine’s autonomous republic of Crimea flocked to the polls Sunday to vote in a popular referendum on the region’s secession from the country and a request for annexation by Russia.
Sunday’s referendum, widely expected to pass with an overwhelming margin, is at the center of the most serious geopolitical showdown between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
Ukrainian and Western leaders have denounced the referendum as illegitimate and unconstitutional, while Moscow insists the Crimeans – a majority of whom identify as ethnic Russians – should be allowed to determine their own destiny.
Western leaders have threatened targeted economic sanctions and visa bans against Russian officials responsible for violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine if Crimea secedes and is annexed following the referendum.
Voters on Sunday were asked just two questions on the ballot – printed in the Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar languages – to secede from Ukraine and request annexation by Russia, or to remain part of Ukraine with expanded autonomy for the region.
Over 1.8 million passport-holding citizens registered as residing in Crimea were deemed eligible to vote at the 1,205 polling stations opened by local officials, who have said they expect a turnout of over 80 percent.
Preliminary election results are expected just hours after polls close at 8:00 p.m. local time.
A survey by a local non-profit organization Friday of over 500 area residents predicted the result to be over 90 percent in favor of secession.
The political crisis in Ukraine erupted in November following a step back by President Viktor Yanukovych from closer ties with Europe. Months-long protests in the country's capital Kiev that repeatedly turned deadly eventually led to his ouster by a vote of parliament February 22.
Crimea, along with several other regions in Ukraine, has refused to recognize as legitimate the new leadership in the country.
In recent weeks, masked men lacking official insignia but carrying weapons and driving vehicles of the Russian military have taken control of key infrastructure and military bases on the peninsula, where Moscow maintains a major naval base at the city of Sevastopol.
Western leaders have lashed out at Russia for deploying its troops on Ukrainian sovereign territory, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied the accusations, insisting the soldiers are local self-defense forces.