SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — “SEVASTOPOL IS THE MOST RUSSIAN CITY,” read a sign draped across an overpass in the outskirts of this port city on the Black Sea, emotionally closer to Russia than even the rest of the Crimean peninsula. By Sunday night, the sign was basically reality. In a referendum orchestrated by Russia, 95.5% of voters had approved Crimean lawmakers’ decision to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
The referendum was a daylong affair, and BuzzFeed could find only one ballot cast for the other option — returning to the peninsula’s 1992 constitution and giving it effective independence. There was no option to keep the status quo. Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov said the province’s parliament would vote on measures to join Russia Monday morning and send a delegation to Moscow later that afternoon.
If, as expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin absorbs Crimea into Russia, the province will make the step up from breakaway territory to international pariah.
Only Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela have endorsed Moscow’s line on Ukraine. Western powers have declared the vote illegal, the U.S. and Europe have threatened to bring sanctions against Moscow, while Ukrainian authorities are filing charges against its organizers.
U.S. President Barack Obama told Putin in a phone call after polls closed that the “referendum” (quote marks added by the White House) “would never be recognized by the United States and the international community.” The U.S. and the European Union have repeatedly threatened to impose sanctions on Russia for its effective annexation of Crimea and escalation of tensions in eastern Ukraine.
Putin told both Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in separate conversations Sunday that the referendum had been carried out “in full accordance with the norms of international law,” according to the Kremlin. Putin stressed to both leaders that Crimea’s secession was allowed under the precedent set by the Western-backed independence of Kosovo from Serbia in 2008, which Russia fiercely opposed. (The legal grounds for this are questionable, since the 2010 United Nations court decision validating Kosovo’s secession stressed that the circumstances leading to it were unique.)
“It was underlined that Russia will respect the choice of the residents of Crimea,” the Kremlin said of Putin’s conversation with Merkel. Crimea has already been under de facto Russian control since late February when it was seized by Russian troops, as many as 22,000 of whom now occupy strategic positions around the peninsula.
Russia-friendly election observers — a motley group of fringe of European lawmakers and Russia Today regulars — insisted the referendum met all European standards. The group that carried out early exit polls does not appear to have existed before Saturday, according to Russian-language internet search results. Official turnout in towns home to the peninsula’s Crimean Tatar minority was well over 50% even though their representative groups had announced a boycott.
The vote process itself seemed not to matter as much as the emotional process of rejoining Russia, from which Crimea was separated in 1954. Russian flags were draped across drab Soviet-era tower blocks. Soviet oldies wafted from PA systems. Bikers tied orange-and-black ribbons commemorating World War II to their leather jackets and paraded around the peninsula. Police and vigilante “self-defense” forces made conspicuous efforts to be polite to foreign journalists, a stark contrast from the xenophobia that marked the run-up to the vote. One woman at a polling station in Sevastopol proudly declared that her two young children had voted to rejoin Russia. “They need to know what a historical moment this is,” she said.
Many of the predominantly elderly voters seemed motivated by a mixture of nostalgia for the Soviet era and a fear of the violence in Kiev that overthrew Viktor Yanukovych last month. “The Ukraine we lived in doesn’t exist — they destroyed it,” Polina Rogozhina, 48, a voter in the resort town of Yalta, said. “We’re glad that Russian troops are here,” she added, voicing fears that Ukrainian nationalists would have otherwise attacked the peninsula to stop it from seceding. Russia and its state media claim that “fascists” supported by the new government in Kiev have persecuted and tried to attack ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine. None of their allegations have been independently corroborated.
“It’d be fine if it weren’t for those fascist young men in Kiev,” said Yulia, 43, a polling station observer in Sevastopol who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisal from the Ukrainian government. “But the majority of people here support Russia. There are 2 million people on the peninsula — you think everyone is a zombie?”
Several thousand people celebrated on Sevastopol’s central square Sunday evening. Revelers draped in Russian flags or wearing Russian flag-shaped sunglasses danced to Russian folk music and sang along to Putin’s favorite band, Lyube. Some of them spilled onto a pier, drinking beer out of cans and chanting, “Ross-i-ya! Ross-i-ya!” between mouthfuls of kebab. It felt like a street party after a big win for Russia’s soccer team. But a banner on the stage harked back to World War II, urging locals to “defend Sevastopol” and celebrating “liberating the city from German-fascist assailants.”
By Sunday evening, the Russian foreign ministry’s Facebook account was sharing WWII-era poetry, posting a poem that tells the story of a soldier pleading for his love to wait for him as he heads off to war. Putin’s propagandist-in-chief, Dmitry Kiselyov, devoted a segment of his weekly current affairs show to gloating over how Russia was “the only country in the world capable of turning America into radioactive dust” with a nuclear attack — a fact, he said, that had made Obama’s hairs go gray after telephone conversations with Putin. All eyes turned to the east, where protest and unrest continued amid reports of Russian military buildup near its border with Ukraine.