President Obama speaks during a joint news conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, on Monday. Obama said the U.S. and EU were planning new economic sanctions against Russia.
(Carolyn Kaster/AP)
April 28, 2014

U.S. Announces New Sanctions On Russia Over Ukraine Unrest

The White House announced sanctions Monday against seven top Russian officials with links to President Vladimir Putin, including freezing their assets and banning them from obtaining U.S. visas. 

It also threatened to impose more economic sanctions on key sectors of Russia's economy if there is evidence of further Kremlin involvement in the unrest in eastern Ukraine.

The Associated Press reports:

"The White House says it is prepared to 'impose still greater costs' if Russia continues its provocations in Ukraine.

"In addition to the sanctions, the U.S. is revoking export licenses for high-technology items that it says could contribute to Russia's military capabilities."

The U.S. Treasury Department released a statement from Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen in which he says:

"In the April 17 Geneva Joint Statement, Russia agreed to take concrete steps to deescalate the situation in Ukraine, but has thus far utterly refused to do so. From the very outset of Russia's illegitimate and unlawful actions in Ukraine, we have been clear: The United States, acting on its own and alongside our international partners, will impose increasing costs on Russia if it persists in its efforts to destabilize Ukraine and will hold Russia accountable for its provocative actions."

Cohen said the seven targeted officials include two key members of the Russian leadership's inner circle.

Reuters reports that Russia's Volga Group, one of the entities targeted by the sanctions, says Washington's measures are "politically motivated statements and decisions." (Update at 10:40 a.m. ET)

Here's our original post:

President Obama on Monday confirmed that the United States and the European Union were planning new economic sanctions against Russia for Moscow's alleged involvement in eastern Ukraine.

Speaking in the Philippines, where Obama is visiting as part of an Asia-Pacific tour, he said the sanctions are not aimed directly at Russian President Vladimir Putin, but are intended to "change the calculus" on the effects any new moves by the Kremlin might have on the Russian economy. The full list of new sanctions was expected to be announced later Monday.

According to The AP:

"Obama said the targets of the sanctions would include high-technology exports to Russia's defense industry. The full list of targets will be announced by officials in Washington later Monday and are also expected to include wealthy individuals close to Putin.

"The European Union is also planning more sanctions, with ambassadors from the bloc's 28 members to meet Monday in Brussels to add to the list of Russian officials who have been hit by asset freezes and travel bans."

Meanwhile, on the ground in eastern Ukraine, armed militants have seized yet another government building

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Donetsk that "masked separatists armed with automatic weapons stormed the main government building in Kostyantynivka, taking over city hall and other administrative offices. The town is near Slovyansk, where separatists are holding European military monitors captive."

The building houses the City Hall and the City Council in Kostyantynivka, just 100 miles from the Russian border, the AP reports. The news agency says the building was seized by masked men armed with automatic weapons and that about 15 armed men, some wearing the insignia of the pro-Russia movement, are now guarding the building.

Pro-Russian separatists also control government and police buildings in 10 other cities, Soraya reports, and are demanding a referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine.

Russian and Ukrainian media are also reporting that the mayor of Kharkov — Ukraine's second-largest city — was shot in the back while bathing at a spa. He has undergone surgery. A spokeswoman said the mayor's wounds are considered life-threatening.

On Sunday, the pro-Russian rebels paraded Western military observers as hostages, according to The Wall Street Journal:

"The self-appointed, pro-Russia rebel mayor of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, trotted out seven Western military inspectors from Germany, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and the Czech Republic and their translator, all seized late Friday at a makeshift checkpoint in nearby Kramatorsk. One of the inspectors was later released.

"The inspectors are members of their home countries' militaries and part of an inspection team that arrived in Ukraine under an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe pact called the Vienna Document, which sets out guidelines for exchanging military information and hosting inspections. They aren't part of the OSCE special monitoring mission, which is made up of civilians and also operates in southeast Ukraine."


April 17, 2014

Putin Tells Snowden That Russia Doesn't Do Mass Surveillance

Saying that because they're both former spies they can speak the same language, Russian President Vladimir Putin told "NSA leaker" Edward Snowden on Thursday that his nation does not have a "mass system" that collects data about Russian citizens' phone calls and other electronic communications.

The exchange between the young American who has leaked information about U.S. surveillance efforts and the Russian leader came during Putin's annual appearance on Russian TV in which he takes questions from the public. Snowden, who has been given temporary asylum in Russia, connected via video link and asked Putin: "Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?"

Putin began his response by telling Snowden that "you are a former agent, a spy. I used to work for an intelligence service [the KGB]. We are going to talk one professional language."

Then the Russian president, who in recent weeks has claimed he did not send troops into Crimea only to now admit that he did and insists there are no Russian military personnel in eastern Ukraine even though reporters have heard at least one man there introduce himself as a Russian officer, made the case that:

"You have to get court permission to stalk a particular person. We don't have a mass system of such interception, and according to our law it cannot exist."

Russia's RT.com has posted video of the Snowden-Putin exchange here, with English interpretation.


President Obama and other leaders met in The Hague. Clockwise from bottom left: European Union Council President Herman Van Rompuy, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Obam
(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
March 25, 2014

Putin's Out Of The Club For Now: G-8 Is Back To Being The G-7

Russia's 20 years of having a seat at the table when leaders of the world's most powerful industrialized nations meet came to at least a temporary end.

President Obama and his counterparts from six other major nations announced in The Hague that because of Russia's actions in Crimea, "we will suspend our participation in the G-8."

The announcement was not a big surprise. It was already clear that the other leaders would not attend the next scheduled meeting of the G-8, which had been set for June in Sochi, Russia. The U.S. and European Union have also tried to punish Russia by aiming some financial and travel sanctions at members of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.

But by saying that "Russia's actions in recent weeks are not consistent" with the beliefs and responsibilities of major nations and that their nations won't take part in any G-8 activities "until Russia changes course," the leaders are trying to send yet another message to Putin about their objections to the way Russia has taken Crimea from Ukraine.

Putin's foreign minister, though, pooh-poohed the other nations' announcement. "If our Western partners believe the format has exhausted itself, we don't cling to this format. We don't believe it will be a big problem if it doesn't convene," Sergei Lavrov told reporters.

Obama and the other leaders in the newly reconstituted G-7 said they will hold a summit in Brussels instead of Sochi in June.

As this official history spells out, world leaders have been meeting in annual group summits since 1975, when French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing hosted the G-6. The other five countries that sent their leaders that year were Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.S. and the U.K.

Canada joined the club in 1977, creating the G-7.

As the Iron Curtain started to come down, the former Soviet Union was invited to attend — but not to be a member — in 1991. In 1994, the group was renamed the G-7+1 and in 1997 it became the G-8 when Russia became a full-fledged member.

The crisis in Ukraine, though, has for the first time led to a member nation's exclusion from the group.

Background

As the crisis in Ukraine has developed over recent weeks, we've tracked developments. Here's a recap:

Crimea has been the focus of attention as the ripple effects of the protests that led to last month's ouster of Yanukovych have spread.

Summing up the history and importance of Crimea to Russia and Ukraine isn't possible in just a few sentences, of course. The Parallels blog, though, has published several posts that contain considerable context:

Crimea: 3 Things To Know About Ukraine's Latest Hot Spot

Crimea: A Gift To Ukraine Becomes A Political Flash Point

Why Ukraine Is Such A Big Deal For Russia

Shortly after Yanukovych was deposed and fled Ukraine, Russia moved to take control of Crimea by sending thousands of troops there to secure strategic locations. Along with "local defense forces," those soldiers surrounded Ukrainian military facilities.

Last week, after Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation, Putin signed a treaty to annex the region. The U.S. and European Union have objected, calling that action a violation of international law. Putin says he is supporting Crimeans' right to "self-determination."

We've recapped what set off months of protest in Kiev and ultimately led to Yanukovych's dismissal by his nation's parliament last month this way:

"The protests were sparked in part by the president's rejection of a pending trade treaty with the European Union and his embrace of more aid from Russia. Protesters were also drawn into the streets to demonstrate against government corruption."

It was after Yanukovych left Kiev and headed for the Russian border that troops moved to take control of strategic locations in Crimea.


Crimean Tatars during funeral of Reshat Ametov
(Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters /Landov)
March 22, 2014

A Tatar's Death Chills Those Who Suffered Under Russia Before

Amid all the of necessary analysis of what Russia's move into Crimea means geopolitically and strategically, it might also be good to remember Reshat Ametov.  Mr. Ametov was buried this week. He was 39 years old, married and the father of three young children.

He was last seen at a demonstration on March 3 in Simferopol, where he joined other Crimean Tatars held a silent protest before the pro-Russian armed men in unmarked uniforms who surrounded the cabinet ministers building.

Tatars make up more than 10 percent of Crimea's population. Many Tatars, who are primarily Sunni Muslim, were brutally deported by Joseph Stalin in the 1940s, and scattered over the deserts of central Asia and Siberia. As many as 200,000 Tatars died in that government removal. Some Tatar families began to come back after Ukraine became independent in the 1990s.

Video from ATR, a local Crimean television channel, shows two armed men in green uniforms, and one in a black uniform, surrounding Reshat Ametov, taking him by the arms, and leading him away. "He was just standing there and they took him away," Ametov's mother, Refika Ametova, told the Kyiv Post, an independent newspaper. "He stood there for about an hour and a quarter, and I suppose they were waiting for him to leave. But he didn't."

His family called the police, who said they could find nothing. Two weeks later, people in a village about 28 miles away found a man's body in a nearby forest. Local media reports suggested there was clear tape wrapped around his head and hands, and signs of torture.

Reshat Ametov's wife identified the body as her husband's.

Human Rights Watch has called for an investigation into Reshat Ametov's disappearance and death, and they're concerned the crime is not isolated.

"For weeks, armed, masked men who refuse to identify themselves have harassed and intimidated people," says Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. And Crimean Tatars living in Brooklyn and Queens told the New York Daily News that relatives in Crimea report that X's have been slashed in paint on the doors of some Tatar families.

Enver Ablakimov was at Reshat Ametov's funeral. He is 21 years old and told the Kyiv Post, "There were always people here who didn't like us, but before, they hid it. Now with the appearance of the Russian army, they feel protected and understand that no one will do anything."

It's that past that may make Tatars in Crimea apprehensive about the future.


As Russian soldiers walked one way in the distance, a departing Ukrainian soldier carried some of his belongings Friday at a military base in Perevalne, Crimea.
(Ivan Sekretarev/AP)
March 21, 2014

Split Decisions: Ukraine Signs Up With EU, Russia Wraps Up Crimea

There will be few days that better symbolize the crisis in Ukraine.

On Friday:

As Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk was signing an agreement on closer relations with the European Union ...

... Russian President Vladimir Putin was signing the laws his country has put in place to take Crimea from Ukraine and make it part of the Russian Federation.

Ukraine's pact with the EU, as CNN notes, has "symbolic force because it was the decision of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in November to ditch it in favor of closer ties with Russia that triggered the protests that spiraled into the current crisis."

The BBC says that "the EU Association Agreement is designed to give Ukraine's interim leadership under PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk economic and political support. EU President Herman Van Rompuy said in a statement that the accord 'recognises the aspirations of the people of Ukraine to live in a country governed by values, by democracy and the rule of law.' "

But, as CNN adds, "Russia's moves to annex Crimea, following a contested weekend referendum in the Black Sea peninsula, have turned a confrontation with Europe and the United States into the biggest crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War." The U.S. and EU nations say the annexation violates both international and Ukrainian law.

Meanwhile, NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from London that the EU has added 12 names to its list of Russian and Ukrainian officials who it says were involved in interfering in Ukraine's affairs. Those officials are now subject to "visa restrictions and asset freezes," Ari says. Twenty-one officials were put on the EU's list earlier this week.

On Thursday, President Obama announced that the U.S. had increased the number of Russians and Ukrainians on its sanctions list to 31. The Russian government responded by barring nine Americans — including six members of Congress — from traveling to Russia. Putin has spoken about taking more steps.

Ukraine has said it will withdraw its troops and sailors from Crimea. Russian forces, along with local "self-defense" units, have taken control of many bases there and other strategic locations. On Friday, the BBC reports, families of Ukrainian military personnel in Crimea were seen departing from bases.

Also Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Kiev. Ban, who is trying to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, was in Moscow on Thursday. "I have emphasized that all parties (should) refrain from any hasty or provocative actions that could further exacerbate the already very tense and very volatile situation," he said after meeting with Putin.

Background

As the crisis in Ukraine has developed over recent weeks, we've tracked developments. Here's a recap:

Crimea has been the focus of attention as the ripple effects of the protests that led to last month's ouster of Yanukovych have spread.

Summing up the history and importance of Crimea to Russia and Ukraine isn't possible in just a few sentences, of course. The Parallels blog, though, has published several posts that contain considerable context:

Crimea: 3 Things To Know About Ukraine's Latest Hot Spot

Crimea: A Gift To Ukraine Becomes A Political Flash Point

Why Ukraine Is Such A Big Deal For Russia

Shortly after Yanukovych was deposed and fled Ukraine, Russia moved to take control of Crimea by sending thousands of troops there to secure strategic locations. Along with "local defense forces," those soldiers surrounded Ukrainian military facilities.

This week, after Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty to annex the region. The U.S. and European Union have objected, calling that action a violation of international law. Putin says he is supporting Crimeans' right to "self-determination."

We've recapped what set off months of protest in Kiev and ultimately led to Yanukovych's dismissal by his nation's parliament last month this way:

"The protests were sparked in part by the president's rejection of a pending trade treaty with the European Union and his embrace of more aid from Russia. Protesters were also drawn into the streets to demonstrate against government corruption."

It was after Yanukovych left Kiev and headed for the Russian border that troops moved to take control of strategic locations in Crimea.


March 20, 2014

U.S. To Impose Sanctions On More Russian Officials

More senior Russian officials are being added to the list of those who the U.S. will seek to penalize for their nation's interference in Ukraine's affairs, President Obama announced Thursday morning.

Without giving specifics, Obama said that additional officials who played a role in Russia's "illegal move" to annex Crimea will be subject to U.S. financial sanctions and travel bans. According to the Treasury Department, 20 individuals are covered by the new sanctions. Their names are listed here. Also on the list: one financial institution, Bank Rossiya.

Earlier, sanctions were aimed at 11 individuals — most of them Russians, but also including former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Obama also warned that the U.S. is prepared to, if necessary, impose sanctions on "key sectors of the Russian economy," a step that could further ratchet up tensions between the two nations.

"Nation's do not simply redraw borders or make decisions at the expense of their neighbors simply because they are larger or more powerful," Obama said, and "Russia most know that."

This latest development related to the crisis in Ukraine follows the dramatic steps taken this week by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who moved to absorb Crimea into the Russian Federation after citizens there voted to break away from the rest of Ukraine.

Russian troops, along with local self-defense forces, moved to take control of Crimea shortly after last month's toppling of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Putin's.

Background

As the crisis in Ukraine has developed over recent weeks, we've tracked developments. Here's a recap:

Crimea has been the focus of attention as the ripple effects of the protests that led to last month's ouster of Yanukovych have spread.

Summing up the history and importance of Crimea to Russia and Ukraine isn't possible in just a few sentences, of course. The Parallels blog, though, has published several posts that contain considerable context:

Crimea: 3 Things To Know About Ukraine's Latest Hot Spot

Crimea: A Gift To Ukraine Becomes A Political Flash Point

Why Ukraine Is Such A Big Deal For Russia

Shortly after Yanukovych was deposed and fled Ukraine, Russia moved to take control of Crimea by sending thousands of troops there to secure strategic locations. Along with "local defense forces," those soldiers surrounded Ukrainian military facilities.

This week, after Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty to annex the region. The U.S. and European Union have objected, calling that action a violation of international law. Putin says he is supporting Crimeans' right to "self-determination."

We've recapped what set off months of protest in Kiev and ultimately led to Yanukovych's dismissal by his nation's parliament last month this way:

"The protests were sparked in part by the president's rejection of a pending trade treaty with the European Union and his embrace of more aid from Russia. Protesters were also drawn into the streets to demonstrate against government corruption."

It was after Yanukovych left Kiev and headed for the Russian border that troops moved to take control of strategic locations in Crimea.


Armed men stood atop a chimney near Ukraine's naval headquarters in Sevastopol, Crimea, on Wednesday. They raised Russian flags after taking over much of the facility.
(Vasily Fedosenko /Reuters /Landov)
March 19, 2014

Tensions Build As Pro-Russia Forces Enter Ukrainian Navy Base

There's another potentially dangerous situation developing in Crimea, where Russian flags have been raised at Ukraine's naval headquarters in the port of Sevastopol.

NPR's Gregory Warner, who is in Sevastopol, reports that a large group of armed men entered the base early Wednesday. It couldn't immediately be confirmed whether they were members of a pro-Russia militia, Russian soldiers or perhaps a combination of the two. As of midday in Crimea, there were no reports of shots being fired. CBS News writes that "the commander of the Russian Black Sea fleet was seen arriving at the base for talks. Ukrainian sailors were seen filing out of the base shortly after, carrying bags full of their belongings."

This follows Tuesday's shooting at a Ukrainian military base near the Crimean city of Simferopol. One Ukrainian soldier was killed and another was wounded. It isn't clear who fired the shots, but Crimean officials have said they believe it was members of a local militia group and that some of them have been taken into custody by Russian soldiers.

These incidents come after Tuesday's move by Russia to annex Crimea — an act that Ukraine's new government and its allies from the U.S. and European Union say they won't recognize and that has prompted sanctions aimed at hurting some Russian officials financially.

As Gregory adds, Russian officials have given the Ukrainian military a deadline of Friday to pull out of Crimea or defect and join the Russian army. It isn't clear what will happen if Ukraine doesn't comply. So far, the new government in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev has declined to order its troops to leave the region.

As the crisis in Ukraine has developed over recent weeks, we've tracked developments. Here's a recap:

Crimea has been the focus of attention as the ripple effects of the protests that led to last month's ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych have spread.

Summing up the history and importance of Crimea to Russia and Ukraine isn't possible in just a few sentences, of course. The Parallels blog, though, has published several posts that contain considerable context:

Crimea: 3 Things To Know About Ukraine's Latest Hot Spot

Crimea: A Gift To Ukraine Becomes A Political Flash Point

Why Ukraine Is Such A Big Deal For Russia

We've recapped what set off months of protest in Kiev and ultimately led to Yanukovych's dismissal by his nation's parliament last month this way:

"The protests were sparked in part by the president's rejection of a pending trade treaty with the European Union and his embrace of more aid from Russia. Protesters were also drawn into the streets to demonstrate against government corruption."

It was after Yanukovych left Kiev and headed for the Russian border that troops moved to take control of strategic locations in Crimea.


President Barack Obama
(Susan Walsh/AP)
March 17, 2014

US Announces Sanctions Against Russian Officials

President Barack Obama is imposing sanctions against Russian officials after Crimea's vote to secede from Ukraine.

Obama's executive order issued Monday names seven Russian government officials. The United States also says it identifies and targets the assets of other individuals who aren't government officials but are supporting them.

The Treasury Department also is imposing sanctions on four Ukrainians, including former President Viktor Yanukovych and two Crimea-based separatist leaders.

The U.S. announcement came shortly after the European Union announced travel bans and asset freezes on 21 people.

The sanctions were expected after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly Sunday in favor of the split.


People in Simferopol, Ukraine, attend a pro-Russian rally in Lenin Square after a day of voting on whether to unite with Russia. Exit polls show strong approval for the move, according to Russian state-run media.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
March 16, 2014

Crimea: Exit Polls Support Split From Ukraine To Join Russia

Russian news services are claiming overwhelming support in Crimea for the region's plan to secede from Ukraine and unite with Russia, citing exit polls from Sunday's referendum.

Russia's state news agency reports that 93 percent of voters said they were in favor of joining Russia.

Residents of Crimea voted on the contentious question in a referendum that also offered the option of remaining part of Ukraine, with increased autonomy.

Polls closed Sunday evening after a day of reportedly high turnout. Preliminary results aren't expected to be announced until late Sunday or Monday. Russian lawmakers and other officials are being quoted saying that they will work to absorb Crimea very quickly, perhaps by the end of March.

Pro-Ukrainian activists inside Crimea had urged a boycott of the vote, NPR's Gregory Warner reports, saying it was called prematurely and without debate. And as Gregory notes in a post for our Parallels blog, some of those who boycotted did so by staying home and making dumplings.

The referendum had widely been expected to pass; Crimea's parliament has already voted to seek annexation by Russia. Government officials in Ukraine, the U.S. and elsewhere say they consider the referendum illegitimate.

Update at 3 p.m. ET: The Polls Are Closed; 93 Percent Approval Cited

"A total of 93 percent of participants in the referendum in Crimea have voted for the accession to Russia," reports Russia's state-run Itar-Tass news agency, "according to an exit poll conducted by the Crimean Institute for Political and Sociological Studies."

The exit poll used data from 200 polling stations, the agency says.

Moments after Crimea's polls closed, the White House issued a statement rejecting today's vote, saying that it runs contrary to Ukraine's constitution.

"Russia's actions are dangerous and destabilizing," the statement said.

Update at 10 a.m. ET: Putin Defends Referendum

Russian President Vladimir Putin defended Sunday's vote, with state-run Itar-Tass news agency reporting that he called the referendum "in compliance with the norms of international law, in particular with Article 1 of the UN Charter that stipulates the principle of equality and self-determination of peoples."

Itar-Tass cites the Kremlin press service in its report. Putin's comments reportedly came during a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as the two leaders discussed the crisis in Ukraine.

Update at 9:35 a.m. ET: Ukraine And Russia Reportedly In 'Truce'

With tensions escalating over the future of Crimea, Ukraine's acting defense minister says his country has reached a truce with Russia that will hold in Crimea until Friday.

Reuters quotes Ihor Tenyukh speaking to reporters at a cabinet meeting in Kiev Sunday:

"An agreement has been reached with [Russia's] Black Sea Fleet and the Russian Defense Ministry on a truce in Crimea until March 21.

"No measures will be taken against our military facilities in Crimea during that time. Our military sites are therefore proceeding with a replenishment of reserves."

Freelance journalist Paul Brennan, who is in Kiev, says that while the minister discussed the truce before the Cabinet met, he "strangely didn't mention it in his address to full Cabinet."

Speculation over the reported truce includes the idea that it might imply a promise to allow Ukrainians to withdraw from pro-Russian areas.

Election staff begin to count votes at a polling station in Bachchisaray, in Crimea, Ukraine, Sunday. Crimeans voted to decide whether the peninsula will break away from mainland Ukraine. The referendum has been dismissed as illegal by the West. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
 

Update at 8:30 a.m. ET: High Turnout At The Polls

More than 43 percent of Crimea's residents have voted, says Mikhail Malyshev, who heads Crimea's Supreme Council's commission, which organized the referendum.

That's according to a report from Sevastopol by NPR's Jessica Golloher.

"Malyshev says some 64 percent of the largest city in Crimea, Kerch, have voted and around 40 percent of Yaltans have cast their ballots," Jessica says. "International vote monitor Enrique Ravello of Spain also says turnout is high."

Update at 3:50 a.m. ET: Voter Enthusiasm

Voters lined up before polls opened and more than 70 people surged in during the first 15 minutes in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, where Russia maintains its Black Sea fleet, according to the Associated Press.

"Today is a holiday," said one voter, 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," the AP said.

Our original post continues:

The Crimean Peninsula is predominantly ethnic Russian, and residents say they fear being oppressed by the interim Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February. Yanukovych fled to Russia after months of protest and bloodshed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will respect the voters' decision. The U.S. and EU have warned that annexation would prompt more economic sanctions against Russia.

On Saturday, Russia vetoed a UN resolution condemning today's vote, the only Security Council member to vote against the measure. China, also a member of the Security Council and often an ally of Russia, abstained from the vote, in what the AP calls "a sign of Moscow's isolation on the issue."

Russian troops have taken control of government buildings and military bases in Crimea since Yanukovych fled. On Saturday, Russian troops made what was apparently their first foray outside Crimea, crossing the border to take over a natural gas plant that serves the region.


Armed men, believed to be Russian troops, walk outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol, on Friday.
(Vasily Fedosenko /Reuters/Landov)
March 14, 2014

U.S., Russia Talk As Crisis In Ukraine Nears New Flash Point

While Crimeans prepare to vote Sunday on whether to join the Russian Federation, Secretary of State John Kerry is in London for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

As NPR's Ari Shapiro tells our Newscast Desk, Kerry is looking for a way to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine.

The BBC adds that Kerry is expected to warn Lavrov "that the disputed referendum being held in Crimea in two days and Russia's military intervention there could trigger concerted U.S. and EU sanctions."

Indeed, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reported on Thursday, Kerry says that if Russia doesn't help resolve the crisis, "there will be a very serious series of steps Monday in Europe" and the U.S.

Those steps could include economic sanctions and additional travel restrictions on any officials believed to have been responsible for Russian intervention in Ukraine.

On Morning Edition, NPR's Gregory Warner reported from Crimea about the scene there in advance of Sunday's vote. He reports having seen dozens of armored personnel carriers, fuel supply trucks and military satellite systems near the region's border with the rest of Ukraine.

Gregory notes that Crimeans will be asked to vote on two questions Sunday: whether to join the Russian Federation; or whether to stay part of Ukraine but revert to an earlier constitution that gave them even more autonomy and the chance for dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship.

Also on Morning Edition, NPR's Peter Kenyon reported about the concerns that Crimea's Tatars have over the pro-Russian sentiment in the region.

Need a refresher on what this crisis is all about?

As we've previously said, Crimea has been the focus of attention as the ripple effects of the protests that led to last month's ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych have spread.

Summing up the history and importance of Crimea to Russia and Ukraine isn't possible in just a few sentences, of course. The Parallels blog, though, has published several posts that contain considerable context:

Crimea: 3 Things To Know About Ukraine's Latest Hot Spot

Crimea: A Gift To Ukraine Becomes A Political Flash Point

Why Ukraine Is Such A Big Deal For Russia

We've recapped what set off months of protest in Kiev and ultimately led to Yanukovych's dismissal by his nation's parliament last month this way:

"The protests were sparked in part by the president's rejection of a pending trade treaty with the European Union and his embrace of more aid from Russia. Protesters were also drawn into the streets to demonstrate against government corruption."

It was after Yanukovych left Kiev and headed for the Russian border that troops moved to take control of strategic locations in Crimea.


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