By Laura Smith-Spark and Michael Holmes, CNN
Lawmakers in Ukraine’s southern Crimea region voted Thursday in favor of leaving Ukraine for Russia, which already has the Black Sea peninsula under de facto control.
The Crimean parliament also voted to hold a referendum on the move in 10 days’ time.
It’s not clear how easily the region could split off if the referendum endorses the move.
The autonomous region has a 60% ethnic Russian population, having been part of Russia until it was ceded to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
But not everyone may be as keen on coming under Moscow’s direct influence. A quarter of the peninsula’s population is Ukrainian and about 12% Crimean Tatars, a predominantly Muslim group oppressed under former Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
The parliament in Crimea installed a new, pro-Moscow government late last month after pro-Russian armed men took control of the building. It had previously said a referendum would be held at the end of the month on greater autonomy for Crimea.
The new referendum question will be: Do you want an autonomous republic of Crimea within the Russian Federation; or do you want an autonomous republic of Crimea within Ukraine?
Michael Crawford, a former long-serving British ambassador in Eastern Europe, cautioned that whatever the result, it may be meaningless.
“It does not follow that if Crimea votes to join Russia, that anyone will accept it,” he said.
“For Russia to start cherry-picking bits of the former Soviet Union, cranking up referenda in Kazakhstan or Latvia or wherever you like, to try to carve off bits, would be against international law, and it would be something Vladimir Putin has said he doesn’t want to do.”
Putin, the Russian President, has insisted Russia has the right to use military force in Ukraine if necessary to protect ethnic Russians.
But he has denied the accusation by Ukrainian officials and Western diplomats that Russia has sent thousands of troops into the region in recent days.
Russia says the heavily armed troops, in uniforms without insignia, who are blockading Ukrainian military sites are local “self-defense” forces.
In the regional capital, Simferopol, residents have demonstrated this week against the interim government in Kiev, with crowds chanting in favor of Putin.
Schulz: ‘Dangerous and dramatic situation’
Diplomatic maneuvers to try to end the crisis are in full swing.
EU leaders are meeting to discuss possible economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia in Brussels, Belgium.
Europe wants to support Ukraine’s leaders and people “in coping with the immense challenges ahead,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said via Twitter.
“We stand by a united and inclusive Ukraine,” he said.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called on Russia ahead of the talks to stop stoking tensions in his country, saying Moscow should embrace a political solution to the crisis.
Speaking alongside Martin Schulz, president of the EU Parliament, he accused Russia of further “provocations” in Crimea and urged Moscow to pull back its forces.
Schulz said unverified reports had come in only moments before they spoke that Russian soldiers were provoking Ukrainian soldiers and their families.
“We must take into account that there is a real, dangerous and dramatic situation and tension,” he said.
At the same time, Schulz promised that Europe stood behind the new government in Kiev and a peaceful, democratic future for Ukraine.
“We are behind you and your government, and we support you with all our means,” he said.
This includes ensuring that an 11 billion euro aid package offered Wednesday by the European Union gets to Ukraine as soon as possible to shore up the cash-strapped economy and help the government provide vital services, Schulz said.
Yatsenyuk: This is Europe’s conflict
Yatsenyuk said it was in Russia’s hands to find a way out of the crisis.
“Russia is, as always, reluctant and will try to increase the tension as they did a few hours ago. They resumed the blockade of Ukrainian naval forces,” he said.
“So they still are provoking the clashes and the tension, and we urge the Russian President and the Russian government immediately to pull back its forces and to stick to the international agreement that was signed between Ukraine and Russia.”
Yatsenyuk said repeatedly that the crisis extended beyond the borders of his country, which lies sandwiched between southwestern Russia and Europe.
“This is not the Ukraine and Russia conflict. This is the conflict in Europe,” he said.
Schulz said that anybody who attacked the “territorial integrity and serenity” of Ukraine should have to answer to the European Union, and that targeted sanctions had been discussed.
The impact of sanctions, if they were imposed, might be felt by other countries, too. In a tit-for-tat move, Russian lawmakers are drafting a law that would allow the nation to confiscate assets belonging to U.S. and European companies if sanctions are slapped on Moscow, Russian state media reported Wednesday.
The Russian threat was not specific, but numerous large European and U.S. companies have interests in the region, and Russia is a major supplier of natural gas to Europe.
Tensions remain high around military bases in Crimea, and there are concerns that violence may erupt as tempers fray.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense said unidentified Russian forces had scuttled an old warship to block Ukrainian vessels in a harbor under the cover of darkness Wednesday night.
The ship, the Ochaka, is blocking the entrance to Lake Donuzlav, trapping up to seven Ukrainian naval vessels inside the inlet, Vladislav Seleznev, head of the media center of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, told CNN.
Meanwhile, riot police are in a standoff against pro-Russian demonstrators outside key government buildings in Odessa, a port city in southern Ukraine.
And in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, protesters took over a local government building as they called for a referendum on the region’s status and greater autonomy Wednesday, witnesses told CNN.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier criticized the actions of NATO and a regional security bloc, amid the continued diplomatic wrangling over how to end the tense standoff in Crimea.
Lavrov said NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe “are not helping to create an atmosphere of dialogue and constructive cooperation” with regards to Ukraine.
Lavrov held talks in Paris on Wednesday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and European foreign ministers.
But he did not meet with his Ukrainian counterpart, Andrii Deshchytsia, dashing Western hopes that direct dialogue could begin between the two sides.
On a more positive note, Kerry said all sides had agreed “that it is important to try to resolve these issues through dialogue.”
Kerry and other European foreign ministers are in Rome on Thursday for a Libya donors’ conference and will probably continue to huddle on Ukraine there.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said Wednesday it had sent 35 unarmed military observers to Odessa in response to a request from Kiev. The team plans to try to enter Crimea on Thursday, said a spokesman for the security bloc.
Meanwhile, NATO warned it was reviewing its relationship with Russia and suspending various joint undertakings in light of its actions in Ukraine.
CNN’s Michael Holmes reported from Kiev and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in London. CNN’s Anna Coren in Simferopol, Matthew Chance in Odessa and Tim Schwarz in Kiev contributed to this report. CNN’s Susannah Palk, Yon Pomrenze and Catherine E. Shoichet also contributed.
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