Residents of Ukraine’s Crimea region have begun voting in a contentious referendum on whether to split off and seek annexation by Russia.
As polling got under way, the US urged Russia to pull back its military and let Ukrainians undertake reforms that would address the rights of minorities and determine how political power is to be shared. The White House stressed that Russia faces penalties that will hurt its economy and diminish its influence in the world if President Vladimir Putin does not back down in Crimea.
In a phone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the US would not recognise the results of the referendum taking place in Crimea.
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said the Obama administration’s top priority is supporting the new Ukrainian government “in every way possible”.
He said everything that Russia has done in Crimea has been a violation of international law and bad for stability in the region.
“President Putin has a choice about what he’s going to do here. Is he going to continue to further isolate himself, further hurt his economy, further diminish Russian influence in the world, or is he going to do the right thing?” Mr Pfeiffer asked.
As Crimeans went to the polls, Ukraine’s new prime minister insisted again that neither Ukraine nor the West will recognise the referendum, which it says is being conducted at gunpoint.
“Now, on the territory of the autonomous republic of Crimea under the stage direction of the Russian Federation, a circus performance is under way: the so-called referendum,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said.
“Also taking part in the performance are 21,000 Russian troops, who with their guns are trying to prove the legality of the referendum.”