Voters in Crimea went to the polls today to vote on a referendum the outcome of which was never in doubt. As Crimea chose to split from Ukraine and join Russia, officials in Kiev vowed not to accept the results and accused Russia of invading mainland Ukraine. Here are the other major developments:

  • Russia and Ukraine have agreed to a military truce, which will last until March 21. Meanwhile, troops from both countries are heading toward the border between the two countries.
  • Acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk has called up 20,000 men for a new national guard to tighten the borders and stem the influx of separatists seeking to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty "under the cover of Russian troops."
  • Russian citizens and children were seen casting ballots in what was characterized as a valid vote with a high turnout by Russian news sources. The referendum was assailed and boycotted by the West, pro-Ukrainian groups, and the Tatar community in Crimea.
  • Pro-Russia crowds mobbed a government building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, igniting fears that south and east Ukraine could be the next targets to fall under Russian sway.
  • In a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concern about the safety of ethnic Russians in east and south Ukraine. Both the EU and American officials reiterated that they do not accept the outcome of the referendum.

For more of our ongoing coverage, see our live blog below:

11:18 p.m.: With over 75 percent of the votes counted, 95.7 percent of voters were in favor of seceding from Ukraine. Over 81 percent of the population voted, according to RT, which is an impressive turnout indeed. Then again, Voice of America put the turnout at a much lower 64 percent. RT said only 40 percent of ethnic Tatars voted (and the majority of them voted in favor of joining Russia), but the Wall Street Journal said that most Tatars boycotted the vote. Pro-Ukrainian activists also boycotted the vote. Tatars and pro-Ukrainians alike have started to flee Crimea, telling the Daily Beast that they feel threatened by pro-Crimea and pro-Russia groups that have threatened them with violence.

5:15 p.m.: President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone today. In the call, according to the Kremlin readout, Putin reiterated his belief that the Crimea referendum was legal and "completely in line with the norms of international law." 

4:37 p.m.: The crisis in Crimea has given Republicans an opening to bash President Obama's approach to foreign policy with great bravado. However, the schism within the GOP has manifested itself with Crimea as well. Earlier this week, libertarian original gangster, former congressman, and former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul spoke out in favor of both Russia's intervention in Crimea and Putin's maneuvering. 

“He’s no angel but actually he has some law on his side,” Paul said earlier this week on the Fox Business Channel. “They have contracts and agreements and treaties for a naval base there and the permission to go about that area.”

3:06 p.m.: At the vote in Crimea finishes up, the scene at Lenin Square in the capital city of Simferopol is poppin':

2:51 p.m.: The deputy Crimean prime minister doesn't seem to think that Russia's work is done yet.  

2:40 p.m.: The White House issued a statement rejecting the referendum, calling it and Russia's actions both "dangerous and destabilizing."

"This referendum is contrary to Ukraine's constitution, and the international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law." 

2:21 p.m.: In an unsurprising turn, exit polls show voters in Crimea were overwhelmingly in favor of the secession referendum. The count, according to Russian media sources:

12:49 p.m.: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a phone call with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, denounced the referendum. The EU has also issued a statement saying that it will not recognize the vote.

10:42 a.m.: Both Russian and Ukrainian troops seem to be wending their way toward to the border between the two countries.

Here is some footage of Russian tanks heading to a railway station in southwest Russia, presumably to be loaded up and sent west.

 
Across the border in Ukraine, there were similar reports of troop movements in the direction of the Russian-Ukrainian border:

10:16 a.m.: Senior Obama administration official Dan Pfeiffer appeared on Meet the Press this morning. He offered up this chestnut on behalf of the White House about Russian President Vladimir Putin and Crimea:

"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?"

He added: "You can expect sanctions designations in the coming days."

9:47 a.m.: Fears that the Russian encroachment may extend further into Ukraine are not without merit. In a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin not only defended the referendum's compliance with international law, but also added this:

Meanwhile, other ethnically Russian parts of Ukraine seem to be clamoring for the Crimea treatment:

9:28 a.m.: There needs to be a Tumblr devoted to the exasperated facial expressions of Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin. Here he is yesterday with American Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power after Russia issued the lone veto on a Security Council resolution that would have invalidated the Crimean referendum.

9:07 a.m.: The Russian and Ukrainian defense ministers have reportedly agreed on a truce in Crimea. Acting Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh made the announcement today:

"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."

8:41 a.m.: In case you were wondering who is allowed to vote in Crimea today:

8:31 a.m.: The caricature and the reality don't seem very different:

8:07 a.m.: A scene from earlier today in Crimea's capital:

7:44 a.m.: Masha Gessen, biographer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, puts the Russian leader on the couch with regard to his actions on Ukraine. Here's the money quote:

By silencing the last of his critics, Putin is staying a step ahead of the war game he has started. Still, the only way to continue shoring up his popularity is to escalate war rhetoric and the war effort. Putin will continue to succeed only by painting the Western/fascist/Ukrainian enemy as ever more dangerous and the Russian invasion of Ukraine as ever more important. This means he is not interested in a peaceful solution or, as some Western analysts have hopefully suggested, in an exit strategy that would allow him to “save face.” He needs the war in Ukraine to endure and spread. This is terrible news for Ukraine — and for Russia, which will grow only more isolated and impoverished."

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It was a tense few hours ahead of the vote on the widely condemned measure. Here were the major developments yesterday:

  • The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has accused Russia of invading mainland Ukraine. This is the first reported presence of Russian troops beyond the Crimean peninsula.
  • Dozens of armed men wielding semi-automatic weapons burst into the Hotel Moscow in the Crimean capital of Simferopol. The men claimed to be responding to an alert, which turned out to be false. The hotel happens to be popular with Western journalists in town to cover the referendum.  
  • As many as 50,000 Russian protestors marched through Moscow to rally against Russian action and intervention in Ukraine. Russian authorities suggested that only 3,000 participated. Others guessed 70,000.
  • A vote by the United Nations Security Council to invalidate the Crimean referendum was scuttled after Russia used its veto. 
  • A bipartisan delegation of U.S. Senators visited Kiev to express solidarity with the new Ukrainian government and to renew blame on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
  •  There were reports of violence in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where two people were killed and a dozen injured in a shootout earlier this morning.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov failed to reach an agreement yesterday evening on how to solve the crisis.

For more in-depth coverage, see yesterday's live blog below: 

Update:

6:28 p.m.: Hours from the vote, the cyber-arm of the Berkut—the Ukrainian elite forces that sought to quell the protests in Kiev weeks ago—is suspected to be hard at work.

4:51 p.m.: Despite statements by the Ukrainian government, the State Department has yet to confirm that Russia encroached Ukraine's mainland:

4:36 p.m.: Michael McFaul, the former American Ambassador to Russia, offered this assessment of today's events:

And a little bit more of what McFaul had to say:

I am very depressed today. For those of us, Russians and Americans alike, who have believed in the possibility of a strong, prosperous, democratic Russia fully integrated into the international system and as a close partner of the U.S., Putin's recent decisions represent a giant step backwards. Tragically, we are entering a new period with some important differences, but many similarities to the Cold War.

You can read the rest here

4:24 p.m.: How does the Russian seizure of a natural gas plant in the Ukrainian mainland warrant the self-defense motive that Russian President Vladimir Putin used in outlining Russian action in Crimea? Good question:

3:53 p.m.: It's broadly understood that almost 60 percent of Crimea is comprised of ethnic Russians, who seem to favor Moscow over Kiev. Of the remaining 40 percent, the Tatars—a Turkic, largely Muslim ethnic group— have come into focus as a community that will be particularly impacted if/when Crimea falls entirely under Russia's sway. Today in Foreign Policy, Dimiter Kenarov placed the precarious Tatar position in Crimea into context.

There haven't been any serious confrontations yet, except for scuffles between Tatars and Russians at a mass protest in front of the Crimean parliament on Feb. 26, but there other reports of intimidation, taunting, and occasional vandalism. Most worryingly, some Crimean Tatar houses in Crimea have been branded with X-marks -- a particularly ominous sign for a traumatized people. In 1944, on the pretext that some Crimean Tatars had collaborated with Hitler's armies, Stalin ordered the forceful deportation to Central Asia of their entire population, roughly 200,000 people, half of whom eventually perished. Before the deportation, similar X-marks had been used to tag Tatar households.

3:39 p.m.: Ukrainian government officials are now saying that a gas plant in south Ukraine was seized by Russian troops earlier today. Ukrainian troops are said to be stationed outside the plant, which is located on the mainland, just east of the Crimean peninsula.

3:24 p.m.: Samantha Power, the American Ambassador to the United Nations, responded to a question about reports of possible Russian troop movements in south Ukraine:

"Obviously if Russia has compounded what it has done in Crimea by crossing into south Ukraine that would be an outrageous escalation."

2:55 p.m.: Reuters reports that today's opposition protests in Moscow were the largest in over two years. The invasion and annexation of Crimea is popular in Russia, but could also galvanize Putin's opponents. The Moscow demonstration has been characterized as "a sign that his [Putin's] intervention in Ukraine might provide a rallying point for an opposition movement that had run out of steam."

2:07 p.m.: In a potentially explosive development, Ukrainian officials are now accusing Russia of dispatching troops onto the Ukrainian mainland. This would mark the first presence of troops outside the Crimean peninsula. 

Ukraine’s foreign ministry issued a protest against the troop landing in the Kherson region near Crimea, and demanded an immediate withdrawal. The ministry said about 80 troops had landed along with four helicopter gunships and three armored vehicles. It said Ukraine “reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia.”

The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs added that "Ukraine reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia."

12:37 p.m.: The United Nations Security Council has just voted on a resolution that would affirm Ukraine's borders and sovereignty. Not surprisingly, the measure didn't pass because Russia vetoed it. For those keeping tabs, China abstained.

The resolution would have invalidated tomorrow's referendum in Crimea over its potential secession from Ukraine—at least in the eyes of the United Nations.

Samantha Power, the American Ambassador to the United Nations, had words about it:

In another symbolic measure, the Ukrainian parliament voted to dissolve the Crimean Supreme Council, which led the charge for tomorrow's referendum.

Original post:

One day before Crimea votes on whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, 50,000 demonstrators gathered in Moscow to protest Russian intervention in Ukraine.

Marchers carried placards reading "Putin, get out of Ukraine" and others comparing Russia's move on Crimea with the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland as Europe rushed headlong into World War II.

You could call this a surprise twist. Sweden's foreign minister was duly impressed:

Meanwhile in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, which has been the site of some pro-Kremlin and pro-Kiev clashes, two people were killed in a shootout earlier today. Each side has chimed in as Russia claims the violence is due to ultranationalist Ukrainians and Ukrainian officials characterize the flare-ups as premeditated Russian activity.

Just hours before, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry failed to reach an agreement with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in a meeting about how best to end the crisis in Ukraine ahead of the Crimea vote. Needless to say, this will be an eventful weekend.