People hold Ukrainian flags as they gather in front of the parliament in Kiev yesterday. Ukrainian troops will remain in Crimea, the country's defence minister said that day even as media reported the separatist peninsula planned to disband Ukrainian units there. Photo: AFP
Crimea declared independence yesterday and applied to join Russia while the Kremlin braced for sanctions after the flashpoint peninsula voted to leave Ukraine in a ballot that will likely fan the worst East-West tensions since the Cold War.
Official results from Sunday's poll showed 96.77 percent of the voters in the mostly Russian-speaking region opted to switch to Kremlin rule, in the most radical redrawing of the map of Europe since Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.
Crimea's Kremlin-backed lawmakers vowed to "disband" the Ukrainian military units stationed across the region -- a move that threatens to further escalate the security crisis raging on the European Union's eastern frontier.
Ukraine's interim president Oleksandr Turchynov denounced the vote as a "great farce" and lawmakers approved a partial mobilisation of the army aimed at countering Russian troops' effective seizure of Crimea.
Crimeans' decisive choice in favour of Kremlin rule leaves Ukraine's new leaders with few viable ways to reclaim the peninsula but is likely to deepen their budding ties to the West.
Ukraine and its Western allies have limited options to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from putting Crimea under what they see as his illegal control.
Pro-Russian Crimeans wave Russian flags as they gather to celebrate in Simferopol's Lenin Square on Sunday after exit polls showed that about 93 percent of voters in Ukraine's Crimea region supported union with Russia. Photo: AFP
One option would be piling pressure on Russia in the hope that it could reverse course.
Initial confusion in the West about how best to stand up to the Kremlin's overt show of power has been replaced by a more focused drive that should see Washington and EU leaders unveil painful measures against Putin's closest allies yesterday.
If Ukraine contemplates recovering Crimea by force it would face a David and Goliath battle.
Its conventional army of 130,000 soldiers -- half of them conscripts with ageing equipment -- is dwarfed by a 845,000-strong Russian force that has the backup of nuclear arms.
Kiev does have one potent weapon in its arsenal that comes in the form of economic pressure.
Crimea is a devastated region with poor infrastructure that relies on the mainland for everything from the water used by its farmers to the electricity and gas supplied to homes.
The more nationalist voices in Kiev have suggested that the best way to thwart Russia's ambitions was by effectively starving Crimea into submission through a cut to its most vital supplies.
But any such step would likely face a fierce response from Moscow that could include a steep hike in tariffs for imports from Ukrainian factories and a further rise in the price its consumers pay for Russian natural gas.
The US and the EU have both sped up financial assistance and political support to Kiev.
EU and Ukrainian leaders are now expected on Friday to sign the political portion of an Association Agreement whose rejection by the old team in November sparked the first wave of protests.
The danger for Kiev is that too strong or too rapid a push West will only further alienate the Russian-speaking southeastern swathes of the splintered nation whose roots to Moscow stretch back centuries.
Some eastern parts of Ukraine such as Donetsk are already seeking their own referendums on joining Russia. Others are threatening to follow suit.
Yet Kiev political analyst Vitaliy Balla thinks that Russia's seizure of Crimea has pushed the moderates in Ukraine further into the pro-Western camp.