People stand in line to vote at a bank office in Simferopol, Ukraine. Results are expected on Monday. The United States has already said it expects the Black Sea peninsula’s majority ethnic Russian population to vote in favor of joining Russia.
March 17, 2014 (CNN) – To no one’s surprise, Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea region has voted overwhelmingly to break from Ukraine and join Russia. But what happens next is far from certain.
Diplomatically, Sunday’s referendum has put the United States and Russia on the kind of collision course not seen since the Cold War. Economically, it’s unclear how much such a coupling will cost Russia. And politically, it’s divided Crimeans — some of whom think it will bring better pay, and some who see this as a Kremlin land grab.
Crimea’s Moscow-backed leaders declared an overwhelming 96.7% vote in favor of leaving Ukraine and being annexed by Russia in a referendum that Western powers said was illegal and will bring sanctions. Turnout was 83%.
On Monday, lawmakers in Crimea approved a resolution that declared the Black Sea peninsula an independent, sovereign state. They then filed an appeal to join the Russian Federation.
The lawmakers also approved legislation to make the Russian ruble the official currency in Crimea alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia, according to a statement posted on the Crimean parliament’s website. The hryvnia remains an official currency until January 1, 2016. The statement did not provide a date for when the ruble would be circulated in the region.
The lawmakers also adopted a resolution stating that on March 30, Crimea will move to Moscow Standard Time.
Moscow strongly backed Sunday’s referendum; the majority of the population is ethnic Russian. And Russian lawmakers have said they will welcome Crimea with open arms.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will address a joint session of parliament on Crimea on Tuesday.
The backlash to the referendum has been harsh from the West. EU foreign ministers met to discuss sanctions against Russia.
“I don’t have to remind any of you that it’s illegal under the constitution of Ukraine and under international law,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, which may look at asset freezes and travel restrictions, she called on Russia “yet again” to meet with Ukrainian leaders and try to move toward de-escalation. But she said: “We’ve seen no evidence of that.”
The White House said it won’t recognize the outcome, saying the vote was “administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law.”
What comes next
Crimea is home to 2 million people. Members of the ethnic Ukrainian and Muslim Tatar minorities had said they would boycott the election, held just three weeks after pro-Russian forces took control of the peninsula.
Uncertainties stemming from a possible break from Ukraine have fueled rumors about a looming legal vacuum in the crisis-hit region, causing panic and confusion.
Details on how the financial system will work if Crimea decides to join Russia were sketchy. A secession would mean transferring banks, public utilities and public transport from Ukraine to Russia in what would undoubtedly be a costly operation.
Crimea is entirely integrated into Ukraine’s mainland economy and infrastructure — 90% of its water, 80% of its electricity and roughly 65% of its gas come from the rest of country.
A special tax system may be introduced for Crimea, Russia’s state-run ITAR-Tass news agency reported Monday, citing Russian Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov.
In Moscow, fears of Russia’s possible economic isolation amid the political crisis in Ukraine have worried investors.
The Russian ruble was trading at an all-time low while the Russian stock market fell 24% from its peak this year.
A bad day for relations
Many Crimeans hope the union with Russia will bring better pay and make them citizens of a country capable of asserting itself on the world stage. Others saw the referendum as a land grab by the Kremlin from Ukraine, whose new rulers want to move the country toward the European Union and away from Moscow’s sway.
In Kiev, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk threatened dire consequences for the Crimean politicians who had called the vote, threatening to try them in Ukrainian and international courts.
Apart from Crimea, tension is also running high in parts of the Russian-speaking industrialized east of Ukraine near the border with Russia, with clashes between rival demonstrators.
Thousands of pro-Russian demonstrators rallied beneath a towering statue of Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in Donetsk’s main square, with chants of “Donetsk is a Russian city” ringing out as the protesters rallied in a show of support for the Crimean referendum and to demand their own.
“The real struggle after this will be what happens on Crimea to the Ukrainian forces isolated there. And then what happens in eastern Ukraine, in cities like Donetsk,” Gen. Wesley Clark, a former NATO supreme allied commander, told CNN’s “New Day.”
“So for the Ukrainians to have a chance, they’ve got to be given the assistance they need — financial, and they probably need some military equipment. Now, we need to be sending a NATO mission in to assess this.”
Russian lawmakers say parliament will discuss the future of Crimea on Friday.
“All the necessary legislative decisions on the results of the referendum will be taken as soon as possible” said Sergey Neverov, the deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament in Russia. “The referendum shows that the people of Crimea see their future as a part of Russia.”
Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Iraq and Poland, described Sunday as a bad day for East-West relations.
“Putin has left our President with no choice. He needs to impose sanctions. I know Putin will come back and impose his own,” he said. “I think the end of this is going to be to cast Russia out into the cold. And the problem is, I don’t think Putin really cares. I think this is where he wants to take Russia.”