Crimea overwhelmingly votes to break from Ukraine and join Russia

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(CNN) — To no one’s surprise, Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea region has voted overwhelmingly to break off 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 end of 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 is a Kremlin land grab.

An overwhelming 96.7% of Crimea chose the option of annexation by Moscow. 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 Russia.

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.

But the backlash to the referendum has been harsh from the West.

EU foreign ministers were meeting in Brussels Monday 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 as well as travel restrictions, she called on Russia “yet again” to meet with Ukrainian leaders and try to move towards 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.”

Moscow strongly backed Sunday’s referendum in the Black Sea peninsula where the majority of the population is ethnic Russian.

What next

Uncertainties stemming from a possible break up from Ukraine has 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.

A special tax regime may be introduced for Crimea, Russia’s state-run Itar-Tass 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. Russia’s Deputy PM said Sunday that the ruble could be introduced into Crimea in two months’.

A bad day

Many Crimeans hope 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 towards the European Union and away from Moscow’s sway.

In Kiev, Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk 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-Russia 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.

Russia lawmakers saying 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.”

By Marie-Louise Gumuchian

CNN’s Kellie Morgan in Donetsk contributed to this report

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