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March 15, 2014

U.S., West brace for Crimea vote to leave Ukraine

LONDON — The West braced Friday for a vote by the Crimean Peninsula to secede from Ukraine — and likely be annexed by Russia — as the last attempt for diplomacy broke down despite threats of costly international sanctions and other imminent penalties against Moscow for forcibly challenging a pro-European government in Kiev.

Russia’s top diplomat said Moscow will make no decisions about Crimea’s future, including whether to embrace it as a new territory, until after a local referendum Sunday to decide whether it should remain part of Ukraine.

But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the vote’s results are all but a foregone conclusion, and urged Russia’s parliament against accepting any offer to claim Crimea as its own.

“We believe that a decision to move forward by Russia to ratify that vote officially within the Duma would, in fact, be a backdoor annexation of Crimea,” Kerry told reporters in London after six hours of talks Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Kerry instead called on Moscow to support broad autonomy for Crimea — still as part of Ukraine — instead of a move by the strategic peninsula to secede. And he predicted the probability of “if the people of Crimea vote overwhelmingly, as one suspects they will, to affiliate or be associated with Russia.”

Crimea, which is Ukraine’s strategic Black Sea peninsula of 2 million people, has a majority ethnic Russian population and hosts a large Russian naval base. The West and Ukraine’s upstart government in Kiev believes the region’s vote to secede is unconstitutional. But Moscow doesn’t recognize leaders in Kiev as legitimate since they pushed Ukraine’s pro-Russian president from power last month.

Lavrov, speaking separately to reporters, said Russia would respect the results of the Crimea vote but would not predict what would happen next.

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