By Nick Paton Walsh, Laura Smith-Spark and Ben Brumfield
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (CNN) — Traveling to Crimea? Don’t try landing in Simferopol unless your plane originated in Moscow. Flights from Kiev and Istanbul, and several other cities have been suspended for the rest of the week.
If you come by train, expect to be searched by pro-Russian militia. If you want to rally in favor of Ukraine’s West-leaning interim government, expect to be surrounded by pushy pro-Russians.
Breakneck preparations are under way for a Sunday referendum — to be held largely in secret — and the grip of security measures is tightening around Simferopol, the regional capital.
When Crimeans go to vote, they will have to choose between two alternatives: Remain an autonomous state within Ukraine, or join the Russian Federation.
But in light of recent developments, the referendum would seem like an afterthought for what is a steadily approaching reality.
The new pro-Russian government on the peninsula in Ukraine’s southeast said Tuesday that if the voters opt to join Russia, the first step will be to declare Crimea an independent and sovereign state. Then it will apply to join the Russian Federation.
Crimea’s representatives have already approached Moscow with their idea. Russian leaders have greeted them with open arms.
Yatsenyuk to meet Obama
Russian-speaking troops wearing no identifying insignia have Crimea firmly under their control. Many believe that they belong at least in part to Russia’s military, something Moscow has repeatedly denied.
The well-armed men have effectively isolated the peninsula with an ethnic Russian majority from the rest of Ukraine.
There has been an international outcry over Crimea’s push for separation, and warnings that the referendum won’t be recognized.
Ukraine’s interim government, backed by the United States and European powers, has called it illegitimate.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday condemned “the direct interference of the Russian Federation into domestic affairs of our state,” official news agency Ukrinform said.
Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is due to meet with President Barack Obama in Washington later Wednesday, before heading to New York on Thursday to address the United Nations Security Council.
The Ukrainian delegation will also meet with Congress, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund while in Washington, in an indication of the international support for their fledgling government.
Welcome to Crimea
Passengers disembarking in Simferopol on Tuesday saw pro-Russian militiamen wearing red armbands that proclaimed their allegiance to “the autonomous republic of Crimea.”
The men helped police search arrivals, sometimes shoving them to where they want them to stand.
“We are looking for people who are bringing in weapons. For security. From Ukraine. From Maidan,” a guard explained, referring to Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of protests that toppled Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian former President of Ukraine.
A saleswoman offered new cell phone cards to new arrivals — also for security reasons, she explained.
“The fascist who wants to be President, he wants to bring his armed men here from Kiev, to disrupt our referendum. He doesn’t want to negotiate, he just wants to shoot,” she said.
A passenger arriving from Russia at the airport seemed confident about how the vote will go.
“Crimea is Russia!” he exclaimed, as he exited.
Assuming the referendum goes in favor of joining the Russian Federation, the newly installed parliament will place the request to join with Moscow.
The lower house of parliament there has announced it will debate whether or not to accept Crimea on March 21.
Yanukovych, who is currently in Russia, insists he is still the legitimate leader of Ukraine and has vowed to return to Kiev “as soon as the circumstances allow.”
Speaking in Rostov-on-Don in southwestern Russia on Tuesday, Yanukovych slammed the interim government in Kiev as “a gang of ultranationalists and fascists.”
Yanukovych fled Kiev on February 22, after three months of protests against his decision to scrap a trade deal with the European Union and embrace closer ties with Russia.
Less than a week later, armed men seized the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol and raised the Russian flag above it.
The Crimean Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, where Russia has a large naval base, decided to grant the Russian language official status, and the city administration started using it Wednesday.
The peninsula in the Black Sea, with a population of just over 2 million people, has stepped into the spotlight of the world stage.
The West has been preparing sanctions and at the same time telling Moscow that there is a way out of an economic and diplomatic showdown: Talk to Ukraine’s new government and don’t intervene militarily.
Moscow has denounced the events that led to Yanukovych’s ouster as an illegitimate coup and has refused to recognize the new Ukrainian authorities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his government has the right to protect ethnic Russians living there.
Unarmed military and civilian observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe are now on the ground in the city of Donetsk, near eastern Ukraine’s border with Russia, the regional security bloc said via Twitter. The team was repeatedly turned back from entering Crimea by armed men.
A report by the OSCE observer team said that although it was prevented from entering Crimea, its “observations produced significant evidence of equipment consistent with the presence of Russian Federation military personnel [in the vicinity of] the various roadblocks encountered.”
The evidence included Russian pattern uniforms and equipment without identifying patches, as well as trucks bearing license plate numbers associated with Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the observers said.
“This report adds to our deep concerns and clearly suggests direct involvement by the Russian Federation and its agents in preventing impartial, unarmed observers from doing the work they are supposed to do,” U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer said.
“Russian encouragement of and support for illegal checkpoints is unhelpful.”
The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine and urging economic and other sanctions in response.
In a 402-7 vote, lawmakers approved a nonbinding resolution stating that Russia’s action poses a “threat to international peace and security” and calling on Russia to remove “all of its military forces from Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula” other than those that are there in accordance with an agreement on operations of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
The resolution urges the Obama administration to band together with European allies to impose visa, financial, trade and other sanctions on senior Russian Federation officials, majority state-owned banks and commercial organizations.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said that EU leaders and the G7 — the world’s leading industrial powers without Russia — would issue a new declaration Wednesday to “call on Russia to cease all efforts” to annex Crimea.
On Tuesday, the European Commission offered Ukraine trade incentives worth some 500 million euros a year. Barroso said it was also “moving ahead fast” with the implementation of an 11 billion euro ($15 billion) package of support for cash-strapped Ukraine promised last week.
Tit for tat
Russian officials have compared Crimea’s potential departure from Ukraine to Kosovo’s secession from Serbia after many years of bloody civil war with its former neighbor.
Western governments recognized the separation over bitter opposition from Serbia and its historical allies in Moscow.
In a prepared statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry cited it as a precedent for the “absolutely legitimate” Crimean vote.
“The Russian Federation will respect the results of the free vote of Crimea’s people during the referendum,” it said.
In Crimea, pro-Russian forces were in firm control and repeating Yanukovych’s slurs — that “fascists” had seized power in Kiev.
Ruslan Dudkin, a volunteer at a militia camp in Simferopol, compared the protesters who rallied in Kiev’s Maidan Square to “cockroaches.”
“The people on the Maidan would soil and sleep and eat in the same place. It was worse than tramps,” he said.
CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh reported from Simferopol, as did journalist Nadjie Femi. CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London and Ben Brumfield wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Anna Coren in Simferopol, Alla Eshchenko and Frederik Pleitgen in Moscow, Tim Schwarz in Kiev, Clare Sebastian in Crimea, Damien Ward in London and Matt Smith in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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