Ukraine's Crimea Region Wants to Vote to Join Russia. Ukraine and the West Dismiss Idea.
The United States and Europe are on Ukraine's side over whether a region known as Crimea has the autonomy to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia.
Western leaders have dismissed the idea that Crimea can legitimately hold a referendum next week to decide if it wants to join Russia.
"Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine. In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders," President Obama said yesterday.
Russia has said it would welcome Crimea. About 60 percent of Crimea's population are ethnic Russians, but it has long been part of Ukraine.
Conflict in Ukraine Pits Russia Against Ukraine, Europe, and the U.S.
The tug-of-war over the region follows a change of power in Ukraine. Last month, pro-European groups installed a new president in Ukraine's capital, Kiev, while the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, fled to Moscow and sought protection.
Russia claimed it would not recognize Ukraine's new government. It then sent military troops into Ukraine's Crimea region and claimed to be protecting ethnic Russians there from "ultra-nationalistic" forces in Ukraine. The soldiers took over Ukrainian military bases, government buildings, and airports. Leaders in Crimea then said they would hold the referendum on joining Russia.
Russian Military Presence is Escalating Tension
Ukrainian officials say there are now approximately 30,000 Russian troops inside Crimea, including soldiers on the ground as well as others arriving by sea. Russia has said there are no Russian soldiers in Crimea, only pro-Russian forces from Crimea.
Though Russia said earlier this week it had ended a series of military exercises near Ukraine's border and sent soldiers back to their bases, it announced last night it would conduct a new round of air defense exercises very close to Ukraine.
Russian soldiers have reportedly turned away international observes from the United Nations and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe under armed threat.
The United States has positioned 10 fighter jets in Lithuania to patrol the skies near American allies in response to Russia's behavior.
Still, there have been no violent clashes.
U.S. Passes Sanctions Against Russia, Offers Aid to Ukraine
The United States passed sanctions yesterday against individuals in Russia, including banning their visas and freezing their assets, in response to Russia's military action in Crimea. President Obama warned Russia and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine that any actions taken in Ukraine must be approved by the Ukrainian government or else constitute a breach of international law.
The U.S. offered Ukraine $1 billion in aid, while the European Union pledged $15 billion in aid to the country's new government leaders. Ukraine is struggling with debt and energy costs.
The West's support of the new, pro-European Ukrainian government is in direct opposition to Russia, which tabled its offer of financial aid when Yanukovich was impeached and replaced.
European leaders have said they are considering sanctions against Russia.
The impasse between the West and Russia was made clear during meetings earlier this week between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which failed to produce any sort of deal over Ukraine.