'Illegal' Vote in Crimea Prompts EU Sanctions

     (CN) - The European Union denounced Sunday's "illegal referendum" in Crimea, where 97 percent of the residents there supposedly voted to break away from Ukraine and join Russia.
     Tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine have been brewing for months, culminating with the ouster of that country's pro-Russia president last month. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by sending troops to control Crimea, an ethnically Russian region of Ukraine on the Black Sea coast.
     Yesterday - under the watchful eye of Russian troops - Crimea supposedly voted 97 percent in favor of declaring independence from Ukraine. Hours after the vote, the new Crimean parliament petitioned Russia for annexation.
     On Monday, the Council of the European Union announced sanctions on Russian and Crimean officials and warned Putin against further incursions into Ukrainian territory.
     "The EU does not recognize the illegal 'referendum' and its outcome," lawmakers said in a statement. "It was held in the visible presence of armed soldiers under conditions of intimidation of civic activists and journalists, blacking out of Ukrainian television channels and obstruction of civilian traffic in and out of Crimea. Furthermore, there have been clear signs of increasing Russian military build-up in Crimea as well as denial of access to the peninsula to U.N. and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representatives and missions invited by the government of Ukraine. The EU deplores these further negative developments, which are in clear violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
     In addition to asset freezes, EU ministers also revoked the visas of 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials embroiled in the takeover of Crimea. And Europe's top diplomat urged Putin to think twice about annexing Crimea
     "We want to underline very clearly that there is still time to avoid a negative spiral and to reverse current developments," said Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. "We call on the Russian leadership not to take steps to annex Crimea and instead to take steps to deescalate this crisis."
     EU lawmakers also said they remain committed to providing financial aid to Ukraine, which has been wracked by political corruption, financial collapses and civil unrest since the end of the Cold War.