U.S. rejects Crimea vote

A man exits a polling booth with his ballot paper inside a polling station on March 16, 2014 in Perevevalne, Ukraine.
A man exits a polling booth with his ballot paper inside a polling station on March 16, 2014 in Perevevalne, Ukraine.

The White House has strongly condemned a vote on whether Crimea should join Russia, calling it "contrary to Ukraine's constitution" and Russia's recent actions "dangerous and destabilizing."

"The international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law," a statement from the White House Press Secretary said. "No decisions about the future of Ukraine should be made without the Ukrainian government.

Residents of Crimea voted Sunday on a referendum on whether to join Russia or become an autonomous state. Exit polls saw 95.5% of voters in support of annexation, according to local reports.

American and European officials have dismissed the referendum as illegitimate, and the U.S. has said it will not recognize the outcome.

"As the United States and our allies have made clear, military intervention and violation of international law will bring increasing costs for Russia - not only due to measures imposed by the United States and our allies but also as a direct result of Russia's own destabilizing actions," the White House said.

More than 1.8 million citizens were considered eligible to cast votes in the referendum at 1,205 polling places. Local officials expected turnout to reach 80 percent, according to reports by RIA Novosti newswire.

After returning from a visit to the U.S., Ukraininan Prime MInister Arseny Yatseniuk told a cabinet meeting that politicians in Crimea who called for the vote would face dire consequences. "We will find all of them - if it takes one year, two years - and bring them to justice and try them in Ukrainian and international courts. The ground will burn under their feet," he said.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh called on Russian forces to withdraw in an interview with the Interfax-Ukraine news service and said that Ukrainian forces were prepared to mobilize.

"Russia must immediately withdraw its military troops out of Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet to their places of permanent deployment as it is backed by certain basic agreements between Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian navy headquarters was and is going to stay in Sevastopol. As for the National Guard, a few days ago, more than 40,000 people have already signed up and volunteered for the military commissariat," Tenyukh said.

For more on Crimea see our photo essay: ‘Unwanted people:’ A portrait of Crimea”

Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have been high since November, when protests erupted in Kiev over Ukrainian President's Viktor Yanukovich's decision to reject warmer relations with the European Union. Protests reignited in February, and Yanukovich left office on February 22. 

The vote took place as Russian military forces entered and took control of a Ukrainian village near the Crimean border Saturday. The Russian military took control of key Crimean infrastructure last month and has maintained a presence since then.

White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Sunday on Meet the Press that Russian President Vladimir Putin will face serious consequences if he does not back down.

"They know there are costs to their actions here. The more they escalate, the longer this goes, the greater those costs will be," Pfeiffer said. Looking forward, Pfeiffer said Putin is at a crossroads. “Is he going to continue to further isolate himself, further hurt his economy, further diminish Russian influence in the world, or is he going to do the right thing?”

After the votes are counted, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said on CNN’s State of the Union,, the U.S will need "a fundamental reevaluation of its relationship with Putin." 

If Russia does not stop its advances, McCain said that the U.S. could institute economic sanctions, but that military assistance is not on the table. “It doesn’t mean boots on the ground,” McCain said, “but maybe delivering some humanitarian aid.”

A $1 billion aid package to Ukraine is awaiting a vote in Congress. A vote is expected when legislators return from break.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister announced in a press release Sunday that he and Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken about the situation in Ukraine. "Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry agreed to continue their working contact in finding ways of regulating Ukraine through the speedy launch of constitutional reforms, supported by the international community in a commonly accepted format and with respect to the interests of all the regions of Ukraine," the release said.