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Demonstrators take part in a pro-Russian rally in Odessa March 16, 2014. (REUTERS/Yevgeny Volokin) Demonstrators take part in a pro-Russian rally in Odessa March 16, 2014. (REUTERS/Yevgeny Volokin)  

Crimea votes to join Russia by overwhelming margin

Around 93 percent of voters in the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea chose for their state to be absorbed by the Russian Federation — an astounding number likely due to a boycott by anti-Russian Crimeans and possible voting irregularities.

BBC News reports that exit polls compiled Sunday night indicate a massive victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose troops occupied Crimea last month. The region’s pro-Russian parliament called the vote just days after Russian soldiers surrounded Ukrainian military bases and captured important airfields.

Crimea’s minority Tatar population — persecuted by Russian authorities for hundreds of years — reportedly boycotted the vote, as did other pro-Ukrainian Crimeans. Many believed the referendum was illegitimate due to the presence of thousands of heavily-armed Russian troops and roving gangs of pro-Russian militants.

The Kyiv Post reported that Russian journalists were barred from watching the vote count, with authorities even smashing one crew’s camera. “We just wanted to see the vote count, but they called us provocateurs and pushed us away,” one journalist claimed.

Russia allegedly brought in its own election monitors to tout the vote’s lawfulness. But observers from the well-respected Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were barred from entering Crimea two weeks ago, making an independent assessment of the vote’s legitimacy impossible.

Western leaders have condemned the referendum as illegal.

The White House claimed it was “dangerous and destabilizing” and the European Union declared its “outcome will not be recognized.”

There were two choices on the ballot, neither of which allowed voters to choose the status quo of remaining a Ukrainian state. One option would have reverted Crimea to semi-autonomous status under a short-lived 1992 constitution. The other, more popular choice called for the complete annexation by its eastern neighbor.

A Russian territory until 1954, Crimea’s population is composed largely of ethnic Russians and those that speak the language. The Russian Federation also maintains a massive naval base at Sevastopol, which the Kremlin views as vital to its strategic interests.

But even with Sunday’s rubber stamp referendum, the annexation of Crimea violates Russia’s 1994 promise to respect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty in exchange for the former Soviet republic’s destruction of its nuclear weapons.

With Crimea now firmly in Putin’s grip, all eyes turn to eastern Ukraine — where pro-Russian demonstrators are battling Ukrainian nationalists in border cities like Donetsk and Kursk. Russia is massing tens of thousands of troops on its western border, and many are fearful Putin will use the violence as a pretext to invade.

“Russia is receiving numerous appeals with requests for defense of peaceful citizens,” the nation’s foreign ministry said Saturday. “These appeals will be considered.”

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