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Russian power play: Crimea vote on joining Russia

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A Ukrainian Navy officer looks at the scuttled decommissioned Russian vessel “Ochakov” from the Black Sea shore outside the town of Myrnyi, western Crimea, Ukraine, Thursday, March 6, 2014. In the early hours of Thursday Russian naval personnel scuttled the decommissioned ship, blockading access for five Ukrainian Naval vessels now trapped inside of the Southern Naval Headquarters located in Myrnyi in Western Crimea as Russian war vessels patrolled just of the coast. The vessel was brought by Russian naval forces on the 4th of March towed by a tug boat while escorted by a warship and several gun boats. Marines from the Ukrainian navy heard a loud explosion in the early hours of last night coming from the vessel blocking a channel leading to the Black Sea. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

A Ukrainian Navy officer looks at the scuttled decommissioned Russian vessel “Ochakov” from the Black Sea shore outside the town of Myrnyi, western Crimea, Ukraine, Thursday, March 6, 2014. In the early hours of Thursday Russian naval personnel scuttled the decommissioned ship, blockading access for five Ukrainian Naval vessels now trapped inside of the Southern Naval Headquarters located in Myrnyi in Western Crimea as Russian war vessels patrolled just of the coast. The vessel was brought by Russian naval forces on the 4th of March towed by a tug boat while escorted by a warship and several gun boats. Marines from the Ukrainian navy heard a loud explosion in the early hours of last night coming from the vessel blocking a channel leading to the Black Sea. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

EDS NOTE: NUDITY – Female activist members of FEMEN go topless during their anti-Putin, pro-Ukraine demonstration in New York’s Times Square, Thursday, March 6, 2014. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

A woman holds a poster against war at Kiev’s Independence Square, in Ukraine, Thursday, March 6, 2014. The Heads of State of the EU will meet Thursday in emergency session in Brussels to discuss the situation in Ukraine. The destroyed trade union offices which was burned in clashes seen in the background (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

People attend a funeral ceremony for Andryi Pozniak, 25,a self defense volunteer who was shot and killed by an unknown assailant two days ago near Kiev’s Independence Square, Ukraine, Thursday, March 6, 2014. (AP Photo/David Azia)

Pallbearers carry a coffin bearing the body Andryi Pozniak, 25, a self defense volunteer who was shot and killed by an unknown assailant two days ago near Kiev’s Independence Square, Ukraine, Thursday, March 6, 2014. (AP Photo/David Azia)

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SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine lurched toward breakup Thursday when lawmakers in Crimea unanimously declared they wanted to join Russia and would put the decision to voters in 10 days — and Russian lawmakers pushed a bill to facilitate a handover. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hand was almost certainly behind the dramatic move, but it was not clear whether he is aiming for outright annexation, or simply strengthening his hand in talks with the West.

The West’s response was less forceful: The EU announced limited punitive measures against Putin’s government — including the suspension of trade and visa talks — and the U.S. said it was imposing travel restrictions on opponents of Ukraine’s new government. Both were discussing further sanctions.

Crimea’s parliament rammed through what amounted to a declaration of independence from Ukraine, announcing it would let the Crimean people, 60 percent of whom are ethnic Russian, decide whether they want to become part of their gigantic neighbor to the east.

“This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev,” said Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the legislature. “We will decide our future ourselves.”

Ukraine’s prime minister swiftly denounced the action: “This so-called referendum has no legal grounds at all,” said Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

As an emergency EU summit got underway in Brussels, a senior Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, promised that EU leaders “will send a clear message that the referendum won’t be recognized.”

But the punishment later announced seemed more symbolic than substantive: EU President Herman Van Rompuy declared that the bloc was suspending talks with Russia on a wide-ranging economic pact and on a visa deal, and would consider further measures if Russia does not quickly open meaningful dialogue.

“Not everyone will be satisfied with the decision but I should say that we did much more together than one could have expected several hours ago,” said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

In Moscow, a prominent member of Russia’s parliament, Sergei Mironov, said he has introduced a bill to simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia and it could be passed as soon as next week. Another senior lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky, said the parliament could consider such a motion after the referendum.

On Tuesday, Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its population has the right to determine the region’s status in a referendum. A popular vote would give Putin a democratic fig-leaf for what would effectively be a formal takeover — although it was too early to tell whether such a move would actually go forward. The Russian president called a meeting of his Security Council on Thursday to discuss Ukraine.

For Putin, Crimea would be a dazzling acquisition, and help cement his authority with a Russian citizenry that has in recent years shown signs of restiveness and still resents the loss of the sprawling empire Moscow ruled in Soviet times. The peninsula was once Russia’s imperial crown jewel, a lush land seized by Catherine the Great in the 18th century that evokes Russia’s claim to greatness as a world power.

A referendum had previously been scheduled in Crimea on March 30, but the question to be put to voters was on whether their region should enjoy “state autonomy” within Ukraine.

Crimea’s new leader has said pro-Russian forces numbering more than 11,000 now control all access to the peninsula in the Black Sea and have blockaded all

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