Residents of Crimea have begun voting Sunday on the contentious question of whether to split from Ukraine and join Russia.
Although Western governments consider the vote illegitimate, the referendum is widely expected to pass. Crimea’s parliament has already voted to seek annexation by Russia.
NPR’s Gregory Warner reports that pro-Ukrainian activists inside Crimea have called for a boycott of the election, saying it was called prematurely and without debate.
But the Crimean peninsula is predominantly ethnic Russian, and residents say they fear being oppressed by the interim Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February. Yanukovych fled to Russia after months of protest and bloodshed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will respect the voters’ decision. The U.S. and EU have warned that annexation would prompted more economic sanctions against Russia.
Russia voted on Saturday against a UN resolution condemning Sunday’s vote, the only Security Council member to do so.
Russian troops have taken control of government buildings and military bases in Crimea since Yanukovych fled. On Saturday, Russian troops made what was apparently their first foray outside Crimea, crossing the border to take over a natural gas plant that serves the region.
Update, 3:50 a.m. EDT: Voter Enthusiasm
Voters lined up before polls opened and more than 70 people surged in during the first 15 minutes in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, where Russia maintains its Black Sea fleet, according to the Associated Press.
“Today is a holiday,” said one voter, 66-year-old Vera Sverkunova. Asked how she voted, she broke into a patriotic war song: “I want to go home to Russia, it’s been so long since I’ve seen my mama,” the AP said.