Simferopol (AsiaNews/Agencies) - With more than two-thirds of votes counted, the leaders of the Crimea have already begun celebrating the results of yesterday's referendum on joining the Russian Federation.
The Ukrainian government, the European Union and the United States have condemned the referendum as illegal, but Crimea's chief electoral officer Mikhail Malyshev said that 95.7 per cent of voters opted for secession.
Last night, celebrations were held with Russian (and Soviet) songs and flags, fireworks in Simferopol's main square under a statue of Lenin. Russian soldiers stationed in peninsula's naval bases joined the celebrations.
Sergei Aksyonov, self-proclaimed leader of Crimea, repeatedly said that the peninsula was going home to Russia after 60 years of Ukrainian rule. He also said that the regional parliament, which today proclaimed Crimea's independence and which Kyiv had declared illegal, will ask for annexation to Russia.
At least 58 per cent of Crimea's 2 million residents are ethnic Russians. For many of them, the referendum means 'going home. In1954, Nikita Khrushchev transferred the peninsula from Russia to the Ukraine. Since the times of Catherine the Great in the 18th century, Russia has had a fleet in the Crimea.
Crimea is however also the home to many ethnic Ukrainians (24 per cent) and Muslim Tatars (12 per cent). The latter are deeply anti-Russian because they were deported under Stalin.
Ethnic Russians claim that they fear that the new government in Kyiv was taken over by ultra-nationalist who wants to abolish the use of the Russian language. In fact, a motion to that effect had been presented to the Ukrainian parliament but was blocked by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Tatars and Ukrainians (but also many ethnic Russians) living in Crimea are opposed to annexation by Putin's Russia. For Refat Chubarov, a Tatar leader, "The fate of our motherland cannot be decided in such a referendum under the shadows of the guns of soldiers".
In fact, since President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster and the establishment of a new government in Kyiv, thousands of masked armed men have appeared across the Crimea.
For Russia, they are "self-defense forces" that protect the local pro-Russian population. For Ukrainian authorities and the international community, they are Russian soldiers who invaded the Crimea.
The United States and the European Union are studying ways to respond to the referendum and Russia's imminent annexation of Crimea. For now, they have pledged to impose a visa ban and freeze funds held abroad by pro-Russian Ukrainians and Russian leaders.
However, for many observers, the Western response is tempered by its energy dependence on Russian oil and gas. Russia, the world's largest oil producer, exported US$ 160 billion worth of crude, fuels and gas-based industrial feedstock to Europe and the United States in 2012
In any case, as Russian media praise Russia as the only power in the world capable of turning the United States into "radioactive ash", some Ukrainians are saying that Crimea's invasion is the start of "World War Three".