The speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament said Friday that Crimea would be welcome as an equal part of Russia if the region votes to leave Ukraine. Crimea would be the first territory to officially join Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The referendum had been scheduled for March 30, but was pushed up two weeks. And while the original vote was only on whether Crimea should get enhanced local powers, the peninsula's residents will now also vote on whether to join Russia.
U.S. officials say they believe Putin was involved in orchestrating the referendum, though the Russian leader made no public statements about the planned vote. Earlier in the week, 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.
U.S. officials say they also see an unlikely ally emerging in China, which has frequently sided with Russia at the United Nations Security Council in blocking Western actions. While China has not condemned Russia's actions outright, Beijing's ambassador to the U.N. this week said it supported "noninterference" and respects Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, spoke this week with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi. The White House said the officials agreed on the need for a peaceful resolution to the dispute that "upholds Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
It appears unlikely China would actually take punitive actions against Russia. U.S. officials say Beijing is largely acting out of self-interest and appears to view the developments in Crimea through the prism of a nation that also has ethnic minorities who live in border regions and identify more closely with neighboring countries.
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