The Crimean parliament voted Tuesday that the Black Sea peninsula will declare itself an independent state if its residents approve a referendum to split off from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.
Crimea's regional legislature on Tuesday adopted a "declaration of independence of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea." The document specifies that Crimea will become an independent state if its residents vote on Sunday in favor of joining Russia.
Western nations have said they will not recognize the vote as legitimate. But the move might be used as an attempt to ease tensions, with Crimea existing as a self-proclaimed state and Russia refraining from subsuming the territory.
Ukraine's interim leaders, in the meantime, established a new national guard on Tuesday and appealed to the United States and Britain for assistance against what they called Russian aggression in Crimea, under a post–Cold War treaty.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who will fly to Washington to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday, called on Western nations to defend Ukraine against a nation "that is armed to the teeth and that has nuclear weapons."
Blaming their ousted predecessors for the weakness of Ukraine's armed forces, acting ministers told parliament that they have as few as 6,000 combat-ready infantry troops and that the air force was outnumbered nearly 100 to 1 by Moscow's superpower-class forces.
The parliament in Kiev said it would dissolve the Crimean assembly if it did not cancel the referendum by Wednesday.
Yatsenyuk, who will also visit the United Nations Security Council this week, said the Budapest Memorandum, a 1994 treaty under which Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet nuclear weapons, calls for Russia to remove troops from Crimea and for Western powers to defend Ukraine's sovereignty.
"We are not asking for anything from anyone," Yatsenyuk told parliament. "We are asking for just one thing: Military aggression has been used against our country. Those who guaranteed that this aggression will not take place must from the one side pull out troops and from the other side must defend our independent, sovereign state."
He said a failure to protect Ukraine would undermine efforts to persuade Iran or North Korea to reject nuclear weapons, as Kiev did. The terms of the agreement oblige Russia, the U.K. and the United States as guarantors to seek U.N. help for Ukraine if it faces attack by nuclear weapons.
"I say this to our Western partners: If you do not provide guarantees, which were signed in the Budapest Memorandum, then explain how you will persuade Iran or North Korea to give up their status as nuclear states,” Yatsenyuk said.
In the meantime, deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, whose overthrow last month after protests triggered the gravest crisis in Europe since the Cold War, insisted from his refuge in Russia that he was still Ukraine's legitimate president and commander of its armed forces. He also insisted that the presidential election slated for May 25 is “absolutely illegal.”
The Ukrainian parliament passed a resolution calling on the United States and the U.K., co-signatories with Russia of that agreement to "fulfill their obligations ... and take all possible diplomatic, political, economic and military measures urgently to end the aggression and preserve the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine."
NATO powers and the authorities in Kiev have made clear they want to avoid a military escalation with Moscow. Russia, for its part, has denied that its troops were behind the takeover of Crimea 10 days ago by separatist forces — a denial ridiculed by other governments.
The European Union and United States have been preparing sanctions against Russia, though with some reluctance, especially in Europe, which values commercial ties with Moscow.
Direct diplomacy has stalled this week, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry turning down an invitation to Moscow until Russia modifies its stance. Yatsnenyuk said he had been unable to reach either Russian President Vladimir Putin or Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for the past five days.
Russia says the overthrow of Yanukovich was a coup backed by the West and that it has the right to defend the interests of the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea, a territory of 2 million people that the Kremlin transferred from Russia to Ukraine at a time when the collapse of the Soviet state was unthinkable.
NATO AWACS surveillance planes were beginning flights over Poland and Romania to monitor events in Ukraine, and the U.S. Navy was preparing for exercises in the Black Sea with NATO allies Bulgaria and Romania over the next few days.
Yatsenyuk, who said he supported efforts to set up a "contact group" of major powers to resolve the crisis, accused Russia of seeking to undermine the world security system. "This is not a two-sided conflict. These are actions by the Russian Federation aimed at undermining the system of global security," he told parliament.
Western powers have been careful to note that Ukraine is not a member of NATO and has no automatic claim on the alliance to defend it.
They have denounced the Russian intervention in Crimea and say the borders of Ukraine, a country of 46 million people, should remain unchanged. They have said they will not accept the outcome of Sunday's vote.
"The United States is not prepared to recognize any result of the so-called referendum taking place in six days' time," U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt said in Kiev. "We are committed to Crimea's status as part of Ukraine. The crisis needs to be solved diplomatically, not militarily."