SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — With the Russian flag planted atop the regional Parliament, Crimea raised the specter of secession from Ukraine on Thursday, threatening renewed civil conflict and a showdown between Ukraine’s fledgling government and the Kremlin.
Across the region’s capital, Simferopol, a well-orchestrated power grab by pro-Russian forces played out: Armed militants took control of government buildings; crowds filled the streets chanting “Russia, Russia,” and legislators called for a vote to redefine relations with Ukraine.
The region is currently autonomous, meaning it has greater local control.
Police officers, nominally under the control of the Ministry of Interior in Kiev, made little effort to control the crowds and, in some cases, even applauded their pro-Russia zeal. The police stood aside as the armed militants built a barricade outside the regional legislature. The authorities ordered an emergency holiday leaving streets mostly empty.
“This is the first step toward civil war,” said Igor Baklanov, a computer expert who joined a group of anxious residents gathered in a drizzle at a thin police line near the Parliament building, a line that quickly vanished when activists of a nationalist group called Russian Movement of Ukraine marched up waving Russian flags.
The rush of events in Crimea, which is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, accelerated the forces tugging at Ukraine since the ouster last weekend of President Viktor F. Yanukovych. The events also deepened a dangerous rift between Ukraine’s new leadership and the Kremlin, which has refused to recognize the new government and now appears to have given shelter to the ousted president, and they added a new element of uncertainty to Russia’s relations with the West.
Yanukovych, last sighted in Crimea over the weekend, appears to have since been spirited to Moscow via a Russian naval base in Sevastopol, the region’s biggest city, which last Friday forced its Kiev-appointed mayor to resign in favor of a Russian businessman.
By midafternoon, legislators — at least those who could get through the scrum of pro-Russia protesters outside, past barricades, and past unidentified armed insurgents inside — met to discuss holding a referendum on the future status of the volatile Black Sea peninsula.
“Today we made a decision, a historic decision,” said Vladimir Konstantinov, the chairman of the legislature, who explained that a referendum would be held on May 25 to decide whether to “grant the autonomous republic the status of a state.”
But it was unclear what he meant exactly, and some local news reports said that the referendum would ask residents of Crimea only whether they wanted enhanced autonomy, not outright secession.
Also uncertain by late Thursday was whether enough of the assembly’s 100 members had shown up to give the legislative session the quorum needed to make its decisions legal. Refat Chubalov, a leader of the region’s minority Tatar population, a community of Turkic Muslims, said he had not been informed about the emergency session and denounced any decisions it took as invalid.
If a referendum is held, it would almost certainly lead to an overwhelming vote in favor of weaker links with Ukraine and even outright secession.
It was not immediately clear what, if any, direct role Russia played in engineering the tumult, but the situation here matches in some ways a situation that previously played out in such areas as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where largely pro-Russia populations broke away from Georgia, a former Soviet republic like Ukraine, to effectively become Russian protectorates. Russian military vehicles, which had been far more visible on the streets than usual in previous days, stayed in their compounds on Thursday.
Russia controlled Crimea for centuries but lost it to Ukraine in 1954 following what at the time seemed an inconsequential redrawing of internal Soviet boundaries by leader Nikita S. Khrushchev.
The pace of developments has perhaps outrun even Moscow’s capacity for geopolitical machinations. Having mobilized its air and ground forces around Ukraine on Wednesday for previously unannounced military exercises in western Russia, Moscow has raised expectations among its most zealous supporters that it will intervene to support their cause.
But any open military intervention would risk plunging Crimea, a vital outpost for the Russian navy, into bloody chaos and undermine security inside Russia, particularly in heavily Muslim areas.