Putin

Apparently those sternly worded statements are failing to deter Putin.

(NBC News) — The polls have closed in Ukraine’s autonomous Crimean region following a contentious day of voters casting ballots Sunday in a referendum on whether the peninsula should become part of Russia instead.

The voting ended at 8 p.m. local time (2 p.m. ET)

The referendum, backed by Moscow and adamantly opposed by Ukraine’s new government and its western allies, is expected to be easily approved. Crimea has a large ethnic Russian population, and pro-Russian sentiment is deeply felt in Simferopol, the region’s main administrative city. […]

Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday said Russia will face sanctions if it supports the referendum and has warned of “an even greater response” if Russia sends troops into eastern Ukraine.

But local politicians here in Crimea are speaking optimistically about expanding Russia’s reach into other areas of Ukraine.

During an interview with NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel, Crimea’s Deputy Prime Minister called Sunday’s referendum “the first step.”

“It’s the first step. I really think so,” the deputy prime minister, Rustam Temirgaliev, said. “I think the second step will be eastern Ukraine.”

Temirgaliev added that plans were underway to introduce the Russian Ruble in Crimea by early April, and that his government is exploring running a cable eastward to deliver Russian electrical energy to the peninsula.