Pro-Russian gathering in Yevpatoria, Ukraine, March 5, 2014.
Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
March 6, 2014 7:10 AM EST

The Crimea region of Ukraine will hold a referendum March 16 to decide whether to join Russia, the latest twist in a crisis that has seen Russia flex its muscle in the strategically important area.

The Crimean parliament on Thursday overwhelmingly voted in favor of holding the referendum, in which local voters will be given the choice of becoming part of Russia or remaining part of Ukraine, but with more local powers, the Associated Press reports. “This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev,” Crimean legislator Sergei Shuvainikov said. “We will decide our future ourselves.”

The decision to hold a referendum comes as a force of more than 10,000 pro-Russian troops reportedly control all access to the peninsula and have blockaded Ukrainian military bases. While the troops are widely believed to be members of the Russian military – they are wearing Russian military uniforms with no insignia and are operating armored vehicles with Russian plates – the Russian government has denied that its troops are in Ukraine, saying they are “self-defense” units that do not answer to the Kremlin.

President Barack Obama spoke out against the referendum on Thursday afternoon.

“The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukranian constitution and violate international law,” Obama said at the White House. “In 2014 we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.”

Western leaders have demanded that Russia withdraw its forces from Crimea, but despite intense diplomatic activity there has been no progress. European Union leaders are set to meet in an emergency session in Brussels on Thursday to discuss possible economic sanctions against Russia. The United States has called for tough measures, but European countries, which have closer economic ties with Russia, have balked at the possibility of harsh sanctions.

A U.N. special envoy sent to Crimea came under threat from armed men Wednesday and was forced to withdraw from the region.

-with reporting from Zeke J Miller and Denver Nicks

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