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Cossacks guard the local parliament building in Crimea's capital Simferopol, March 6, 2014.
Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

Russia’s parliament signaled Friday it will support a vote in the Crimea region of Ukraine to break away from the country, saying the region would be welcome as an equal part of Russia if it votes to leave Ukraine in an upcoming referendum.

Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, met with the head of Crimea’s parliament on Friday, the Associated Press reports. “If the decision is made, then [Crimea] will become an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation,” Matvienko said, comparing the referendum, which is scheduled for March 16, to a scheduled referendum in Scotland on whether to become independent from the United Kingdom.

Leaders from both houses of Russia’s parliament said on Friday that they would support Crimea’s bid for secession. “We will respect the historic choice of the people of Crimea,” said speaker of the lower house, Sergei Naryshkin, the New York Times reports.

The statements are the clearest signal yet that Moscow supports Crimea’s move to break away from Ukraine, something the United States is fiercely opposing. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Russia does not intend to annex Ukraine, and that the residents have the right to determine their future. Russia’s parliament is introducing legislation that would make it easier for Crimea to join Russia. Under Russia’s constitution, it can only annex foreign territory if the foreign government agrees, and the leaders of Ukraine’s interim government have opposed Crimea’s secession. “Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine,” interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said, calling a secession referendum “an illegitimate decision.”

President Barack Obama said this week that the referendum violates international law. But Obama has seen Russia rebuff every diplomatic effort to stem its influence in Ukraine. Ethnic Russians are a majority in Crimea, and if the referendum passes, it would be another barrier for the White House’s efforts to persuade Putin to pull Russian forces out of the peninsula.

While the key players in the Ukrainian crisis traded statements about the country’s political future, a U.S. warship crossed Turkey’s Bosphorus Strait on Friday on the way to the Black Sea. The USS Truxtun is scheduled to conduct military exercises with forces from the Bulgarian and Romanian navies, according to a U.S. Navy statement. The Pentagon announced the deployment on Thursday, a day after it unveiled plans to commit more fighter jets to a NATO air patrol mission in the Baltics. The additional military support is intended to reassure allies in neighboring countries after Russia’s military intervention in Crimea.


* This post was updated at 12:00 p.m. EST

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