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A billboard in Crimea featuring a Nazi symbol emblazoned over the region on one side — and the Russian flag on the other — highlights how local pro-Russian officials are framing a referendum on whether the peninsula should break away from Ukraine, State Department officials said Monday.
The sign, in Russian, says “March 16, we choose,” according to multiple reports. The small word between the two pictures is “or.”
Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin have repeatedly referred to the new leadership in Ukraine as "fascist."
Meanwhile, U.S. and Western diplomatic sources, who have called the March 16 referendum illegal, tell NBC News they are working closely on new sanctions against Russia, depending on whether the Russian national assembly, the Duma, approves annexation of Crimea as scheduled for Tuesday.
But it may not be possible to act quickly, the sources said, if the European Union decides to require a council meeting in Brussels before the actions can be taken.
One Western diplomat said if the Duma votes for annexation Tuesday, “it will narrow the space for any diplomatic response.”
The United States and Russia are locked in a diplomatic faceoff over Moscow’s occupation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.
Secretary of State John Kerry rejected an invitation to meet Putin in Sochi on Monday night to talk about the crisis, citing an escalation of Russian troops into Crimea in the past few days.
According to a senior official, Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday to inform he couldn't come to Russia to attend the meeting until Moscow agreed to several diplomatic points.
Those points included restoring the unity and sovereignty of Ukraine, ceasing military advances, halting the Duma’s action to annex Crimea, and using Russian influence to stop the March 16 referendum.
Kerry also asked that Russia be prepared as soon as possible to start working with an international group to start direct dialogue with Ukraine.
Administration officials say they have not yet heard back from the Russians to see if there is a willingness to engage in a serious way.
Jeff Black of NBC News contributed to this report.