SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — 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.
At a polling station at Simferopol's School No. 35, voters began lining up at 7:30 Sunday morning, officials inside the building said, half an hour before the doors opened to the public.
By mid-morning, 500 people had voted at that station, taking paper ballots into booths covered by an oversize Crimean tricolor flag.
Voters, many of them older pensioners bundled in heavy sweaters and wool overcoats, deposited their ballots in plastic bins, before making their way outside into the damp and cold weather.
The ballots offered only two options alongside a box to check in ink. "Are you for Crimea reuniting with Russia?" the first question asked. The second asked if voters were instead in favor of restoring an older constitution that makes Crimea a semi-independent part of Ukraine.
The signed ballots, visible inside the transparent bins, were seemingly marked overwhelmingly in favor of the first question.
Russian reports claimed exit polling showed 93 percent in favor of the pro-russian proposition, but Mykhail Milashev, the head of the Crimean Electoral Commission, later said the "exit poll bears no direct relation to real commission findings."
When asked how the voting went, Milashev said "there were no police reports made."
A sense of order in Simferopol was ensured by a quiet show of force along main routes, where masked gunmen in military fatigues guarded intersections and stood near armored vehicles.
The gunmen first arrived in this city two weeks ago, after Ukraine's pro-Moscow president was forced out of office during sustained and bloody protests in the nation's capital, Kiev. The gunmen do not officially identify themselves as Russian, though at least some of the vehicles have Russian license plates.
Even as the votes were being cast Sunday, a cool sense of tension continued.
Along one boulevard here, Ukrainian troops stood guard inside the front gate of a military base. Outside the locked gate, the gunmen smoked cigarettes on the sidewalk and pet a small cat perched on the steps of a building.
IN SIMFEROPOL, SATISFACTION -- AND IN KIEV AND IN WEST, OUTRAGE
Ukraine's new prime minister insisted again Sunday that neither Ukraine nor the West will recognize the referendum, which it says is being conducted at gunpoint.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called the vote a "circus performance," and told a government meeting Sunday that 21,000 Russian troops on site here are "trying to prove the legality" of the outcome.
But, on Saturday, Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution criticizing the referendum, and the United States’ ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, said the lone “no” vote showed how isolated Russia had become on the issue.
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.
Facing questions about the legitimacy of the referendum, Crimean election officials invited independent election observers.
But the effort seemed to backfire this weekend, after an event intended to introduce a handful of monitors to reporters Saturday drew criticism for its sharp political tone.
"He's got another thing coming, the leader of the free world," one of the election monitors told reporters of President Obama's support for the new government in Kiev.
Later, during a brief interview with NBC NEWS on Sunday, the monitor, Serge Trifkovic, a Serbian-American foreign affairs commentator, described the results of the referendum as "pre-ordained."
NBC News encountered Trifkovic in a downtown Simferopol square, where he said he was on lunch break from his monitoring duties.
"Let's face it," Trifkovic said. "Such referenda are not meant to be lost."
At several polling stations Sunday, voters spoke in favor of joining Russia.
Up the road from School No. 35, at a second public school specializing in teaching English, a local baker sold pastries in the front entrance.
Down a maze of hallways lined with maps of the solar system and announcements of school activities was a polling station, this one also busy by midday.
"I always dreamt of being a Russian citizen," one voter said in English.
The voter, Tatiana, an English teacher, said she had been told salaries and pensions are higher in Russia.
"I have a lot of friends in Russia, and they live better," she said.