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Defiant Putin signs treaty to annex Crimea, Ukraine tense
Agencies
Moscow/Paris, March 18, 2014
First Published: 18:49 IST(18/3/2014)
Last Updated: 02:44 IST(19/3/2014)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, defying Ukrainian protests and Western sanctions, on Tuesday signed a treaty making Crimea part Russia but said he did not plan to seize any other regions of Ukraine.

In a fiercely patriotic address to a joint session of the Russian parliament in the Kremlin, punctuated by standing ovations, cheering and tears, Putin lambasted the West for what he called hypocrisy. Western nations had endorsed Kosovo's independence from Serbia but now denied Crimeans the same right, he said.

Read: Excerpts from Russian President Putin's speech on Crimea

Russian President Putin defended Russia’s move to annex Crimea, saying that the rights of ethnic Russians have been abused by the Ukrainian government. (AP photo)

"You cannot call the same thing black today and white tomorrow," he declared to stormy applause, saying Western partners had "crossed the line" over Ukraine and behaved "irresponsibly".

He said Ukraine's new leaders, in power since the overthrow of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich last month, included "neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites".

Read: Republic of Crimea, the world's newest statelet

Putin said Crimea's disputed referendum vote on Sunday, held under Russian military occupation, had shown the overwhelming will of the people to be reunited with Russia after 60 years as part of the Ukrainian republic.

Ukraine subsequently ratcheted up its standoff with the Kremlin by threatening to nationalise Russian property in response to Crimea's claims to its own assets in the breakaway Black Sea peninsula.

The predominantly Russian-speaking peninsula's switch of allegiance has not been recognised by any other country and has been condemned as illegal by the new Western-backed administration that toppled pro-Moscow authorities in Kiev last month.

France's foreign minister, meanwhile, said leaders of the Group of Eight world powers have suspended Russia's participation in the club amid tensions over Ukraine and Russia's incursion into Crimea.

Read: Welcome to Republic of Crimea, the world's newest statelet

The other seven members of the group had already suspended preparations for a G8 summit that Russia is scheduled to host in June in Sochi.

France's Laurent Fabius went further, saying on Europe-1 radio that "concerning the G8 ... we decided to suspend Russia's participation, and it is envisaged that all the other countries, the seven leading countries, will unite without Russia." He did not give further details.

A woman holds a Russian flag with the word reading Crimea as about 1,000 demonstrators gathered to support Russians in Crimea in Moscow. (AP photo)

The US and European Union on Tuesday announced new sanctions against Russia over its actions in the Crimean Peninsula.

To the Russian national anthem in Moscow, Putin and Crimean leaders signed a treaty on making Crimea part of Russia. During his address, Putin was interrupted by applause at least 30 times.

"In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia," Putin said. He thanked China for what he called its support, even though Beijing abstained on a UN resolution on Crimea that Moscow had to veto on its own, and said he was sure Germans would support the Russian people's quest for reunification, just as Russia had supported German reunification in 1990.

And he sought to reassure Ukrainians that Russia did not seek any further division of their country. Fears have been expressed in Kiev that Russia might move on the Russian-speaking eastern parts of Ukraine.

"Don't believe those who try to frighten you with Russia and who scream that other regions will follow after Crimea," Putin said. "We do not want a partition of Ukraine. We do not need this."

A man plays accordion as people dance during celebrations in Sevastopol. (AFP photo)

Setting out Moscow's view of the events that led to the overthrow of Yanukovich in a popular uprising last month, Putin said the "so-called authorities" in Kiev had stolen power in a coup and opened the way for extremists who would stop at nothing.

Making clear Russia's concern at the possibility of the US-led NATO military alliance expanding into Ukraine, he declared: "I do not want to be welcomed in Sevastopol (Crimean home of Russia's Black Sea fleet) by NATO sailors." Moscow's seizure of Crimea, denounced by the West as illegal and in breach of Ukraine's constitutions, has caused the most serious East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.

Before Putin's speech, Ukraine's interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, sought to reassure Moscow on two key areas of concern, saying in a televised address delivered in Russian that Kiev was not seeking to join NATO, the US-led military alliance, and would act to disarm Ukrainian nationalist militias.

Ukraine's justice minister Pavlo Petrenko later called the measures illegal and warned Russia that it faced reprisals should it back Crimea's moves.

Read: HT Edit | It’s Putin’s way or the highway

"If the Russian Federation officially recognises (Crimea's) actions, then Ukraine reserves the right to take adequate steps to compensate these losses at the expense of property belonging to the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine and in other states," Petrenko said in a statement. "We are going to do this in strict accordance with Ukrainian and international law," he added.

Ukraine has strengthened frontier defences with Russia following Moscow's seizure of Crimea but there is no sign of a major troop build-up in a region where some say they would welcome a Russian takeover.

On a day when a Ukrainian soldier became the first fatal casualty in the confrontation on the Black Sea peninsula, at the southernmost crossing between the two countries, where Ukraine dug anti-tank ditches this week, Kiev's frontier guards were keen to play down the Russian threat and hope for the best.

"I think everything will be all right in the end," said Sergeant Oleksy Romanenko, as he lifted a barrier to let in one of a slow trickle of cars arriving from Russia on Tuesday.

But despite President Vladimir Putin saying Moscow had no designs on regions of Ukraine beyond Crimea, tension persists.

Mild sanctions
On Monday, the United States and the European Union imposed personal sanctions on a handful of officials from Russia and Ukraine accused of involvement in Moscow's military seizure of the Black Sea peninsula, most of whose two million residents are ethnic Russians.

Russian politicians dismissed the sanctions as insignificant and a badge of honour. The State Duma, or lower house, adopted a statement urging Washington and Brussels to extend the visa ban and asset freeze to all its members.

Read: Crimea's 6 steps towards joining Russia after Soviet-style vote

Japan joined the mild Western sanctions on Tuesday, announcing the suspension of talks with Russia on investment promotion and visa liberalisation.

Russian forces took control of Crimea in late February following the toppling of Yanukovich after deadly clashes between riot police and protesters trying to overturn his decision to spurn a trade and cooperation deal with the EU and seek closer ties with Russia.

Despite strongly worded condemnations of the Crimean referendum, Western nations were cautious in their first practical steps against Moscow, seeking to leave the door open for a diplomatic solution.

A Ukrainian border guard patrols the road on the administrative border of Crimea and Ukraine not far the village of Strilkove in the Kherson region. (AFP photo)

Russian stocks gained another 2% after rallying strongly on Monday as investors noted the initial sanctions did not target businesses or executives. But the rouble fell 0.6% against the dollar and the euro.

In a sign of the negative impact of the crisis on the investment climate, Russia's state property agency said it may postpone major privatisation deals until the second half of the year.

US President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on 11 Russians and Ukrainians blamed for the military seizure of Crimea, including Yanukovich, and two aides to Putin. Putin himself, suspected in the West of trying to resurrect as much as possible of the former Soviet Union under Russian leadership, was not on the blacklist.

EU foreign ministers agreed to subject 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials to visa restrictions and asset freezes.

The US list targeted higher-profile Russian officials close to Putin while the EU went for mid-ranking officials and military commanders more directly involved on the ground.

Washington and Brussels said more measures could follow in the coming days if Russia formally annexes Crimea.

Read: Putin has chosen path to Russia's isolation: Britain

The EU also said its leaders would sign the political part of an association agreement with Ukraine on Friday, in a gesture of support for the fragile coalition in Kiev.

Highlighting rifts in the EU, member state Austria offered on Tuesday to mediate between Moscow and the West.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (2nd R), Crimea's PM Sergei Aksyonov (L), parliamentary speaker Vladimir Konstantinov (2nd L) and Sevastopol Mayor Alexei Chaliy attend a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow. (Reuters photo)

Moscow time
Putin has declared that Russia has the right to defend, by military force if necessary, Russian citizens and Russian speakers living in former Soviet republics, raising concerns that Moscow may intervene elsewhere.

Putin has repeatedly accused the new leadership in Kiev of failing to protect Russian-speakers from violent Ukrainian nationalists. Ukraine's government has accused Moscow of staging provocations in Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine to justify military intervention.

In a symbolic gesture, Askyonov announced on Twitter that Crimea would switch to Moscow time from March 30, putting it two hours ahead of the rest of Ukraine.

In the Crimean capital Simferopol, the local government and businesses set about preparing for the switch to Russian rule.

Banks scrambled to introduce the rouble as an official currency alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia, although the switch could take place at the end of the month after March pensions and salaries are cleared, banking sources said.

The pan-European Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe cancelled a meeting to discuss sending a monitoring mission to Ukraine because the 57 members are deadlocked.

(With Reuters & AP)


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