Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on Monday signed a decree declaring Crimea as a “sovereign and independent” state one day after the region voted to separate from Ukraine in a disputed referendum condemned by Kiev and the West.
Ukraine’s turmoil has become Europe’s most severe security crisis in years and tensions have been high since Russian troops seized control of Crimea, which has now decided to merge with Russia. Russian troops are also massed near the border with Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s acting president raised tensions on the ground by calling for the activation of some 20,000 military reservists and volunteers across the country and for the mobilization of another 20,000 in the recently formed National Guard.
In the Crimean capital of Simferopol, ethnic Russians applauded the referendum that overwhelmingly called for secession and for joining Russia
Risk of further sanctions
The US, the EU and Ukraine’s new government do not recognize the referendum, which was called hastily as Ukraine’s political crisis deepened with the ouster of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovichfollowing months of protests and sporadic bloodshed. In addition to calling the vote itself illegal, the Obama administration said there were “massive anomalies” in balloting that returned a 97 percent “yes” vote for joining Russia.
Obama warned that Russia could face more financial punishment.
“If Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, we stand ready to impose further sanctions,” Obama said.
One of the top Russian officials hit by sanctions mocked Obama. “Comrade Obama, what should those who have neither accounts nor property abroad do? Have you not thought about it?” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted. “I think the decree of the President of the United States was written by some joker.”
Moscow considers the vote legitimate and Putin was to address both houses of parliament Tuesday on the Crimean situation.
Ukraine ‘won’t give up Crimea’
In Kiev, acting President Oleksandr Turchinov vowed that Ukraine will not give up Crimea.
“We are ready for negotiations, but we will never resign ourselves to the annexation of our land,” a somber-faced Turchinov said in a televised address to the nation. “We will do everything in order to avoid war and the loss of human lives. We will be doing everything to solve the conflict through diplomatic means. But the military threat to our state is real.”
The Crimean referendum could also encourage rising pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine’s east and lead to further divisions in this nation of 46 million.
FRANCE 24’s Ukraine correspondent Gulliver Craggreported that Ukrainian troops have regrouped in strategic areas near the eastern borders as well as in the south, in areas joining Crimea.
“Ukrainian tanks are on the move,” he said. “Certainly the Ukrainian government’s attitude at the moment seems to be that it’s on a war footing and it is trying to gather the forces necessary to confront a potential Russian incursion.”
He added that tens of thousands of Russian troops have been carrying out military exercises to the east of Ukraine’s border and that a Russian missile system has been brought into Crimea.
A delegation of Crimean lawmakers was set to travel to Moscow on Monday for negotiations on how to proceed. Russian lawmakers have suggested that formally annexing Crimea is almost certain – with one saying it could happen within days.
“We came back home to Mother Russia. We came back home, Russia is our home,” said Nikolay Drozdenko, a resident in Sevastopol, the key Crimean port where Russia leases a naval base from Ukraine.
The Crimean parliament declared that all Ukrainian state property on the peninsula will be nationalized and become the property of the Crimean Republic. It gave no further details. Lawmakers also asked the United Nations and other nations to recognize it and began work on setting up a central bank with $30 million in support from Russia.
Putin allies targeted by sanctions
The US announced sanctions against seven Russian officials, including Rogozin, Putin’s close ally Valentina Matvienko who is speaker of the upper house of parliament and Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s top ideological aides. The Treasury Department also targeted Yanukovich, Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov and two other top figures.
The EU’s foreign ministers slapped travel bans and asset freezes against 21 officials from Russia and Ukraine following Crimea’s referendum.
“We need to show solidarity with Ukraine and therefore Russia leaves us no choice,” Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told reporters in Brussels before the vote.“The ‘Anschluss’ of Crimea cannot rest without a response from the international community.”
He was referring to Nazi Germany’s forceful annexation of Austria.
Moscow, meanwhile, called on Ukraine to become a federal state as a way of resolving the polarization between Ukraine’s western regions – which favour closer ties with the 28-nation EU – and its eastern areas, which have long ties to Russia.
In a statement Monday, Russia’s foreign ministry urged Ukraine’s parliament to call a constitutional assembly that could draft a new constitution to make the country federal, handing more power to its regions. It also said country should adopt a “neutral political and military status,” a demand reflecting Moscow’s concern about the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO and possibly integrating closer politically and economically with the EU.
Russia is also pushing for Russian to become one of Ukraine’s state languages alongside Ukrainian.
Separately, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya visited NATO headquarters in Brussels to request technical equipment to deal with the secession of Crimea and the Russian incursion there.