By Vladimir Soldatkin and Steve Gutterman
Russian President Vladimir Putin, defying Ukrainian protests and Western sanctions, announced on Tuesday that Russia would move forward with procedures to annex Ukraine’s Crimean region.
Putin signed an order “to approve the draft treaty between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Crimea on adopting the Republic of Crimea into the Russian Federation”. The order indicated the president would sign the treaty with Crimea’s Russian-installed leader, who is in Moscow to request incorporation into Russia, but it gave no date.
The move followed a disputed referendum in Crimea on Sunday, staged under Russian military occupation, in which a Soviet-style 97 percent of voters were declared to have voted to return to Russian rule, after 60 years as part of Ukraine.
By pressing ahead with steps to dismember Ukraine against its will, Putin raised the stakes in the most serious East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.
On Monday, the United States and the European Union imposed personal sanctions on a small group of officials from Russia and Ukraine accused of involvement in Moscow’s military seizure of the Black Sea peninsula, most of whose 2 million residents are ethnic Russians.
Leonid Slutsky, one of the Russian politicians hit by the U.S. and EU visa ban and assets freeze, said in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, that Crimea’s decision was historic. “Today we see justice and truth reborn,” he said.
Japan joined the sanctions on Tuesday, announcing the suspension of talks on investment promotion and visa liberalisation with Russia.
“The recognition of Crimean independence by Russia violates Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and is regrettable,” Japanese Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.
Putin was to address a special joint session of the Russian parliament on the issue on Tuesday, aides said.
Russian forces took control of Crimea in late February following the toppling of Ukrainian president Viktor 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.
U.S. President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on 11 Russians and Ukrainians blamed for the military seizure, including Yanukovich, and Vladislav Surkov and Sergei Glazyev, 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.
Amid fears that Russia might move into eastern Ukraine, Obama warned Moscow on Monday that what he called further provocations would only increase Russia’s isolation and exact a greater toll on its economy.
“If Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, we stand ready to impose further sanctions,” he said.
A senior U.S. official said Obama’s order cleared the way to sanction people associated with the arms industry and targets “the personal wealth of cronies” of the Russian leadership.
In Brussels, the EU’s 28 foreign ministers agreed to subject 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials to visa restrictions and asset freezes for their roles in the events. They included three Russian military commanders in Crimea and districts bordering on Ukraine.
There were only three names in common on the U.S. and European lists – Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, Crimean parliament Speaker Vladimir Konstantinov and Slutsky, chairman of the Russian Duma’s committee on the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS, grouping former Soviet republics. The EU blacklisted Yanukovich earlier this month.
The U.S. list appeared to target higher-profile Russian officials close to Putin, including deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, while the EU went for mid-ranking officials who may have been more directly involved on the ground.
Rogozin retorted that the measures would not affect those without assets abroad.
Washington and Brussels said more measures could follow in the coming days if Russia does not back down and instead formally annexes Crimea.
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 Kiev coalition brought to power by last month’s uprising. The accord does not include any commitment to eventual EU membership, on which the bloc’s member states are divided.
RIGHT TO DEFEND
Putin has declared that Russia has the right to defend, militarily 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.
Moscow responded to Western pressure for an international “contact group” to mediate in the crisis by proposing on Monday a “support group” of states. This would push for recognition of the Crimean referendum and urge a new constitution for rump Ukraine that would require it to uphold political and military neutrality.
While a Western diplomat said some of the Russian ideas may offer scope for negotiation, Ukraine’s interim president ruled out ever accepting the annexation of its territory.
A pressing concern for the governments in Kiev and Moscow is the transfer of control of Ukrainian military bases. Many are surrounded by and under control of Russian forces, even though Moscow denies it has troops in the territory beyond facilities it leases for its important Black Sea Fleet.
Crimea’s parliamentary speaker said on Monday Ukrainian military units in the region would be disbanded, though personnel would be allowed to remain on the Black Sea peninsula, Russian news agency Interfax reported.
Ukraine’s border guard service accused Russian troops of evicting the families of their officers from their apartments in Crimea and mistreating their wives and children.