World Bulletin / News Desk
Crimea's parliament voted to join Russia on Thursday and its Moscow-backed government set a referendum within 10 days on the decision in a dramatic escalation of the crisis over the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula.
The sudden acceleration of moves to bring Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority and has effectively been seized by Russian forces, formally under Moscow's rule came as European Union leaders gathered for an emergency summit to find ways to pressure Russia to back down.
U.S. President Barack Obama took steps to punish those involved in threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, ordering the freezing of their U.S. assets and a ban on travel into the United States.
The U.S. Navy announced a guided-missile destroyer, the USS Truxton, was heading to the Black Sea in what it said was a long-planned training exercise and not a show of force.
The Crimean parliament voted unanimously "to enter into the Russian Federation with the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation".
The vice premier of Crimea, home to Russia's Black Sea military base in Sevastopol, said a referendum on the status would take place on March 16. He said all state property would be "nationalised", the Russian rouble could be adopted and Ukrainian troops would be treated as occupiers and be forced to surrender or leave.
The announcement, which diplomats said could not have been made without Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval, raised the stakes in the most serious east-west confrontation since the end of the Cold War.
Russia said it would make it easier to give passports to native Russian speakers who have lived in Russia or the former Soviet Union. Putin has cited the threat to Russian citizens to justify military action in Georgia in 2008 and now in Ukraine .
Far from seeking a diplomatic way out of the crisis, Putin appears to have chosen to create facts on the ground before the West can agree on more than token action against him.
EU leaders had been set to warn but not sanction Russia over its military intervention after Moscow rebuffed Western diplomatic efforts to persuade it to pull forces in Crimea, with a population of about 2 million, back to their bases. It was not immediately clear what impact the Crimean moves would have.
French President Francois Hollande told reporters on arrival at the summit: "There will be the strongest possible pressure on Russia to begin lowering the tension and in the pressure there is, of course, eventual recourse to sanctions."
The new Ukrainian government has declared the referendum illegal and opened a criminal investigation against Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Askyonov, who was appointed in a closed session by the region's parliament last week. The Ukrainian government does not recognise his authority or that of the parliament.
A Crimean parliament official said voters will be asked two questions: should Crimea be part of the Russian Federation and should Crimea return to an earlier constitution (1992) that gave the region more autonomy?
"If there weren't constant threats from the current illegal Ukrainian authorities, maybe we would have taken a different path," deputy parliament speaker Sergei Tsekov told reporters outside the parliament building in Crimea's main city of Simferopol.
"I think there was an annexation of Crimea by Ukraine, if we are going to call things by their name. Because of this mood and feeling we took the decision to join Russia. I think we will feel much more comfortable there."
Ukraine's economy minister said on Thursday a referendum on Crimea's status that is planned by the region's recently installed pro-Russian leaders would be illegitimate.
"My position is that this referendum is unconstitutional," the minister, Pavlo Sheremeta, told reporters in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, reiterating the government's stance following a decision by Crimea's new leaders to bring the referendum forward by two weeks to March 16.
"The authorities in Crimea are totally illegitimate, both the parliament and the government. They are forced to work under the barrel of a gun and all their decisions are dictated by fear and are illegal," his spokeswoman quoted him as saying.
She said Turchinov would issue a statement later on thursday on Crimea, whose parliament voted on Thursday to join the Russian Federation.
PUTIN TO CONSULT SECURITY COUNCIL
Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Ukraine, including the Crimean parliament's appeal to let the region join Russia, at a meeting of his Security Council on Thursday, RIA news agency quoted his spokesman as saying.
A bill on simplifying the procedure for "parts of foreign states" to join the Russian Federation could be adopted next week, a politician who crafted the bill was quoted as saying on Thursday.
Itar-Tass news agency quoted Sergei Mironov as saying: "Speaking plainly, this bill was introduced by me for the sake of Crimea."
The White House said the order was "a flexible tool that will allow us to sanction those who are most directly involved in destabilising Ukraine, including the military intervention in Crimea, and does not preclude further steps should the situation deteriorate."
But the EU summit in Brussels seemed unlikely to adopt more than symbolic measures against Europe's biggest gas supplier, because neither industrial powerhouse Germany nor financial centre Britain is keen to start down that road.
The short, informal EU summit will mostly be dedicated to displaying support for Ukraine's new pro-Western government, represented by Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, who will attend even though Kiev is neither an EU member nor a recognised candidate for membership.
The European Commission has announced an aid package of up to 11 billion euros ($15 billion) for Ukraine over the next couple of years provided it reaches a deal with the International Monetary Fund, entailing painful reforms like ending gas subsidies.
Diplomats said that at most, the 28-nation EU would condemn Russia's so far bloodless seizure of the Black Sea province and suspend talks with Moscow on visa liberalisation and economic cooperation, while threatening further measures if Putin does not accept mediation efforts soon.
France has a deal to sell warships to Russia that it is so far not prepared to cancel, London's banks have profited from facilitating Russian investment, and German companies have $22 billion invested in Russia.
The crisis began in November when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, under strong Russian pressure, turned his back on a far-reaching trade deal with the EU and accepted a $15 billion bailout from Moscow. That prompted three months of street protests leading to the overthrow of Yanukovich on Feb. 22.
Moscow denounced the events as an illegitimate coup and refused to recognise the new Ukrainian authorities.
Russia kept the door ajar for more diplomacy on its own terms, announcing on Thursday a meeting of former Soviet states in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), including Ukraine, for April 4 and saying it would be preceded by contacts between Russian and Ukrainian diplomats.
Lavrov said attempts by Western countries to take action over the Ukraine crisis via democracy watchdog OSCE and the NATO military alliance were not helpful.
Asked if he had met his Ukrainian counterpart, Lavrov said: "Who is that?"
He stuck to Putin's line - ridiculed by the West - that Moscow does not command the troops without national insignia which have taken control of Crimea, besieging Ukrainian forces, and hence cannot order them back to bases.
Western diplomats said there was still hope that once Lavrov had reported back to Putin, Russia would accept the idea of a "contact group" involving both Moscow and Kiev as well as the United States and European powers to seek a solution.
The EU said it has frozen the assets of ousted Ukrainian president Yanukovich and 17 other officials, including former prime minister Mykola Azarov, suspected of human rights violations and misuse of state funds.
Last Mod: 06 Mart 2014, 16:08