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Crimea asks to join Russia as West readies sanctions

AFP-JIJI

Crimea declared independence Monday and applied to join Russia while the Kremlin braced for sanctions after the flash point peninsula voted to leave Ukraine in a ballot that has fanned the worst East-West tensions since the Cold War.

Official results from Sunday’s disputed referendum showed 96.77 percent of the voters in the mostly Russian-speaking region opting for Kremlin rule in what would be the most radical redrawing of the map of Europe since Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.

Crimea’s lawmakers also declared the Russian ruble the peninsula’s second official currency and vowed to “disband” the Ukrainian military units stationed across the region — a move that threatens to inflame the raging security crisis on the European Union’s eastern frontier.

The vote was strongly condemned by Washington and Brussels, with EU foreign ministers meeting to discuss sanctions against Moscow.

Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchinov, denounced the vote as a “great farce” and watched from a podium as agitated lawmakers approved a partial mobilization of the army aimed at countering Russian troops’ effective seizure of Crimea.

The ex-Soviet nation’s acting defense minister, Igor Tenyukh, also firmly told reporters that the “troops deployed (in Crimea) will stay there.”

Most of the international community has rejected the referendum as illegal because Russia had vowed to respect its neighbor’s territorial integrity under a 1994 agreement that saw Ukraine renounce its Soviet-era nuclear arms.

But the government in Crimea announced a series of measures to sever ties with Kiev — including seizing Ukrainian institutions and even plans to set the peninsula on Moscow time, two hours ahead.

The White House said President Barack Obama warned Russian leader Vladimir Putin that Washington and its allies would “never” recognize Crimea’s breakaway vote.

Obama warned that “Russia’s actions were in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and that, in coordination with our European partners, we are prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions,” the White House said.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also said Europe needed to send the “strongest possible signals” to Russia at a meeting of the 28-nation bloc’s foreign ministers Monday.

The ministers are widely expected to approve “targeted” sanctions against Russian or pro-Kremlin Ukrainian leaders that could include both travel restrictions and asset freezes.

The measures — reportedly affecting top Russian ministers and presidential aides, but not Putin himself — are meant to demonstrate the West’s united resolve to punish the Kremlin for its overt show of post-Soviet might.

Putin has signaled no intention to turn back from what he describes as his defense of ethnic Russians who, according to Moscow, have come under increasing attack from Ukrainian ultranationalists since last month’s ouster in Kiev of a pro-Kremlin regime by a far more nationalist but Western-leaning team.

The Kremlin said Putin “emphasized” to Obama that the referendum “was fully in line with the norms of international law and the U.N. charter.”

It said Putin pointed out “the well-known precedent of Kosovo” — a mostly Muslim region of former Soviet ally Yugoslavia whose independence is backed by Washington but not recognized by the Kremlin.

Putin on Tuesday will make a special address on the crisis that will be attended by lawmakers from Russia’s two houses of parliament. Crimea’s self-declared leader, Sergiy Aksyonov, also tweeted on Monday that he was flying to Moscow for talks.

Russia’s lower house of parliament is expected to debate legislation on Friday simplifying the process under which the Kremlin can annex another part of a sovereign state.

But the overwhelming margin of victory for the pro-Kremlin camp underscores the mistrust the heavily “Russified” southeast of Ukraine shares for the European leanings of those who rose to power on the back of three months of deadly protests in Kiev.

Alcohol-fueled celebrations swept cities across the diamond-shaped Black Sea peninsula as Russian flags flew and refrains from Soviet-era songs filled the rain-soaked streets.

“We’re free of the occupation!” Lucia Prokorovna said amid bursts of fireworks in Russia’s historic naval port of Sevastopol late Sunday.

“Ukraine was attached to Crimea like a sack of potatoes,” the 60-year-old said in reference to the decision by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushev — a native Ukrainian — to present the peninsula to Kiev as a gift in 1954.

Aksyonov — recognized by Moscow but rejected as illegitimate by Kiev and most of the world — hailed the referendum as a “historic moment.”

“We’re going home. Crimea is going to Russia,” he told those gathered in Lenin Square.

Not everyone in Crimea was happy with the result.

Some ethnic Ukrainians expressed bewilderment at a referendum that presented them with only two choices: join Russia or go back to a 1992 constitution under which Crimea became a de facto sovereign state.

The status quo or better terms with Kiev were not options — a reality that along with the massive presence of Russian troops across the region prompted British Foreign Secretary William Hague to call the vote a “mockery” of democracy.

One of the greatest uncertainties hanging over Crimea itself is how the economically devastated region that relies on Kiev for everything from energy to water can survive in the span it would take to formally be accepted as a part of Russia.

Aksyonov tweeted Monday that Crimea had received a 15 billion ruble ($410-million) aid package from Moscow.

Crimean lawmakers also claimed rights to the pipelines as well as offshore oil and natural gas platforms of Ukraine’s state-owned Chornomorneftegaz and Ukrtransgaz energy firms.

Russia’s finance ministry meanwhile suggested turning Crimea into a temporary low-tax zone aimed at helping the region deal with the transition.

Nationalist voices in Ukraine are calling on Kiev authorities to cut off Crimea from basic supplies in an effort to get its leaders to reverse course.

“Crimea’s access to gas, electricity, water and food staples is in danger — and Russia will not be able to compensate,” said Penta institute analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.

  • zer0_0zor0

    A strong put down of the CIA/MI6-backed ultranationalists (and neo-Nazis!?) in Kyiv.

    As an expat American that disagrees with a number of the foreign policy moves by a president that I have generally supported, I’m glad to see that the world has at least one leader on its stage that is able to expose American hubris for what it is.

    If Obama isn’t careful, he’s going to end up casting himself in the mold of GW(!?)–talk about “one-party rule”! The LDP has nothing on the USA…

    • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

      Whilst I can agree with your point, I think its pertinent to go to the next step and asks what system makes it possible for 2 governments to rake over another country’s land in a strategic game-play, deciding to support who it may, with little regard for constituents….and all the time showing little consideration for the taxpayer back at home. That’s representative democracy my friend. Except it was never terribly democratic. Its actually akin to giving power of attorney to ‘a party’ with your ‘very nominal’ representation….for which you give plenty of taxation (or is it unconditional love).

      • zer0_0zor0

        Well, I’d like to think that citizens used to be more involved in public life, even if less informed. Representative democracy has lost some of its “representativeness”, perhaps, but there is still nothing better than participatory government.

        The Crimea crisis does not reflect directly on that one way or the other, I think, as most of the people living there are Russians. Crimea was an autonomous republic after Khrushchev gifted it to his place of birth–Ukraine–during the Soviet era, but it had been an integral part of Russia for nearly 250 years (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russo-Turkish_War_(1768%E2%80%9374).

        The Ukraine crisis overall shows that the USA is governed by a plutocratic oligarchy that attempts to legitimize itself by deploying the ideological components of its arsenal, ie., democracy and free market economics, with various forms of covert and overt leverage aimed at undermining the social fabric of societies having resources or markets that have been targeted.

        On some fronts, Obama has now proven to be almost as much of an front-man advocate for corporate America as Bush was. Though Obama has steered a much better course with respect to the environment, energy, health care, etc.

        “Change”, no we didn’t–not much, anyway.

      • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

        I think there was not the reflection on just how alienating political discourse was simply because we have risen from a relatively collectivist Europe. The US had it best with at least sovereign states, but they have since been overtaken by ‘big federal government’, as well as ever-more bloated public spending budgets. Representation is simply not a realistic prospect. You can’t even find value in somehow reconciling the views of thousands of people without holding the constituent or politician accountable. Its not possible. Its an extortion racket intent on gaining your sanction. Why make special mention of the USA. This is largely the culture that characterises every ‘rep’ (aka ‘rip-off’) democracy.