MOSCOW, (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin, defying Ukrainian protests and Western sanctions, signed a treaty today making Crimea part of Russia but said he did not plan to seize any other regions of Ukraine.
In a fiercely patriotic address to a joint session of parliament in the Kremlin, punctuated by standing ovations, cheering and tears, 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.
To the Russian national anthem, Putin and Crimean leaders signed a treaty on making Crimea part of Russia, declaring: “In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia.”
Parliament was expected to begin ratifying the document within days.
The speech drew immediate hostile reaction in Kiev and the West. Ukraine’s foreign ministry said it did not recognise the pact, which showed how Russia posed a threat to international security.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, on a visit to Poland, called Moscow’s action a land grab and stressed Washington’s commitment to defending the security of NATO allies on Russian borders.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Russia’s move on Crimea was unacceptable to the international community, while British Foreign Secretary William Hague said London had suspended military cooperation with Russia.
BLACK AND WHITE
In his speech, Putin lambasted Western nations for what he called hypocrisy, saying they had endorsed Kosovo’s independence from Serbia but now denied Crimeans the same right, he said.
“You cannot call the same thing black today and white tomorrow,” he declared to stormy applause, saying that while he did not seek conflict with the West, 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”.
Putin thanked China for what he called its support, even though Beijing abstained on a U.N. resolution on Crimea that Moscow had to veto on its own. He 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 Moscow 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, where there has been tension between some Russian-speakers and the new authorities.
“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.”
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, opening the way for extremists who would stop at nothing.
Making clear Russia’s concern at the possibility of the U.S.-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 has caused the most serious East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War and Putin showed no sign of backing down despite the threat of tougher sanctions.
In Crimea, where his speech and the signing ceremony were broadcast live, his words caused rapture for some.
“Putin’s done what our hearts were longing for,” said Natalia, a pensioner who sells snacks in a kiosk in the centre of Simferopol, the region’s capital. “This finally brings things back to what they should be after all those years. For me, for my family, there can be no bigger joy, for us this is sacred.”
Feride Kurtbedinova, a high school student and a member of Crimea’s Muslim ethnic Tatar minority, said: “After Putin met with the Tatar leaders, that made it for me. He showed respect, gave us security guarantees, for Tatars that is important.”
Before Putin’s speech, Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, had 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 and would disarm Ukrainian nationalist militias.
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 seizure of the Black Sea peninsula, most of whose 2 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. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said it would retaliate.
Japan joined the mild Western sanctions on Tuesday, announcing the suspension of talks with Russia on investment promotion and visa liberalisation.
The White House said the world’s seven leading industrial democracies will hold a Group of Seven meeting without Russia on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in The Hague next week to consider further response to Russia’s actions.
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, Western nations were cautious in their first practical steps against Moscow, seeking to leave the door open for a diplomatic solution.
Russian stocks gained another 2 percent after rallying strongly on Monday as investors noted the initial sanctions did not target businesses or executives. But the rouble fell 0.6 percent 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.
Washington and Brussels have said future punitive measures could affect the economy, energy and arms contracts as well as the private wealth of magnates close to Putin.
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.
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, Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov announced that Crimea would switch to Moscow time from March 30. In the Crimean capital Simferopol, Banks scrambled to introduce the rouble as an official currency alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia.