Putin rebuffs West, signs treaty to annex Crimea – USA TODAY

Posted: Tuesday, March 18, 2014

To standing ovations and chants of “Russia, Russia,” President Vladimir Putin told a joint session of parliament Tuesday that Crimea has “always been an integral part of Russia” then signed treaty paving the way for formal annexation of the Ukrainian Black Sea region.

In a televised, 40-minute speech heavily laden with historical references to Russia’s ties to Crimea, Putin insisted that the rapid takeover of the region was fully “democratic,” “legal and convincing.”

He also insisted it was necessary to thwart an effort by the West to grab Ukraine and eventually station NATO ships in the historical Russian port of Sevastopol.

Even as Putin spoke, Western countries sought to ratchet up the pressure on Moscow”

• In Warsaw, Vice President Joe Biden met with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and accused Russia of a “blatant violation of international law” in Crimea with its “brazen military incursion.”

“Russia has offered a variety of arguments to justify what is nothing more than a land grab, including what he (Putin) said today,” Biden said in Poland. “But the world has seen through Russia’s actions and has rejected the flawed logic behind those actions.
Biden also planned to meet the leaders of the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which were formerly part of the Soviet Union.

• In London, Prime Minister David Cameron warned of “further measures” against Russia by the international community. Cameron, according to a spokesperson, called for a “de-escalation” in the crisis through a return of Russian forces to base and respect for the Ukrainian constitution.

• French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said the leader of the G-8 had decided to suspend Russia’s participation in the economic group. Russia had been scheduled to host the meeting in Sochi in southern Russia.

In his televised, 40-minute address, Putin made it clear that Russia would annex the Crimean territory, despite objections from international parties.

Russia “will of course be facing foreign confrontation” he said. “But we have to decide for ourselves, are we to protect our national interest or just carry on giving them away forever?”

The Russian leader laid out an emotional and historical argument for re-taking Crimea, saying “in people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia.”

Putin repeatedly asserted that the move toward annexation — prompted by a referendum in Crimea on Sunday that won overwhelming support in the autonomous region of Ukraine — followed international law and dismissed efforts by the United States and the European Union to apply new pressure on Russia.

“Our colleagues in the U.S. and elsewhere tell us we are violating international laws,” he said. “It is good that they at least remember there are international laws. Better late than never.”

To back his claim that Crimea’s vote followed international law, Putin pointed to Kosovo’s independence bid from Serbia — supported by the West and opposed by Russia — and said that Crimea’s secession from Ukraine repeats Ukraine’s own secession from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The United States has imposed economic sanctions and travel restrictions on seven Russian officials, including close aides to Putin, and four Ukrainian officials, including deposed president Viktor Yanukovych. The European Union has taken similar measures.

Putin argued that months of protests and unrest in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, that prompted Yanukovych to flee to Russia,had been instigated by the West in order to weaken Russia. “In Ukraine, the Western partners have crossed a red line, they have been irresponsible,” he said.

He also accused the West of trying to undermine Ukraine’s historical ties to Russia, raising the specter that Ukraine would have joined NATO and brought NATO ships into the historical Russian port of Sevastopol. He said that “in the people’s heart of hearts,” Crime has “always been part of Russia.”

Putin described the new, interim Ukrainian government that emerged following the political standoff as illegitimate, driven by radical “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites.”

“We couldn’t leave the Crimeans, otherwise it would have been treason,” he said in the speech, during which the assembled lawmakers gave him several standing ovations.

He also lamented the break up of the former Soviet Union, calling it a “historical injustice.” He said that Crimea was effectively stolen from Russia and that it remains an “inseparable part” of the country.

“Something that we thought was incredible became reality. The USSR broke down. The events were so quick most citizens could not realize the traumatic effects of what was happening,” he said.

At the same time, Putin asserted that he did not want to move into other region of Ukraine, which also have large Russian-speaking populations, saying, “we don’t want division of Ukraine.”

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in power when the Soviet Union collapsed, weighed in on the crisis Tuesday, hailing Crimea’s vote to join Russia as a “happy event.” Gorbachev, in remarks carried by online newspaper Slon.ru, said Crimea’s vote offered residents the freedom of choice and showed that “people really wanted to return to Russia.”

Putin denied Western accusations that Russia invaded Crimea prior to the referendum Sunday, saying Russian troops were sent there in line with a treaty with Ukraine that allows Russia to have up to 25,000 troops at its Black Sea Fleet base in Crimea.

OPINION: Ron Paul: Crimea secedes. So what?

The United States and the European Union have so far announced freezes of assets and other sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials involved in the crisis in Crimea, which was part of Russia from the 18th century until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954.

On Sunday, some 97% of voters in Crimea backed a referendum for a union between the largely ethnic-Russian peninsula and the huge neighboring country, according to election officials there, but the U.S. and Europe maintain that the election was illegal and have refused to recognize it.

Some experts have speculated that Putin’s ultimate ambition is to protect ethnic Russians across the former Soviet empire.

“Putin is prepared to keep on pushing,” Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told the Associated Press. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he moves into other points into eastern Ukraine.”

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