Friday 28 November 2014

Putin signs treaty making Crimea part of Russia

...While Ukraine's pro-Western prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk denounced today's death of a Ukrainian serviceman as a "war crime"

Published 18/03/2014 | 20:41

Russia's President Vladimir Putin addresses the audience during a rally and a concert called
Russia's President Vladimir Putin addresses the audience during a rally and a concert called "We are together" to support the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea to Russia in Red Square in central Moscow today. Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov
Police look at portraits of missing political activists and journalists that protesters pasted on the gate of the Crimean interior ministry in Simferopol March 18, 2014

Defying Ukrainian protests and Western sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty in Moscow today making Crimea part of Russia again but said he did not plan to seize any other regions of Ukraine.

On the peninsula, a Ukrainian serviceman was killed when a base still held by Kiev came under attack in the main town of Simferopol, the first death in Crimea from a military clash since Russia seized control three weeks ago.

Kiev said the attackers had been wearing Russian military uniforms and responded by authorising its soldiers in Crimea to use weapons to protect their lives, reversing previous orders that they should avoid using arms against attack.

In a fiercely patriotic address to a joint session of parliament in the Kremlin, punctuated by standing ovations, cheers 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.

As the Russian national anthem played, Putin and Crimean leaders signed a treaty to make Ukraine's region part of the Russian Federation, declaring: "In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia."

Parliament is expected to begin ratifying the treaty within days.

Putin later told a flag-waving rally in Red Square beneath the walls of the Kremlin, near where Soviet politburo leaders once took the salute at communist May Day parades, that Crimea has returned to "home port".

Russian forces took control of the Black Sea peninsula in late February following the toppling of Moscow-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich by protests provoked by his decision to spurn a trade deal with the European Union last November and seek closer ties with Russia. People in Crimea voted overwhelmingly in the weekend referendum to join Russia.

Ukrainian and Russian troops have avoided violent confrontations, with Kiev anxious to avoid giving Moscow a reason for overrunning its bases in Crimea.

However, Ukraine's pro-Western prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk denounced Tuesday's death of the serviceman as a "war crime" and called for international talks to prevent an escalation of the conflict.

A defence ministry statement said the dead man had been shot while manning a tower, adding that the attackers in Russian uniforms were holding the base commander in a nearby building. A Russian Defence Ministry spokesman declined immediate comment.

Interfax Ukraine news agency, quoting Crimean police, said a member of the pro-Russian "self-defence forces" was also killed in the incident. The report could not immediately be confirmed.

In Kiev, the press service of Acting President Oleksander Turchinov announced new military orders. "In connection with the death of a Ukrainian serviceman ... Ukrainian troops in Crimea have been allowed to use weapons to defend and protect the lives of Ukrainian servicemen," the order issued by the defence ministry said.

Turchinov also accused Russia of annexing Crimea in actions reminiscent of Nazi Germany's takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland in the run-up to World War Two.

HOSTILE REACTION

Putin's speech drew immediate hostile reaction in Kiev and the West.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Moscow's action a "land grab" and on a visit to Poland stressed Washington's commitment to defending the security of NATO allies on Russian borders.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Russia's move was unacceptable to the international community, while Britain suspended military cooperation with Russia.

"It is completely unacceptable for Russia to use force to change borders, on the basis of a sham referendum held at the barrel of a Russian gun," British Prime Minister David Cameron said, threatening Putin with "more serious consequences".

In his speech, the Russian leader lambasted Western nations for what he called hypocrisy, saying they had endorsed Kosovo's right to self-determination and independence from Serbia but now denied Crimeans the same rights.

"You cannot call the same thing black today and white tomorrow," Putin declared, saying that while he did not seek conflict with the West, Western partners had "crossed the line" over Ukraine and behaved "irresponsibly".

Ukraine's new leaders, in power since the overthrow of Yanukovich, included "neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites", he added.

Putin tried 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."

Putin said Russian forces in Crimea had taken great care to avoid any bloodshed, contrasting it with NATO's 1999 campaign to drive Serbian forces out of Kosovo. Reinforcements had remained within the treaty limit of 25,000 troops in the area, he said.

Setting out Moscow's view of the events that led to the overthrow of Yanukovich 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.

NATO SAILORS

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 were greeted with rapture by 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. "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."

Yatseniuk earlier tried to reassure Moscow on two of its main concerns, saying in a televised address delivered in Russian that Kiev was not seeking to join NATO and would disarm Ukrainian nationalist militias.

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