Saturday 24 February 2018

US and EU set for Russia sanctions following Crimean vote

Pro-Russian celebrations in Simferopol after residents in Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia (AP)
Pro-Russian celebrations in Simferopol after residents in Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia (AP)
Ukrainians living in Malaga sing the Ukrainian anthem during a protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin and in favor of unity and democratic freedom in Ukraine, in downtown Malaga, southern Spain
A man holds a ballot paper after casting a vote in favour of separation from Ukraine in the Crimean referendum (AP)
Demonstrators take part in a pro-Russian rally in Odessa
A pro-Russian demonstrator scuffles with police during a rally in Donetsk
Ukrainian servicemen guard a checkpoint near the village of Strelkovo in Kherson region adjacent to Crimea
Demonstrators take part in a protest against the referendum in Ukraine's Crimea region
An election official looks at a passport in a Ukrainian cover during voting in a referendum in Simferopol

The US and its allies in Europe are expected to announce sanctions against Russia, including visa bans and potential asset freezes, a day after Crimea's vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Barack Obama told Russian president Vladimir Putin yesterday that the vote "would never be recognised" by the US as he and other senior officials warned Moscow against making further military moves towards Ukraine.

 A complete, preliminary ballot count showed that 96.77 of voters in Ukraine's Crimea region have voted to join Russia,  the chairman of the regional government commission overseeing the referendum said earlier today.

Mikhail Malyshev spoke in remarks shown on Russian state television following Sunday's referendum, Reuters reported.

Mr Obama and Mr Putin spoke after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly in favour of the split in a referendum that the US, the EU and others say violates the Ukrainian constitution and international law, and took place in the strategic peninsula under duress of Russian military intervention.

Mr Putin says the vote was legal and consistent with the right of self-determination, but the White House said Mr Obama reminded Mr Putin that the US and its allies in Europe would impose sanctions against Russia should it annex Crimea.

In the call, which came amid an exchange of decidedly Cold War-style rhetoric between East and West, the US president urged Mr Putin to pursue a diplomatic de-escalation of the crisis, support the Ukraine government's plans for political reform, return its troops in Crimea to their bases, and halt advances into Ukrainian territory and military build-ups along Ukraine's borders.

Mr Obama said a diplomatic resolution "cannot be achieved while Russian military forces continue their incursions into Ukrainian territory and that the large-scale Russian military exercises on Ukraine's borders only exacerbate the tension", the White House said in a statement.

EU foreign ministers will today decide whether to impose asset freeze and visa sanctions and, if so, who to target. Further measures could be taken at an EU summit meeting of government leaders starting on Thursday.

European Council president Herman Van Rompuy and Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said in a joint statement: "The referendum is illegal and illegitimate and its outcome will not be recognised."

Britain, France and Germany echoed the statement by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague that Moscow must face "economic and political consequences".

EU diplomats worked over the weekend to set up a list of Russian and Moscow-leaning officials from Ukraine who have been involved in pushing for the southern peninsula's secession and possible annexation.

Diplomats said member states arrived at weekend talks with different suggestions, so a common list could be drawn up for today's meeting of the 28 foreign ministers to make a final decision.

Even before official results of the referendum were announced, the White House denounced the vote, saying "no decisions should be made about the future of Ukraine without the Ukrainian government" and noting that Russia rejected the deployment of international monitors in Crimea to ensure the rights of ethnic Russians were protected.

"Russia has spurned those calls as well as outreach from the Ukrainian government and instead has escalated its military intervention into Crimea and initiated threatening military exercises on Ukraine's eastern border," the White House said, calling those actions "dangerous and destabilising".

With no military response envisioned, and with US and EU sanctions apparently foregone conclusions, the Obama administration slightly shifted its focus to keeping Russia from encroachment into Ukraine beyond Crimea, where Moscow has a large naval base.

US officials warned that any Russian moves on east and south Ukraine would be a grave escalation requiring additional responses.

In a call with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, US secretary of state John Kerry expressed "strong concerns" about Russian military activities in the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson, where Russian troops appeared on Saturday, and about "continuing provocations" in cities in eastern Ukraine, the US State Department said.

Mr Kerry "made clear that this crisis can only be resolved politically and that as Ukrainians take the necessary political measures going forward, Russia must reciprocate by pulling forces back to base and addressing the tensions and concerns about military engagement", it said.

The call was the second between Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov since they had six hours of unsuccessful face-to-face talks in London on Friday.

The head of Russia's observer mission in Crimea insisted that the results of the referendum are impossible to contest.

Valery Ryazantsev, from the Russian upper house of parliament, said in comments carried by the Interfax news agency that the vote leaves no reason to consider it illegitimate.

After 50pc of the ballots were counted, more than 95% of voters had backed splitting off and joining Russia. The final count is expected later today.

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