Monday 22 January 2018

Russia defiant in face of sanctions

Pro-Russian people celebrate in Lenin Square in Simferopol, Ukraine, after polls closed in Crimea's contentious referendum. (AP)
Pro-Russian people celebrate in Lenin Square in Simferopol, Ukraine, after polls closed in Crimea's contentious referendum. (AP)
A pro-Russian soldier stands outside a Ukrainian military base. (AP)
Pro-Russian celebrations in Simferopol after residents in Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia (AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin's decree recognising Crimea as a "sovereign and independent country" has triggered the toughest Western sanctions against Russia since the Cold War.

Washington and the European Union reacted to the referendum for Crimea to breakaway from Ukraine with asset freezes and travel bans. US President Barack Obama vowed to "increase the cost" if the Kremlin does not back down.

Ukraine's turmoil has become Europe's most severe security crisis in years and tensions have been high since Russian troops seized control of Crimea, which has now decided to merge with Russia. Russian troops are also massed near the border with Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine's acting president raised tensions on the ground by calling for the activation of some 20,000 military reservists and volunteers across the country and for the mobilisation of another 20,000 in the recently formed national guard.

In the Crimean capital of Simferopol, ethnic Russians applauded the referendum that overwhelmingly called for secession and for joining Russia.

The US, EU and Ukraine's new government do not recognise the referendum, which was called hastily as Ukraine's political crisis deepened with the removal of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych following months of protests and sporadic bloodshed. In addition to calling the vote itself illegal, the Obama administration said there were "massive anomalies" in balloting that returned a 97% "yes" vote for joining Russia.

Mr Obama warned that Russia could face more financial punishment.

"If Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, we stand ready to impose further sanctions," he said.

But one of the top Russian officials hit by sanctions mocked Mr Obama.

"Comrade Obama, what should those who have neither accounts nor property abroad do? Have you not thought about it?" Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted. "I think the decree of the President of the United States was written by some joker."

Moscow considers the vote legitimate and Mr Putin plans to address both houses of parliament tomorrow on the Crimean situation.

In Kiev, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov vowed that Ukraine will not give up Crimea.

"We are ready for negotiations, but we will never resign ourselves to the annexation of our land," a Mr Turchynov said in a televised address to the nation.

"We will do everything in order to avoid war and the loss of human lives. We will be doing everything to solve the conflict through diplomatic means. But the military threat to our state is real."

The Crimean referendum could also encourage rising pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine's east and lead to further divisions in the country.

The Crimean parliament declared that all Ukrainian state property on the peninsula will be nationalised and become the property of the Crimean Republic. Lawmakers also asked the United Nations and other nations to recognise it and began work on setting up a central bank with the support of Russia.

The US announced sanctions against seven Russian officials, including Rogozin, Mr Putin's close ally Valentina Matvienko who is speaker of the upper house of parliament and Vladislav Surkov, one of Mr Putin's top ideological aides. The Treasury Department also targeted Yanukovych, Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov and two other top figures.

The EU's foreign ministers slapped travel bans and asset freezes against 21 officials from Russia and Ukraine following Crimea's referendum. The ministers did not immediately release the names and nationalities of those targeted by the sanctions.

"We need to show solidarity with Ukraine and therefore Russia leaves us no choice," Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told reporters in Brussels before the vote. "The 'Anschluss' of Crimea cannot rest without a response from the international community."

He was referring to Nazi Germany's forceful annexation of Austria.

Moscow, meanwhile, called on Ukraine to become a federal state as a way of resolving the polarisation between Ukraine's western regions - which favour closer ties with the 28-nation EU - and its eastern areas, which have long ties to Russia.

In a statement, Russia's Foreign Ministry urged Ukraine's parliament to call a constitutional assembly that could draft a new constitution to make the country federal, handing more power to its regions. It also said the country should adopt a "neutral political and military status," a demand reflecting Moscow's concern about the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO and possibly integrating closer politically and economically with the EU.

Russia is also pushing for Russian to become one of Ukraine's state languages alongside Ukrainian.

In Kiev, Ukraine's new government dismissed Russia's proposal as unacceptable, saying it "looks like an ultimatum".

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya visited NATO headquarters in Brussels to request technical equipment to deal with the secession of Crimea and the Russian incursion there.

NATO said in a statement that the alliance was determined to boost its cooperation with Ukraine, including "increased ties with Ukraine's political and military leadership".

Press Association

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