Tuesday, 18 March 2014
By Vladimir Soldatkin and Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, March 18 (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin, defying Ukrainian protests and Western sanctions, on Tuesday signed a treaty making Crimea part Russia but said he did not plan to seize any other regions of Ukraine.
In a fiercely patriotic address to a joint session of the Russian parliament in the Kremlin, punctuated by standing ovations, cheering and tears, Putin lambasted the West for what he called hypocrisy. Western nations 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 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 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 after 60 years as part of the Ukrainian republic.
To the Russian national anthem, Putin and Crimean leaders signed a treaty on making Crimea part of Russia. During his address, Putin was interrupted by applause at least 30 times.
"In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia," Putin said.
He 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, and 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 Russia 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.
"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. We do not need this."
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 and opened 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, denounced by the West as illegal and in breach of Ukraine's constitutions, has caused the most serious East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.
Before Putin's speech, Ukraine's interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, 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, the U.S.-led military alliance, and would act to 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 military 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.
Japan joined the mild Western sanctions on Tuesday, announcing the suspension of talks with Russia on investment promotion and visa liberalisation.
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 of the Crimean referendum, 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.
U.S. President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on 11 Russians and Ukrainians blamed for the military seizure of Crimea, including Yanukovich, and two aides to Putin.
Putin himself, suspected in the West of trying to resurrect as much as possible of the former Soviet Union under Russian leadership, was not on the blacklist.
EU foreign ministers agreed to subject 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials to visa restrictions and asset freezes.
The U.S. list targeted higher-profile Russian officials close to Putin while the EU went for mid-ranking officials and military commanders more directly involved on the ground.
Washington and Brussels said more measures could follow in the coming days if Russia formally annexes Crimea.
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, Askyonov announced on Twitter that Crimea would switch to Moscow time from March 30, putting it two hours ahead of the rest of Ukraine.
In the Crimean capital Simferopol, the local government and businesses set about preparing for the switch to Russian rule.
Banks scrambled to introduce the rouble as an official currency alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia, although the switch could take place at the end of the month after March pensions and salaries are cleared, banking sources said.
The pan-European Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe cancelled a meeting to discuss sending a monitoring mission to Ukraine because the 57 members are deadlocked.
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