Crimea now part of Russia; treaty signed
MOSCOW, Russia (2nd UPDATE) – President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday signed a treaty claiming the Black Sea region Crimea as Russian territory, plunging relations with the West into a new post-Cold War low.
With the sudden and historic redrawing of Russia's borders, Putin shrugged off the sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union over its fast-track seizure of Crimea, which the international community still regards as part of Ukrainian territory.
In an unusually emotional address in the Kremlin before the treaty was signed, Putin declared that Crimea has always been "in the hearts" of his countrymen and should never have ended up on the territory of post-Soviet Ukraine.
The West, which backs the new authorities in Ukraine who took power after last month's ousting of pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych, strongly condemned Moscow's actions.
US Vice President Joe Biden bluntly accused Russia of a "land grab" and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the move was against international law.
Ukraine's interim President Oleksandr Turchynov also voiced outrage at the move. "Ukraine and the entire world will never recognize the annexation of Ukrainian land," he said.
Putin signed the treaty with Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov and other Crimean leaders at a ceremony at the Kremlin attended by both houses of parliament, after over 97 percent of Crimeans voted in favor of joining Russia in a disputed referendum on Sunday.
Russian lawmakers, who still have to formally ratify the treaty although it comes into force immediately, broke into raucous applause and cheers after the signing.
"The Republic of Crimea is considered to be part of Russia from the date of the signing of the treaty," the Kremlin said.
Crimea and the city of Sevastopol – the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet which has special status – are being incorporated as new constituent parts of the Russian Federation.
Some 2,000 people on Sevastopol's Nakhimov Square watched Putin's speech on a giant screen, cheering and chanting "Hurrah!" and "Russia! Russia!"
"Putin is right. He's right! I'm sure life will get better after Crimea joins Russia," said 75-year-old pensioner Anatoliy Basov.
'Inseparable part of Russia'
The signing – which had not been flagged in advance – came after Putin gave a fiery address at the Kremlin seeking to justify the incorporation of Crimea into Russia.
His defiant speech referred to Crimea's ancient and Soviet history and brushed off US and EU sanctions touted by US officials as the most severe against Moscow since the end of the Cold War.
"In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia," Putin said.
Putin said Crimea belonged with Russia and he slammed the Soviet-era decision by Nikita Khrushchev to gift the peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet republic as riddled with "violations".
"When Crimea suddenly ended up being in another state, Russia felt it was not simply robbed --- it was plundered," he said.
He added that Russia was tired of being pushed into a corner by the West and said it had been repeatedly deceived on issues like NATO, missile defence and visa-free travel.
"On Ukraine the West crossed a line," he said, warning it against provoking Russia.
But he sought to play down fears that Russia was seeking to also incorporate parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, whose Russian-speaking populations are far from supportive of the new authorities in Ukraine.
"We don't want the break-up of Ukraine. We do not need it," Putin said.
It is the first time since World War II that Moscow is expanding its borders and represents the most radical redrawing of the map of Europe since Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.
The swoop by Putin has been immensely popular among Russians. Independent pollster Levada Center said Monday that two thirds of Russians -- 63 percent -- believe Russia is a "great nation," double the figure of 31 percent in March 1999.
The EU and US had on Monday slapped asset freezes and visa bans on Russian officials and Ukrainian figures involved in the Crimea referendum but the measures seemed to cause little alarm in Moscow.
"I am proud of this," Putin's aide Vladislav Surkov said of the sanctions against him, likening them to a "political Oscar."
Western leaders on Tuesday urged a tougher response to the taking of Crimea by Russia, which came at a pace few could have expected and took Western capitals by surprise.
"Russia's political and economic isolation will only increase if it continues down this path and it will in fact see additional sanctions by the United States and the EU," Biden said during a visit to Warsaw, denouncing Russia's actions as no more than a "land grab."
Merkel, seen as a the most important potential powerbroker in Europe over Crimea, said that Russia was guilty of breaking international law.
"The so-called referendum breached international law, the declaration of independence which the Russian president accepted yesterday was against international law, and the absorption into the Russian Federation is, in our firm opinion, also against international law," she said.
French President Francois Hollande urged a "strong" response while British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Putin had chosen the "route of isolation". Britain was also suspending all military cooperation with Russia, he added.
With Russia already risking expulsion from the G8 group of top nations, President Barack Obama on Tuesday called for a G7 summit next week in the Hague to discuss the escalating East-West showdown.
The new government in Kiev, which has thousands of Ukrainian troops marooned in bases in Crimea, responded with predictable outrage but appeared powerless to counter Putin's move.
Ukraine's Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko said that Kiev reserved the right to nationalise Russian property while foreign ministry spokesman Yevgen Perebyinis repeated that Kiev will never recognise Russia's taking of Crimea.
The treaty inked on Tuesday had "nothing to do with democracy, rule of law or common sense," he said.
After the treaty was signed, the party of Ukrainian boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko, a presidential candidate, urged Kiev to cut diplomatic ties with Russia.
Diplomats in Brussels said EU and Ukrainian leaders would on Friday sign the political portion of a landmark pact whose rejection by Yanukovych in November sparked the protests that led to his fall. – Rappler.com