RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly, including State Duma deputies, members of the Federation Council, regional governors and civil society representatives, at the Kremlin in Moscow March 18, 2014. President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday Crimea was of vital importance to Russia and had always been part of the country in people's hearts and minds. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov (RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3HJYN Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
With a historic sweep of his pen, President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty Tuesday to annex Crimea, describing the move as correcting past injustice and a necessary response to what he called Western encroachment upon Russia's vital interests.
In an emotional 40-minute speech that was televised live from the Kremlin, Putin said "in people's hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia."
He dismissed Western criticism of Sunday's Crimean referendum — in which residents of the strategic Black Sea peninsula overwhelmingly backed breaking off from Ukraine and joining Russia — as a manifestation of the West's double standards.
At the same time, the Russian leader said his nation didn't want to move into other regions of Ukraine, saying "we don't want division of Ukraine."
Thousands of Russian troops have been massed along Ukraine's eastern border for the last few weeks — Russia says that was for military training while the U.S. and Europe view the troops as an intimidation tactic.
Putin argued that months of protests in Ukrainian capital that prompted President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia had been instigated by the West in order to weaken Russia. He cast the new Ukrainian government as illegitimate, driven by radical "nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites."
Following the speech before lawmakers and top officials, Putin and Crimean officials signed a treaty for the region to join Russia.
The treaty will have to be endorsed by Russia's Constitutional Court and ratified by both houses of parliament, but Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of upper house of Russian parliament, said the procedure could be completed by the end of the week.
In his speech at the Kremlin's white-and-gold St. George hall, Putin said the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine had been abused by the new Ukrainian government. He insisted that Crimea's vote Sunday to join Russia was in line with international law and reflected its right for self-determination.
Putin's speech came just hours after he approved a draft bill for the annexation of Crimea, a key move in a flurry of steps to formally take over the Black Sea peninsula.
To back his claim that Crimea's vote was in line with international law, Putin pointed to Kosovo's independence bid from Serbia — supported by the West and opposed by Russia — and said that Crimea's secession from Ukraine repeats Ukraine's own secession from the Soviet Union in 1991.
He denied Western accusations that Russia invaded Crimea prior to the referendum, saying Russian troops were sent there in line with a treaty with Ukraine that allows Russia to have up to 25,000 troops at its Black Sea Fleet base in Crimea.
Putin had previously warned that he would be ready to use "all means" to protect Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, and Russia has built up its forces alongside the border between the two countries, raising fears of an invasion.
Joe Biden, visiting Poland, condemns Russian 'land grab'
The U.S. immediately fired back, with Vice President Joe Biden condemning Putin's actions and vowing to impose more sanctions against Russia.
Biden, speaking in Warsaw next to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, said the world has seen through Russia's actions in Crimea, which he called "nothing more than a land grab."
Biden says virtually the entire world rejects the referendum in Crimea that cleared the way for Russia to annex the peninsula in Ukraine.
Tusk said the Crimea crisis was "Not just a problem for Ukraine ... the Russian action in Ukraine is a challenge for the whole free world."
On Monday, the White House imposed asset freezes on seven Russian officials, including Putin's close ally Valentina Matvienko, who is speaker of the upper house of parliament, and Vladislav Surkov, one of 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.
Despite Obama's vow of tougher measures, stock markets in Russia and Europe rose sharply, reflecting relief that trade and business ties were spared.
"I guess the market view is that Russia forced their case in Crimea, pushed through the referendum, and the Western reaction was muted, so that this opens the way for future Russian intervention in Ukraine," said Tim Ash, an analyst who follows Ukraine at Standard Bank PLC.
Biden is also set to meet with the leaders of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia while he's on the road.
New concerns in Ukraine as Russia ignores sanctions
Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in a televised statement that Ukrainian law-enforcement agencies have gathered "convincing evidence of the participation of Russian special services in organizing unrest in the east of our country."
Many in the ethnic Tatar minority in Crimea were wary of the referendum, fearing that Crimea's break-off from Ukraine would set off violence against them.
Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliyev seemed to confirm those fears, saying in remarks carried by the RIA Novosti news agency that the government would ask Tatars to "vacate" some of the lands they "illegally" occupy so authorities can use them for "social needs."
The Russian State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution condemning U.S. sanctions targeting Russian officials including members of the chamber. The chamber challenged President Barack Obama to extend the sanctions to all the 353 deputies who voted for Tuesday's resolution, suggesting that being targeted was a badge of honour. Eighty-eight deputies left the house before the vote.
Putin's senior foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov blasted the new sanctions in an interview with Russian news agencies. “We are fed up with these sanctions,” Ushakov said.
“They provoke only feelings of irony and sarcasm.”
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