Putin signs Crimea back into Russia despite global anger

Russian president Vladimir Putin defies western sanctions and warnings as Black Sea territory sees first soldier death in secession crisis.

The Russian president Vladimir Putin, second from right, Crimea’s prime minister Sergei Aksyonov, left, Sevastopol mayor Alexei Chaliy, right, and the Crimean parliamentary speaker, Vladimir Konstantinov, shake hands at the Kremlin after the signing of a treaty to make Crimea a part of Russia. Sergei Ilnitsky / Reuters / March 18, 2014
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MOSCOW // President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday signed a treaty claiming the Black Sea region of Crimea as Russian territory as Ukraine warned the showdown had entered a “military stage” with the killing of one of its soldiers on the peninsula.

The treaty signing was conducted at lightning speed in the Kremlin in a defiant expansion of Russia’s post-Soviet borders that has plunged relations with the West to a new low post-Cold War.

The move, less than three weeks after pro-Moscow troops first seized control of the strategic peninsula, triggered furious condemnation from western leaders.

Ukraine said one of its soldiers had been killed in Crimea on Tuesday, the first confirmed fatality on the peninsula, and its interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, accused Russia of acting like “Nazi Germany”.

The West, which backs the new leaders in Ukraine who took power after last month’s ousting of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich, condemned Moscow’s actions as a blatant annexation of Crimea.

The US vice president, Joe Biden, accused Russia of a “land grab” and German chancellor Angela Merkel said the move was against international law.

Mr 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 more than 97 per cent of Crimeans voted in favour of joining Russia in a disputed referendum on Sunday.

Russian members of parliament, 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.

“We’ve waited for this moment for many years,” said a jubilant Anatoly Volkovoi, 70, in Crimea’s main city of Simferopol.

The signing – which had not been flagged in advance – came after Mr 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 sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union that US officials touted 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,” Mr Putin said.

He 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 such as 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 population are far from supportive of the new authorities in Ukraine.

“We don’t want the break-up of Ukraine. We do not need it,” Mr 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 Mr Putin has been immensely popular among Russians and more than 100,000 people turned out for a patriotic rally outside the Kremlin late on Tuesday that was also attended by the president.

Meanwhile, a Ukrainian soldier died after being shot in the neck when a group of gunmen stormed a Ukrainian military base in the north-east of Crimea’s capital Simferopol.

Thousands of Ukrainian troops have been left marooned in bases in Crimea and it remains unclear how their fate will be resolved with the region now under full Russian control.

Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, told an emergency government session in Kiev that the conflict with Russia was entering a “military stage”.

“Russian soldiers have started shooting at Ukrainian military servicemen, and that is a war crime,” he said.

The interim president Oleksandr Turchynov said Mr Putin was following the example of 20th-century fascist leaders.

“Russia is playing a dirty game to annex Crimea. World War II began with the annexation by Nazi Germany of other countries’ territories,” he said.

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.

Mr Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov likened the sanctions against him to a “political Oscar ... for best supporting actor”.

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,” Mr Biden said during a visit to Warsaw.

Ms Merkel, seen as the most important potential powerbroker in Europe over Crimea, said Russia was guilty of repeatedly breaking international law.

The French president, Francois Hollande, urged a “strong” response while the British foreign secretary, William Hague, said Mr Putin had chosen the “route of isolation”. Britain was also suspending all military cooperation with Russia, he added.

The European Union “will not recognise the annexation” of Crimea by Russia, the EU’s top officials Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement.

Mr Rompuy is expected to head to Russia on Wednesday to meet Mr Putin, diplomatic sources said.

With Russia already risking expulsion from the G8 group of top nations, the US president Barack Obama called for a G7 summit next week in The Hague to discuss the escalating East-West showdown.

Diplomats in Brussels said EU and Ukrainian leaders would on Friday sign the political portion of a landmark pact whose rejection by Mr Yanukovich in November sparked the protests that led to his fall.

* Agence France-Presse