KIEV // Crimea declared independence from Ukraine on Monday, triggering the toughest western sanctions against Russia since the Cold War – with Washington and the European Union imposing asset freezes and travel bans and the US president Barack Obama vowing 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, a strategic Black Sea peninsula that 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 by calling for the activation of about 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 on Sunday that overwhelmingly called for secession and for joining Russia. Masked men in body armour blocked access for most journalists to the parliament session that declared independence, but the city otherwise appeared to go about its business normally.
The US, EU and Ukraine’s new government do not recognise the referendum held Sunday in Crimea, which was called hastily as Ukraine’s political crisis deepened with the ouster of the pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovich, 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 per cent “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.
Moscow considers the vote legitimate and the Russian president Vladimir Putin was to address both houses of parliament on the Crimean situation on Tuesday.
The Crimean referendum could also encourage rising pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine’s east and lead to further divisions in the nation of 46 million.
A delegation of Crimean lawmakers was set to travel Moscow on Monday for negotiations on how to proceed. Russian lawmakers have suggested that formally annexing Crimea is almost certain – with one saying it could happen within days.
The Crimean parliament declared that all Ukrainian state property on the peninsula will be nationalised and become the property of the Crimean Republic. Legislators also asked the United Nations and other nations to recognize it and began work on setting up a central bank with US$30 million (Dh110m) in support from Russia.
The United States announced sanctions against seven Russian officials, including the deputy prime minister Dmitry 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 Mr Yanukovich, the 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, but did not immediately release the names and nationalities of those targeted by the sanctions.
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.
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 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.
* Associated Press