UPDATE (10:15 a.m.): President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty today officially annexing Crimea into Russia. Putin gave a 40-minute televised speech, saying, “in people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia.”
Putin said he has no further designs on the territory of Ukraine, but then accused Ukraine of illegally seceding from the Soviet Union years ago. Ukraine’s new government, born out of revolution just a month ago, said Russia is a threat to the whole world.
UPDATE (10:20 a.m., Monday, March 17): President Obama on Monday imposed sanctions against Russian officials, including advisers to President Putin, for supporting Crimea’s vote to secede from Ukraine.
The White House also announced it is working to identify and target assets of other individuals who aren’t government officials but are supporting them. The Treasury Department also is imposing sanctions on four Ukrainians, including former President Viktor Yanukovych, a former top Ukrainian presidential adviser, and two Crimea-based separatist leaders.
“Today’s actions send a strong message to the Russian government that there are consequences for their actions that violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including their actions supporting the illegal referendum for Crimean separation,” the White House said in a statement. “Today’s actions also serve as notice to Russia that unless it abides by its international obligations and returns its military forces to their original bases and respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the United States is prepared to take additional steps to impose further political and economic costs.”
The U.S. announcement came shortly after the European Union announced travel bans and asset freezes on 21 people they have linked to the unrest in Crimea.
OUR EARLIER REPORT: The streets of Crimea were alive with celebration Sunday after residents overwhelmingly voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Ukraine and the West have declared the referendum vote illegal, but Moscow has backed the move in the semi-autonomous Black Sea peninsula of 2 million people.
“We are going home. Crimea is in Russia,” Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov announced to a crowd waving Russian flags in Simferopol’s Lenin Square.
The White House has condemned the vote for being “administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law.” President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday, but the call showed no signs of changing Moscow’s course in Ukraine.
The ballot included two options for voters: join Russia now or declare independence from Ukraine (which implies a later move toward Russia). Keeping the status quo arrangement with Ukraine was not an option. Many indigenous Tatars—who make up about 12 percent of the Crimean population—boycotted the vote.
The day before the controversial referendum, Russian troops advanced into Ukraine proper—furthering speculation that Moscow has its sights set on more than the Russia-leaning Crimea and increasing fears of a full-scale East-West confrontation.
Six helicopters and three armored vehicles crossed over to the long sandbar adjacent to Crimea that is part of Ukraine’s Kherson region, and about 120 Russian soldiers took control of a natural gas distribution terminal near the town of Strelkovoye. Crimea is dependent upon Ukraine for the majority of its gas, electricity, and water, and annexation would be a costly venture for Russia.
Moscow says the troops are there to protect the distribution center from a terrorist attack, but the international community is growing increasingly skeptical of weak explanations for Russia’s military advances.
Russian troops have controlled Crimea since early March, but the Kremlin says the soldiers are Crimean “self-defense” forces—not Russian troops. On March 13, Moscow began massing artillery batteries, assault helicopters, and at least 10,000 soldiers near Ukraine’s eastern border in the regions of Rostov, Belgorod, Kursk, and Tambov—a move the Kremlin claims is part of military exercises, not preparation for an invasion.
Residents of Ukraine’s capital, a mere two-hour drive from the military buildup—aren’t so sure.
“In Kiev, we are fully anticipating that Russia will launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine sometime [during the week after the referendum vote] for trumped up reasons that have no bearing in reality,” said Mark McDonnel, an American who teaches at Kiev Theological Seminary. “Please pray that it would be stopped.”
Putin has claimed that he will not invade Ukraine but will do what it takes to protect ethnic Russians in the region. State-sponsored Russian television has spread the false notions that fascists led Kiev’s Maidan protests and that Ukrainians are flooding the borders to escape.
In an effort to dispel these rumors, Ukrainians have organized in cities across eastern Ukraine—where pro-Russian sentiment is deeper—to show their support for the new government and to protest Russian intervention. A demonstration in Donestk turned deadly last week when pro-Russian activists attacked a crowd of Ukrainian demonstrators, resulting in at least two deaths and several injuries. Demonstrations in Luhansk and Kharkiv also turned violent.
Mychailo Wynnyckyj, a professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in the capital, believes further demonstrations could launch a full-scale Russian invasion. “In my opinion, if sufficient demonstrations of support for Russian annexation can be staged by FSB [Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation] operatives in Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk during the next few days (i.e., in the wake of the Crimean ‘referendum,’ and supposedly in euphoric support for Putin’s policies of ‘gathering the Russian lands’), an invasion of mainland Ukraine can be expected after the March 19 court ruling,” he wrote on his Facebook page. He expects an invasion no later than March 26.
Ukraine’s interim Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh said there are now 21,500 Russian troops in Crimea. Under agreements in place until 2042, Russia can station 25,000 troops at its leased Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol, but Russian soldiers have trespassed beyond their base, blockading Ukrainian naval ships, taking over local television stations, and surrounding Ukrainian soldiers.
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced legislation that includes economic penalties on Russian officials tied to the Crimea takeover and $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine’s strapped government.
Moscow has said it will vote on the formal acceptance of Crimea into the Russian Federation on Friday.