Russia Moves To Annex Crimea With Putin Decree

2014-03-18 Vatican Radio

(Vatican Radio) Russian President Vladimir Putin has recognized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula as an independent state and says approving the region's entry into the Russian Federation makes sense.

He informed Russia's parliament shortly after the European Union and the United States announced sanctions against dozens of officials from Russia and Ukraine who they blame for Russia's military incursion into Crimea

The Kremlin said President Putin already signed a decree on recognizing Crimea as a sovereign independent state and that the order took effect immediately. He was to address both houses of the Russian parliament later Friday, March 18, and to sign an agreement on Crimea's "entry into the Russian Federation" with Crimea's parliament speaker, Vladimir Konstantinov.

The integration of Crimea into the Russia follows what officials called Sunday's "overwhelming Yes vote" in the peninsula to join, and a similar decision by the local parliament. Crimea was gifted to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev, far before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and many ethnic Russians feel part of the Russian federation, local officials say.

However EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton said the referendum was held amid Russian military occupation. "We strongly condemn the holding of this referendum," she said. "It's illegal and it is a clear breach of the Ukrainian constitution..."

Ashton spoke after a meeting with European Union Foreign Ministers who decided to impose far reaching travel bans and asset freezes against dozens of officials from Russia and Ukraine linked to the unrest in Crimea.

"In the absence of positive steps, and in line with the statement of European Union leaders on March 6, we decided today to take additional measures more specifically restrictive measures against 21 officials responsible for undermining or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine," she told reporters.

Earlier, President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on 11 officials blamed for Russia's military incursion into Crimea, including two top aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"We are imposing sanctions on specific individuals responsible for undermining the sovereignty, territorial integrity and government of Ukraine," he added.

"We’re making it clear that there are consequences for their actions. Second, I have signed a new executive order that expands the scope of our sanctions. As an initial step, I’m authorizing sanctions on Russian officials -- entities operating in the arms sector in Russia and individuals who provide material support to senior officials of the Russian government," Obama said.

And in a further sign of tensions, Ukraine's interim government recalled its ambassador from Moscow for consultations, while Ukraine's parliament approved the mobilisation of 40,000 reservists amid what it called a "war-time situation".

However despite the turmoil, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church had something to celebrate. Local church officials and police said Priest Mykola Kvych, who was kidnapped by suspected armed pro-Russian forces on Saturday morning in Crimea's port city of Sevastopol, had been freed.

Yet, in Kyiv, former boxing champion-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko, who is tipped to become Ukraine's next president, expressed concern that non-Russian religious minorities will still face difficulties if Crimea becomes part of Russia.

"Crimea is today on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. The Ukrainian citizens there are left at the mercy of foreign occupiers and local criminals," he said. There is also a risk of ethnic cleansing. Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians and all patriots of Ukraine are threatened," Klitschko warned.

Western diplomats and Ukraine's government also fear Russia may attempt to absorb other areas in eastern Ukraine, including around the strategic industrial city of Donetsk, following deadly clashes between pro-Moscow and pro-Kyiv protesters.

Listen to Stefan Bos’ report: