MOSCOW March 18, 2014— -- In a defiant speech to lawmakers today, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear he has no intention to back down from plans to annex Crimea, despite warnings from President Obama that doing so would incur further U.S. sanctions.
Putin outlined the long historic ties between Crimea and Russia. He said that Russia had been “robbed in broad daylight” when Crimea remained part of Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union and that Crimea had been given away “like a sack of potatoes.”
At the start of his remarks, Putin welcomed officials from the “Republic of Crimea,” as Russia recognizes the breakaway region. The comment drew a sustained standing ovation from the crowd.
After the speech, Putin signed a treaty with Crimean officials paving the way for the region’s annexation by Russia. Russian lawmakers are expected to ratify the treaty later this week.
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In a decree earlier in the day, Putin notified his country's legislature about Crimea’s proposal to join the Russian Federation and he strongly urged lawmakers to approve it quickly.
In his speech, President Putin railed against what he saw as Western “double standards” with regard to recognizing Crimea. He singled out the United States for its policies of foreign intervention since the end of the Cold War.
“Our Western partners, especially the USA, believe that they can decide for the world, that they can decide other people’s fate,” he said. “ Look at Belgrade. At the end of the twentieth century. Then Afghanistan, Libya. Those nations were tired, but the U.S. cynically used that.”
He referred to the American principle of “freedom” and asked rhetorically, referring to Sunday’s independence referendum, “But what about the free will of Crimeans? Isn't that of the same value?"
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Putin also blasted NATO’s expansion onto what he called “our native lands.” He slammed NATO’s plans for a missile defense shield, which Russia fears is aimed at its nuclear arsenal, and criticized the West for operating around the United Nations whenever it was convenient.
Putin suggested he would not move into eastern Ukraine, which is home to mostly pro-Russian population. “Russia does not want to split Ukraine. Ukraine must retain its territorial integrity,” he said.
But he quickly pointed to the country’s Russian-speaking residents and said that “Russia will always protect their interests.”
The Russian leader’s march toward annexing Crimea appears to be a sign that U.S. and European sanctions on a handful of Russian officials Monday had little effect. Many of the sanctioned individuals responded with a mix of pride and mocking indifference. A joint proposal from all of the parties in the Russian parliament today asked President Obama to sanction them as well.
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U.S. officials say that if Russia does allow Crimea to join Russia, it is prepared to increase sanctions and can ratchet them up again if Russia continues to interfere in Ukrainian affairs.
Several more steps must still be taken before Crimea is allowed to join Russia officially, including a review by the Constitutional Court, but those are considered formalities if the Kremlin has decided to go ahead with annexation.
Already, authorities in Crimea have taken steps to ease their way into Russian life. They have voted to move their clocks to Moscow time – two hours ahead – by the end of the month and will adopt the Russian ruble as a second currency within a few months.
Emboldened by the Crimean example, the breakaway region of Transnistria, officially part of Moldova, is also considering a referendum to join Russia, according to the Russian newspaper Vedomosti.