KIEV, Ukraine – Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized Crimea as a “sovereign and independent country” Monday, just hours after the strategic Black Sea peninsula declared it had broken away from Ukraine.
The moves triggered the toughest Western sanctions against Russia since the Cold War, with Washington and the European Union retaliating with asset freezes and travel bans, and U.S. 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, which decided in a Sunday referendum to merge with Russia. Putin signed a decree recognizing Crimea’s independence, and Russian troops were massed near the border with Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s acting president raised tensions on the ground by calling for the activation of some 20,000 military reservists and volunteers across the country and for the mobilization of another 20,000 in the recently formed national guard.
In the Crimean capital of Simferopol, ethnic Russians applauded the Sunday referendum that overwhelmingly called for secession and for joining Russia. Masked men in body armor blocked access for most journalists to the parliament session that declared independence, but the city otherwise appeared to go about its business normally.
The U.S., EU and Ukraine’s new government do not recognize the referendum held Sunday in Crimea, which was called hastily as Ukraine’s political crisis deepened with the ouster of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych 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 percent “yes” vote for joining Russia.
Obama warned that Russia could face more financial punishment.
“If Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, we stand ready to impose further sanctions,” Obama said.
One top Russian official hit with sanctions mocked Obama.
“Comrade Obama, what should those who have neither accounts nor property abroad do? Have you not thought about it?” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted. “I think the decree of the President of the United States was written by some joker.”
Moscow considers the vote legitimate and Putin was to address both houses of parliament today on the Crimea situation.
In Kiev, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov vowed that Ukraine will not give up Crimea.
“We are ready for negotiations, but we will never resign ourselves to the annexation of our land,” a somber-faced Turchynov said in a televised address. “We will do everything in order to avoid war and the loss of human lives. We will be doing everything to solve the conflict through diplomatic means. But the military threat to our state is real.”
The Crimean referendum could also encourage rising pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine’s east and lead to further divisions in this nation of 46 million.
A delegation of Crimean lawmakers was set to travel to 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.
“We came back home to Mother Russia. We came back home, Russia is our home,” said Nikolay Drozdenko, a resident in Sevastopol, the key Crimean port where Russia leases a naval base from Ukraine.
The Crimean parliament declared all Ukrainian state property on the peninsula will be nationalized and become the property of the Crimean Republic. It gave no further details. Lawmakers also asked the United Nations and other nations to recognize it and began work on setting up a central bank with $30 million in support from Russia.
The United States announced sanctions against seven Russian officials, including Rogozin, Putin’s close ally Valentina Matvienko, who is speaker of the upper house of parliament, and Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s top ideological aides. The Treasury Department also targeted Yanukovych, 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 following Crimea’s referendum. The ministers 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 polarization between Ukraine’s western regions – which favor closer ties with the 28-nation EU – and its eastern areas, which have long ties to Russia.