By: AP & Reuters
Ukraine lurched toward break-up Thursday when lawmakers in Crimea unanimously declared they wanted to join Russia and would put the decision to voters in 10 days — and Russian lawmakers pushed a bill to facilitate a handover. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hand was almost certainly behind the dramatic move, but it was not clear whether he is aiming for outright annexation, or simply strengthening his hand in talks with the West.
The West’s response was less forceful: The EU announced limited punitive measures against Putin’s government — including the suspension of trade and visa talks — and the US said it was imposing travel restrictions on opponents of Ukraine’s new government. Both were discussing further sanctions.
Crimea’s parliament rammed through what amounted to a declaration of independence from Ukraine, announcing it would let the Crimean people, 60 percent of whom are ethnic Russian, decide whether they want to become part of their gigantic neighbor to the east.
“This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev,” said Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the legislature. “We will decide our future ourselves.”
Ukraine’s prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk swiftly denounced the action and said were ready to use the military to defend itself and its regions against Russia.
As an emergency EU summit got underway in Brussels, a senior Western diplomat promised that EU leaders “will send a clear message that the referendum won’t be recognized”.
But the punishment later announced seemed more symbolic than substantive: EU President Herman Van Rompuy declared that the bloc was suspending talks with Russia on a wide-ranging economic pact and on a visa deal, and would consider further measures if Russia does not quickly open meaningful dialogue.
In Moscow, a prominent member of Russia’s parliament, Sergei Mironov, said he has introduced a bill to simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia and it could be passed as soon as next week. Another senior lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky, said the parliament could consider such a motion after the referendum.
For Putin, Crimea would be a dazzling acquisition, and help cement his authority with a Russian citizenry that has in recent years shown signs of restiveness and still resents the loss of the sprawling empire Moscow ruled in Soviet times. The peninsula was once Russia’s imperial crown jewel, a lush land seized by Catherine the Great in the 18th century that evokes Russia’s claim to greatness as a world power.
Meanwhile, the US Congress moved to advance legislation imposing punitive sanctions on the Kremlin, and the US House of Representatives was poised Thursday to pass the first aid bill for Ukraine’s new, pro-West government. Earlier Thursday, the Obama administration slapped new visa restrictions on Russian and Ukrainian opponents continued…