BY: STEVEN LEE MYERS, ELLEN BARRY & ALAN COWELL
President Vladimir V Putin claimed Crimea as a part of Russia on Tuesday, reversing what he described as a historic mistake made by the Soviet Union 60 years ago and brushing aside international condemnation that could leave Russia isolated for years to come.
Within minutes of delivering a passionate speech to Russia’s political elite, Putin cemented his pledge by signing a draft treaty with Crimean leaders to make the strategic Black Sea peninsula part of Russia. The events unfolded two days after Crimeans voted in a disputed referendum to break away from Ukraine. While the treaty signed Tuesday still needs parliamentary approval, that is regarded as a formality.
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“Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of people,” Putin declared in his address, delivered in the chandeliered St George’s Hall in the Grand Kremlin Palace before hundreds of members of Parliament, governors and others.
His remarks, which lasted 47 minutes, were interrupted repeatedly by thunderous applause, standing ovations and at the end chants of “Russia, Russia”. Some in the audience wiped tears from their eyes.
Reaching deep into Russian and Soviet history, Putin said he did not seek to divide Ukraine any further, but vowed that he would protect Russia’s national security from what he described as Western, and particularly American, actions that had left Russia feeling cornered.
He spoke as he has often in the past of the humiliations Russia has suffered in a world with one dominant superpower — from the NATO air war in Kosovo in 1999 against Moscow’s Serbian allies to the one in Libya that toppled Col. Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 on what he called the false pretence of a humanitarian intervention.
He dipped into deep wells of emotion, starting with the 10th century baptism of Prince Vladimir, whose conversion to Orthodox Christianity transformed the kingdom then known as Rus, to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left many Russians of his generation feeling that they had been stripped of their nation overnight.
“Millions of Russians went to bed in one country and woke up abroad,” he said. “Overnight, they were minorities in the former Soviet republics, and the Russian people became one of the biggest — if not the biggest — divided nation in the world.
“They cheated us again and again, made decisions behind our back, presenting us with completed facts,” he said of the West. “That’s the way it was with the expansion of NATO in the east, with the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders. They always told us the same thing: ‘Well, this doesn’t involve you.’ “
Western reaction was swift. The White House condemned the move, which it said it would not recognize. Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, told Parliament on Tuesday that the crisis in Ukraine “is the most serious test of European security in the 21st century so far.”
“No amount of sham and perverse democratic process or skewed historical references can make up for the fact that this is an incursion into a sovereign state and a land grab of part of its territory with no respect for the law of that country or for international law,” he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel firmly rejected Moscow’s absorption of Crimea, a position she said was widely supported by international organizations including the United Nations and the European Council.
“The so-called referendum breached international law, the declaration of independence which the Russian president accepted yesterday was against international law, and the absorption into the Russian Federation is, in our firm opinion, also against international law,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin.
(In Paris, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said Russia had been suspended from the G8 because of the Crimean annexation, wire agencies reported. Russia has the G8’s rotating leadership currently, and Putin was scheduled to host President Barack Obama and other leaders of the group in Sochi in June.
“Concerning the G8… we decided to suspend Russia’s participation, and it is envisaged that all the other countries, the seven leading countries, will unite without Russia,” Fabius said on Europe-1 radio.)
Putin brushed aside concerns about economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, saying the West had forced Russia’s hand. By supporting the political uprising that toppled Ukraine’s president, Viktor F Yanukovych, the US and Europe crossed “a red line,” he said, forcing him to act to protect Crimea’s population from what he called “Russophobes and neo-Nazis” that had seized control in an illegal coup abetted by foreigners.
“If you press a spring too hard,” he said, “it will recoil.”