Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday signed a treaty making Crimea part of Russia, in a historic redrawing of Russia’s borders after he declared that the Black Sea region has always been “in the hearts” of his countrymen.
In a fast-moving sequence of events following Crimea’s controversial secession referendum on Sunday, the Kremlin said Crimea was now considered part of Russia and no longer Ukrainian territory, shrugging off strong international objections.
The move, which came sooner than expected, risks plunging the West and Russia into a crisis not seen since the Cold War and sent shock waves through the new authorities in Ukraine who took over after the ousting of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych last month.
Putin signed the treaty with Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov and other Crimean leaders at a ceremony at the Kremlin attended by both houses of parliament.
Crimea and the city of Sevastopol — the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet which has special status — are being incorporated as new constituent parts of the Russian Federation.
The signing — which had not been flagged in advance — came after Putin gave a fiery address at the Kremlin seeking to justify the incorporation of Crimea into Russia.
His defiant speech brushed off US and EU sanctions touted as the most severe against Moscow since the end of the Cold War.
He said that Russia was tired of being pushed into a corner by the West and said it had been repeatedly deceived on issues like NATO, missile defense and visa-free travel.
However, he sought to play down fears that Russia was seeking to also incorporate parts of eastern and southern Ukraine.
The seizure of Crimea by pro-Russian forces following the ouster of Yanukovych last month has been condemned around the world.
The prospect of Russia’s international isolation did not deter an increasingly defiant Putin who based the justification for the de facto annexation of Crimea on the region’s weekend referendum where almost 97 percent voted to split from Ukraine.
Putin’s approval ratings have jumped to 72 percent on the back of the success of the Sochi Winter Olympics and his decision to send troops to Crimea following Yanukovych’s Feb. 22 ouster.
However, the mood was far from jubilant among economists and businesses who fear Putin’s policies and the threat of further sanctions will inflict lasting damage on Russia’s economy.
US President Barack Obama on Monday slapped sanctions on seven Russian officials and four Ukrainians accused of usurping Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including Yanukovych.
The EU unveiled travel bans and asset freezes against 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials, including Russian Vice Admiral Alexander Vitko, the head of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Those targeted under Obama’s executive order will see assets and interests in the US or under US jurisdiction blocked.
Diplomats in Brussels said EU and Ukrainian leaders would on Friday sign the political portion of a landmark pact whose rejection by Yanukovych in November last year sparked the protests that led to his fall.