Russian President Vladimir Putin completed the annexation of Crimea yesterday, signing the peninsula into Russia at nearly the same time that his Ukrainian counterpart sealed a deal pulling his country closer into Europe’s orbit.
Putin said he saw no need to further retaliate against US sanctions, a newly conciliatory tone reflecting an apparent attempt to contain one of the worst crises in Russia’s relations with the West since the Cold War.
Putin hailed the incorporation of Crimea into Russia as a “remarkable event” before he signed the parliament bills into law in the Kremlin. He ordered fireworks in Moscow and Crimea.
At nearly the same time, in a ceremony in Brussels, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk pulled his nation closer to Europe by signing a political association agreement with the EU.
Russia rushed the annexation of the strategic Black Sea peninsula after Sunday’s hastily called referendum, in which its residents overwhelmingly backed breaking off from Ukraine and joining Russia. Ukraine and the West have rejected the vote, held two weeks after Russian troops had taken over Crimea.
At Ukrainian bases on the peninsula, troops hesitated, besieged by Russian forces and awaiting orders. Russia claimed some had switched sides and agreed to join the Russian military.
The US and the EU have responded to the crisis by slapping sanctions on Russia.
US President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered a second round of sanctions against nearly two dozen members of Putin’s inner circle and a major bank supporting them.
Moscow retaliated on Thursday by banning nine US officials and lawmakers from entering Russia, but Putin indicated that Russia would likely refrain from curtailing cooperation in areas such as Afghanistan. Moscow appears to hope to limit the damage from the latest US and EU sanctions and avoid further Western blows.
The latest US sanctions, which targeted Putin’s chief of staff along with other senior Kremlin aides and four businessmen considered to be his lifelong friends, dealt a painful blow to Russia. Obama also warned that more sweeping penalties against Russia’s economy, including its robust energy sector, could follow.
International ratings agencies downgraded Russia’s outlook, and Russian stocks tumbled yesterday.
Putin tried to play down the sanctions’ toll on Russia in televised remarks at yesterday’s session of the presidential Security Council, saying that “we should keep our distance from those people who compromise us,” a jocular reference to the officials on the sanctions list, some of whom attended the meeting.
Moscow also appeared to be warming to the deployment of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe, the top trans-Atlantic security and rights group that it has blocked so far.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Moscow would welcome sending the OSCE observers to Russian-speaking regions in eastern Ukraine on condition that their number and locations are clearly set, but he made it clear that they would not be let into Crimea.