Uniformed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, near a
Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalnoye as
Crimea's parliament voted to join Russia. REUTERS/Vasily
Crimea's parliament has voted to join Russia and its
Moscow-backed government set a referendum on the decision in 10
days' time in a dramatic escalation of the crisis over the
Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula.
US President Barack Obama led European Union and Ukrainian
criticism of the proposed vote, saying it would violate
The sudden acceleration of moves to bring Crimea, which has
an ethnic Russian majority and has effectively been seized by
Russian forces, formally under Moscow's rule came as European
Union leaders held an emergency summit groping for ways to
pressure Russia to back down and accept mediation.
The 28-nation EU condemned Russian actions in Crimea as
illegal, voiced support for Ukraine's territorial integrity
but took only minor steps suspending talks with Moscow on
visas and a new investment pact while warning of tougher
steps if there is no negotiated solution within a short
In a signal to Moscow, Obama announced plans to punish
Russians and Ukrainians involved in what he called
"threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of
Ukraine", ordering the freezing of their US assets and a ban
on travel to the United States. A US official said Russian
President Vladimir Putin was not on the list.
"The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would
violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international
law," Obama told reporters at the White House.
"Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the
legitimate government of Ukraine," he said.
After talks in Rome, US Secretary of State John Kerry said
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was personally delivering
proposals to Putin to end the crisis in Ukraine.
"We have agreed to stay in close touch in order to see if
there is a way forward to try to get to a negotiating table
to get the parties necessary to be able to stabilize this."
Kerry said the executive order on sanctions signed by Obama
on Thursday provided a legal framework for imposing sanctions
but also left open the door for dialogue over Ukraine.
The Pentagon meanwhile announced a large-scale air force
exercise in Poland which Washington's ambassador to Warsaw
said had been augmented to reassure US allies in the region
in the light of the Ukraine crisis.
The crisis began in November when Ukrainian President Viktor
Yanukovich, under Russian pressure, turned his back on a
trade deal with the EU and accepted a $15 billion bailout
from Moscow. That prompted three months of street protests
leading to the overthrow of Yanukovich on Feb. 22.
Moscow denounced the events as an illegitimate coup and
refused to recognise the new Ukrainian authorities.
The Crimean parliament voted overwhelmingly on Thursday "to
enter into the Russian Federation with the rights of a
subject of the Russian Federation".
The decision, which diplomats said could not have been made
without Putin's approval, raised the stakes in the most
serious east-west confrontation since the end of the Cold
The vice premier of Crimea, home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet
in Sevastopol, said a referendum on the status would take
place on March 16. All state property would be
"nationalised", the Russian rouble adopted and Ukrainian
troops treated as occupiers and forced to surrender or leave,
Russian stocks fell and the rouble weakened further after the
referendum news. Moody's ratings agency said the stand-off
was negative for Russia's sovereign creditworthiness.
On the ground, a mission of 35 unarmed military observers
from the pan-European Organisation for Security and
Cooperation in Europe was stopped from entering Crimea by
unidentified men in military fatigues when they travelled
from the port of Odessa, Poland's defence minister said.
In Brussels, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy
outlined a three stage plan to try to resolve the crisis,
while announcing that the EU would sign the political parts
of an far reaching agreement with Ukraine before May 25
elections there, and offer the country extensive aid and
Unless Moscow opens negotiations with Ukraine and an
international "contact group" soon, the EU would move to
travel bans and asset freezes on Russian officials, and
boycott a planned June Group of Eight summit in Olympic venue
If Russia took action that destabilises Ukraine further,
there would be "grave consequences" for bilateral economic
ties, he said, without giving any deadlines. Poland's prime
minister said the EU talks on sanctions had been "stormy",
hinting at frustration at his inability to achieve stronger
measures, which require a unanimous decision of 28 member
Putin has cited threats to Russian citizens to justify
military action in Ukraine, as he did in Georgia in 2008. Far
from seeking a diplomatic way out of the present crisis,
Putin appears to have chosen to create facts on the ground
before the West can agree on more than token action against
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said after meeting
EU leaders that Ukraine's armed forces would act if Russian
military intervention escalated any further into Ukrainian
territory. "We are ready to protect our country," he said.
Military experts say Kiev's small and underequipped forces
are no match for Moscow's superpower might.
The US Navy announced a guided-missile destroyer, the USS
Truxton, was heading to the Black Sea in what it said was a
long-planned training exercise and not a show of force
The EU said it had frozen the assets of ousted Ukrainian
president Yanukovich and 17 other officials suspected of
human rights violations and misuse of state funds.
International police agency Interpol said it was reviewing a
request by Ukrainian authorities for it to issue a "red
notice" for the arrest of Yanukovich on charges including
abuse of power and murder.
As expected, the EU summit was unwilling to adopt more than
symbolic measures against Russia, Europe's biggest gas
supplier, because neither industrial powerhouse Germany nor
financial centre Britain is keen to trigger a tit-for-tat
France has a deal to sell warships to Russia that it is so
far not prepared to cancel, London's banks have profited from
facilitating Russian investment, and German companies have
$22 billion invested in Russia.
The European Commission has announced aid of up to 11 billion
euros ($15 billion) for Ukraine over the next couple of years
provided it reaches a deal with the International Monetary
Fund, entailing painful reforms like ending gas subsidies.
European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi said the crisis had
already had a major impact on the Russian and Ukrainian
economies, but little effect so far on the euro zone.
Russia kept the door ajar for more diplomacy on its own
terms, announcing on Thursday a meeting of former Soviet
states, including Ukraine, for April 4.
Lavrov said attempts by Western countries to take action over
the Ukraine crisis via democracy watchdog OSCE and the NATO
military alliance were not helpful.
He stuck to Putin's line - ridiculed by the West - that
Moscow does not command the troops without national insignia
which have taken control of Crimea, besieging Ukrainian
forces, and hence cannot order them back to barracks.