Revelers celebrate Russia’s annexation of Crimea in Sevastopol’s central square.(Sergei Ilnitsky / European Pressphoto Agency)
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine -- Russia appropriated Crimea and its vital naval port of Sevastopol on Tuesday as President Vladimir Putin signed treaties with the Ukrainian region’s Moscow-backed leaders less than two days after its voters backed secession in a widely criticized referendum.
The signing -- yet to be ratified by the Russian parliament and the Constitutional Court, steps that are seen as formalities -- was held in a solemn atmosphere in the Kremlin’s lavish St. George’s Hall shortly after Putin gave a fiery one-hour-long speech often interrupted by applause from the jubilant crowd of lawmakers, government officials and other dignitaries.
The decision was based, Putin said, on Crimean people’s “free expression of the will” in the referendum in which more than 96% supported rejoining Russia, which controlled the peninsula until Nikita Khrushchev transferred authority to Ukraine in 1954 in what was then a shift between two republics of the Soviet Union. Ukraine gained its independence in 1991.
In his speech, Putin blamed Ukraine’s “nationalists, Russophobes and anti-Semites” who he said came to power in Ukraine last month when the country’s pro-Russia leader fled in the face of protests.
Putin refused to acknowledge that Russian troops had invaded Crimea before the referendum. His forces, wearing unmarked uniforms, largely took control of the peninsula late last month and have been blockading Ukrainian military personnel in their bases ever since, though Putin -- as he has in the past -- referred to the invaders as Crimean “self-defense forces.”
“Esteemed residents of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, all of Russia admires your fortitude, dignity and courage,” he said in his televised speech, referring to the port where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has long leased its bases. “It is you who have resolved the fate of Crimea.”
In the face of international condemnation for what is widely viewed as a land grab, Putin noted sanctions imposed Monday by the United States and European Union and the threats of further international punishment. “I would like to know what they mean,” he said. “The actions of some fifth column and the actions of various national traitors?
“We view such statements as irresponsible and openly aggressive, and we will react accordingly.”
Russia will not seek confrontation but will do its best to build good relations with its neighbors and other countries, Putin pledged.
Putin insisted that Russia would not invade the industrial southeast of Ukraine, which like Crimea has a large Russian-speaking population. “We have always respected the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” he said, addressing the people of Ukraine. “Don’t trust those who scare you with Russia.”
That said, Putin implied that southeastern Ukraine was historically Russian territory. “After the revolution, the Bolsheviks out of some considerations of their own, let God be their judge, included significant parts of the historically Russian south lands,” he said.
Putin then blamed Khrushchev for handing Crimea to Ukraine six decades ago, calling the late Soviet leader only by his last name and questioned his motives.
“Millions of Russians went to bed in one country and woke up abroad, having become an ethnic minority in the former Soviet republics,” Putin complained in reference to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, which left some Russians in newly independent lands. Putin once called that event “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
Putin once again called the change of power in Kiev last month, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich fled after the bloody crackdown against months-old protests had left scores of people dead, a coup d’etat and said that the interim government of Ukraine was illegitimate and not worth talking to.
He blamed the U.S. and Western Europe, saying they encouraged coup plotters and had “crossed the line in the case of Ukraine.”
“They acted roughly, irresponsibly and unprofessionally,” Putin said. “They knew quite well millions of Russians live in Ukraine and Crimea. How deeply should they have lost their political instincts and the sense of measure not to foresee all the consequences of their actions.”
“Today it is necessary to stop the hysterics, to drop the Cold War rhetoric and recognize the obvious thing that Russia is an independent and active participant in the international life, and like other countries it has its national interests which should be taken into account and respected,” Putin said.
Putin promised that the interests of all of Crimea’s ethnic groups would be respected and that the peninsula would have three state languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar.
“Crimea will remain Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar but it will never be” fascist, Putin concluded. “Crimea is our commonwealth but under the strong and stable sovereignty which today in fact can be only Russian.”