SIMFEROPOL: Russia stood firm on Friday in its standoff with the West over Ukraine’s flashpoint peninsula of Crimea despite sanctions over the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
The heads of Russia’s two houses of parliament indicated President Vladimir Putin’s resolve by announcing that Moscow intended to respect Crimean lawmakers’ decision to renounce ties with Ukraine and stage a March 16 referendum on switching over to Kremlin rule.
“We will respect the historic choice of the people of Crimea,” said lower house speaker Sergei Naryshkin. “We support the free and democratic choice of the population of Crimea.”
His upper house counterpart Valentina Matviyenko added that “should the people of Crimea decide to join Russia in a referendum, we… will unquestionably back this choice.”
The escalating threat of the ex-Soviet nation of 46 million splintering between its pro-European west and more Russified southeast prompted US President Barack Obama to place an hour-long call to Putin that both sides described as tough.
The White House said Obama “emphasized that Russia’s actions are in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which has led us to take several steps in response, in coordination with our European partners.”
The Kremlin for its part said Putin tried to calm tensions by stressing that US-Russian relations “should not be sacrificed due to disagreements over individual—albeit extremely significant—international problems.”
The European Union (EU) earlier firmed its resolve to impose stiff sanctions on Russia while also vowing to sign an historic trade pact aimed at pulling Kiev out of Moscow’s orbit before Ukraine holds snap presidential polls on May 25.
Yet with Russian forces in effective control of Crimea—a predominantly ethnic Russian peninsula roughly the size of Belgium and base of Kremlin’s Black Sea fleet—the threat of Ukraine’s division seemed more real than at any point since Putin got parliamentary approval to use force against former Soviet Ukraine.
Moscow argues it needs to defend ethnic Russians from coming under attack from ultra-nationalists who have backing from the new pro-EU team in Kiev.
Putin has previously denounced the interim leaders’ rise to power as an “unconstitutional coup.”
The tensions in Ukraine intensified still further when the city council of Sevastopol that houses the Kremlin’s Black Sea Fleet also resolved to become “a subject of the Russian Federation” with immediate effect.
Crimea is due to hold a local referendum on March 16 on switching to Russian rule—a decision welcomed on Friday by Russia’s State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin.
“We will respect the historic choice of the people of Crimea,” said the close Putin ally. “We support the free and democratic choice of the population of Crimea.”
The new leaders in Kiev—swept to power on the back of three months of protests against a Kremlin-backed regime that left 100 people dead – immediately took steps to disband Crimea’s parliament.
Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also appealed for EU powers and the United States to rise to his nation’s defense.