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Crimea votes for independence as U.S. and Russia clash

  • People walk past a poster in Sevastopol on March 11, 2014 reading "On March 16 we will choose either... or...", depicting Crimea in red with a swastika and covered in barbed wire (L) and Crimea with the colors of the Russian flag. AFP PHOTO/ VIKTOR DRACHEV

  • Police officers stand by as a pro-Ukrainian supporter holding a Ukrainian flag walks past during a rally at the monument of poet and national icon Taras Shevchenko in the Crimean city of Simferopol on March 11, 2014. AFP PHOTO/ GENYA SAVILOV

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine: Lawmakers on the flashpoint Crimean peninsula voted on Tuesday for independence from Ukraine ahead of a referendum on joining Russia while Washington rebuffed talks with Moscow in one of their fiercest clashes since the Cold War.

The hold of Kiev's new Western-backed leaders on the separatist region loosened still further when pro-Kremlin gunmen seized the air traffic control tower at Crimea's main international airport and cancelled all flights except for those to and from Moscow.

The latest escalation of Europe's worst crisis in decades came moments after ousted president Viktor Yanukovych defiantly vowed to return to Kiev from Russia and declared he was still the head of the ex-Soviet state.

Crimea has been a tinderbox since Russian forces seized control of the rugged peninsula -- home to Moscow's Black Sea Fleet since the 18th century -- with the help of Kremlin-backed militias days after Yanukovych fled Ukraine last month in response to waves of deadly unrest.

The strategic region's self-declared rulers are recruiting volunteers to fight Ukrainian soldiers while the Russian parliament on Tuesday prepared legislation that would simplify the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea after next Sunday's vote.

But Kiev rejects the referendum and is appealing to Western powers for both diplomatic backing and pressure on Moscow to release its troops' stranglehold on Crimea.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) responded to the threat of all-out war on Europe's eastern edge by announcing the planned deployment of AWAC reconnaissance planes in member countries Poland and Romania to monitor any Russian movements.

And French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that sanctions against Russia could come as early as this week if Moscow failed to respond to Western proposals on the standoff.

The European Union also announced trade breaks for Ukraine equivalent to 500 million euros ($690 million) that could ease its burden from trade restrictions that Russia has threatened in response to Kiev's told toward the West.

US Secretary of State John Kerry meanwhile turned down a visit to Russia and a possible meeting with President Vladimir Putin in a diplomatic rebuff of immense proportions that left Kremlin officials enraged.

The deep historic divide in the nation of 46 million between its pro-European west and more Russified southeast became ever more apparent as Ukraine's political crisis unfolded following Yanukovych's rejection in November of an historic EU pact in favour of better relations with the Kremlin.

Last month's rise to power in Kiev of nationalist leaders with cultural and political links to Europe prompted Putin to seek the right to use force against Ukraine in defence of the country's Russian speakers.

But the first region to take the radical step of breaking away from Ukraine was Crimea -- a peninsula of two million people that had always enjoyed wide autonomy and was a part of Russia until being handed over as a symbolic "gift" to Kiev in 1954 when its was still a part of the Soviet empire.

Crimea's parliamentary assembly took another dramatic step on Tuesday by issuing a declaration proclaiming full independence from Kiev's rule.

The body had earlier voted to actually join Russia and the latest move appeared to be primarily aimed at creating a legal framework for applying to become a part of Russia as a sovereign state.

A parliamentary statement referred to Kosovo's US-backed separation from Serbia and said "the unilateral declaration of independence of part of a state does not violate any international laws".

Russia's foreign ministry quickly endorsed the decision as "absolutely lawful".

The threat of Ukraine's imminent breakup has made the tensions and mistrust that always seem to shadow Russia's relations with the United States ever more explicit and potentially damaging for the two powers' long-term ties.

The rifts were exposed yet again on Monday when Russian state television took the unusual step of airing details of a meeting between Putin and Sergei Lavrov in which the foreign minister complained that Kerry had snubbed a visit Moscow.

The broadcast of the exchange appeared clearly aimed at putting the pressure back on Washington and painting US officials as unwilling to discuss their support for a Kiev interim team that Putin says claimed power through "an illegitimate coup".

The US State Department did not directly confirm Kerry had rejected a visit to Russia that could have included talks with Putin.

But it noted that the two sides had little to discuss until Moscow showed a willingness to negotiate with the new Ukrainian leadership and was prepared to call its Crimean forces back to their barracks.

"We are witnessing a war of nerves," said Carnegie Moscow Centre director Dmitry Trenin.

"In response, Putin may say he no longer wants to talk to Western leaders and the hotline created after the (1962) Cuban missile crisis that was meant to avert nuclear warfare may cease to exist," Trenin warned.

The latest bitter and unusually public row came a day before Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk heads to the White House for a Wednesday meeting with US President Barack Obama that should add credibility to his untested team.

Yatsenyuk will also use the chance to iron out the details of a $35 billion aid package he says his nation's teetering economy needs to stay afloat over the coming two years after being mismanaged by Yanukovych and his allies.

The White House said Obama would discuss an economic support package that has already seen Washington pledge more than $1 billion (720 million euros) and the European Union 11 billion euros ($15 billion) over two years.

 
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Summary

Lawmakers on the flashpoint Crimean peninsula voted on Tuesday for independence from Ukraine ahead of a referendum on joining Russia while Washington rebuffed talks with Moscow in one of their fiercest clashes since the Cold War.

The latest escalation of Europe's worst crisis in decades came moments after ousted president Viktor Yanukovych defiantly vowed to return to Kiev from Russia and declared he was still the head of the ex-Soviet state.

The first region to take the radical step of breaking away from Ukraine was Crimea -- a peninsula of two million people that had always enjoyed wide autonomy and was a part of Russia until being handed over as a symbolic "gift" to Kiev in 1954 when its was still a part of the Soviet empire.

The body had earlier voted to actually join Russia and the latest move appeared to be primarily aimed at creating a legal framework for applying to become a part of Russia as a sovereign state.

The US State Department did not directly confirm Kerry had rejected a visit to Russia that could have included talks with Putin.


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