BRUSSELS: Two almost simultaneous signatures Friday on opposite sides of Europe deepened the divide between East and West, as Russia formally annexed Crimea and the European Union pulled Ukraine closer into its orbit.
In this “new post-Cold War order,” as the Ukrainian prime minister called it, besieged Ukrainian troops on the Crimean Peninsula faced a critical choice: leave, join the Russian military or demobilize. Ukraine was working on evacuating its troops in Crimea, but some said they were still awaiting orders.
Many eyes were on Russian President Vladimir Putin, as they have been ever since pro-Western protests drove out Ukraine’s president a month ago, angering Russia and plunging Europe into its worst crisis in a generation.
Putin sounded a conciliatory note Friday, almost joking about U.S. and EU sanctions squeezing his inner circle, and saying he saw no reason to retaliate. But his government later warned of further action.
Russia’s troubled economic outlook may drive its decisions as much as any outside military threat. Stocks sank further, and a possible downgrade of Russia’s credit rating loomed. Visa and MasterCard stopped serving two Russian banks, and Russia conceded it might scrap plans to tap international markets for money this year.
Despite those clouds, Putin painted Friday’s events in victorious colors, ordering fireworks in Moscow and Crimea reminiscent of the celebrations held when Soviet troops drove the Nazis from occupied cities in World War II.
At the Kremlin, Putin signed parliamentary legislation incorporating Crimea into Russia, hailing it as a “remarkable event.”
At nearly the same time in a ceremony in Brussels, EU leaders sought to pull the rest of cash-strapped Ukraine Westward by signing a political association agreement with the new Ukrainian prime minister.
The symbolic piece of paper is part of the same EU deal that touched off Ukraine’s political crisis when then-President Viktor Yanukovych rejected it in November and chose a bailout from Russia instead. That ignited months of protests that eventually drove him from power.
The agreement includes security and defense cooperation, Ukraine’s new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk said, though it is far from full EU membership and doesn’t include an important free-trade element yet.
But the EU decided to grant Ukraine financial advantages such as reduced tariffs to boost its ailing economy until the full deal could be signed. Those trade advantages are a blow to Russia, which had hoped to pull Ukraine into a Moscow-focused customs union instead.
Russia’s foreign minister dismissed the EU pact, saying the current Ukrainian leadership lacked popular support and should have held elections before making such a decision.
The EU hit 12 more people with sanctions Friday over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, bringing its list of those facing visa bans and asset freezes to 33. They include one of Russia’s deputy prime ministers, a Putin adviser and the speaker of Russia’s upper house of Parliament.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin Friday that 72 Ukrainian military units in Crimea had decided to join the Russian military.