|Ethnic Russians in Crimea celebrating rejoining Russia.|
“This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev,” said Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the local Crimean legislature, said. “We will decide our future ourselves.”
The 100-seat parliament in Crimea, which already has some autonomy under current Ukrainian law, voted 78-0 with eight abstentions in favor of joining Russia and holding the referendum. Crimean voters will also have the option of deciding to remain part of Ukraine, but with even more autonomy and power to decide local matters.
In Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, about 50 people rallied outside the local parliament Thursday morning waving Russian and Crimean flags. Among the posters they held was one that said “Russia, defend us from genocide.”
“We are tired of revolutions, Maidans and conflicts and we want to live peacefully in Russia,” said one of the bystanders, Igor Urbansky, 35. “Only Russia can give us a peaceful life.”
Maidan is the name of the downtown square in Kiev where tens of thousands of protesters contested the rule of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. But not all in this city favored the lawmakers’ action.
|Russian soldiers in Crimea.|
Under the Soviet Union, Crimea belonged to the Russian Federation until it was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
There was no immediate response from the Ukrainian central government to the vote, but on Wednesday Ukraine’s prime minister vowed that Crimea would remain part of Ukraine. In Moscow, prominent parliamentarian Sergei Mironov introduced a bill to simplify the procedure to allow Crimea to join Russia and said it could be passed as soon as next week.
President Vladimir Putin has said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, but insisted residents of the peninsula on the Black Sea had the right to determine their own fate.
Earlier, Crimea’s new leader said pro-Russian forces numbering more than 11,000 now control all access to the peninsula in the Black Sea and have blockaded all military bases that have not yet surrendered. And the Russian Navy deliberately sank a cruiser Wednesday night to block the Ukrainian Navy ships deployed in Novoozerne, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said Thursday.
The Russians towed their ship Ochakov to a navigating channel, filled it with water and detonated explosives to make it sink, trapping the Ukrainian vessels in a lake that empties through the channel into the Black Sea. Also Thursday, European leaders said Russia will face sanctions over its military incursion into the Crimean peninsula unless it withdraws its troops or engages in credible talks to defuse the situation.
|Sunken Russian cruiser blocking Ukrainian navy.|
But leaders appeared divided between nations close to Russia’s borders and some western economic powerhouses — notably Germany — that were taking a more dovish line.
“Whether [sanctions] will come into force depends also on how the diplomatic process progresses,”
“Russia today is dangerous,” insisted Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, warning Moscow is seeking to expand its borders. “After Ukraine will be Moldova, and after Moldova will be different countries.”
Among initial sanctions Moscow could face are the suspension of talks on visa liberalization and an economic agreement. More drastic steps like asset freezes and travel bans on Russian officials were unlikely to be adopted, not least because of Europe’s close economic ties with Russia.
The US has already suspended talks on an investment treaty and threatened further steps. NATO on Wednesday suspended most of its meetings with Russian officials, halting military cooperation and deciding to review all aspects of its relationship with Moscow. “We cannot go back to business as usual,” Merkel said.
|At nearly 60% ethnic Russians control Crimea.|
“We should do everything to give the route of de-escalation a chance and if we come to the conclusion today or the next 24, 48, 72 hours that de-escalation is not an option then obviously sanctions are back on the table,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.
Russia is Europe’s third-largest trading partner and its biggest gas and oil supplier. EU exports to Russia in 2012 totaled $170 billion, and European banks have about 200 billion euros in outstanding loans to Russia.
Cameron, Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk held initial talks to coordinate their strategy before the summit. The 28 leaders then opened their meeting with talks with Ukraine’s new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
“This is not just the Ukrainian-Russian crisis, this is the crisis in Europe,” Yatsenyuk said at a meeting earlier Thursday with European Parliament leaders. The EU proposed a $15 billion aid package for Ukraine Wednesday. The US has so far pledged $1 billion and is working on a more comprehensive package, in coordination with the EU and the International Monetary Fund.
Ukraine’s economy is faltering and the country is running out of cash. The government in Kiev estimates it will need $35 billion in bailout loans for this year and next. The EU also offered Ukraine a wide-ranging free trade and economic agreement that would draw Kiev closer to Europe and help boost its economy.
|Ukraine is clearly divided into two halves: Pro-Russia in East and Pro-EU in West.|
|"Hitler The Saviour" banner hanging at Kiev City Hall in Ukraine.|