Thursday, March 6, 2014

The traffic through the Turkish straits comes as tensions between the West and Russia over recent events in Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula located on the northern coast of the Black Sea, continue to simmer

Turkey grants US warship permission to enter Black Sea

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Turkey has given a US Navy Warship the green light to pass through the Bosphorus within the next two days as tensions in Ukraine’s Crimea region continue to divide world powers.
Turkish sources, speaking with the Hurriyet Daily News on Wednesday, declined to elaborate on the name of the US warship. The same officials told the daily on condition of anonymity that the ship in question was not the USS George H.W. Bush nuclear aircraft carrier as suggested in some news reports, as it did not meet the standards specified by the 1936 Montreux Convention in terms of weight.
The US vessel to pass through the straits will meet the convention’s standards, the sources said.
On Wednesday, the Russian Black Sea Fleet Staff confirmed to the Itar-Tass news agency that a US destroyer was expected to enter the Black Sea later this week.
On Sunday, Tass reported that the guided-missile frigate USS Taylor, one of two Navy ships assigned to the Black Sea during the Sochi Winter Olympics was still in the Turkish Black Sea port of Samsun. The frigate was deployed on February 5 along with the amphibious command ship, USS Mount Whitney. According to the Montreux Convention, warships of countries which do not border the Black Sea cannot remain in the waters for longer than 21 days. While the USS Mount Whitney left on February 25, the USS Taylor remained at the Turkish port, ostensibly for repairs after running aground on February 12.
Meanwhile, it was reported on Tuesday that two Russian warships entered the Black Sea through the Bosphorus. The 150 ‘Saratov’ landing ship and the 156 ‘Yamal’ assault ship crossed the strait around 05:30 GMT, en route to the Black Sea, the Anadolu Agency (AA) reported.
No coastguard boats were seen escorting the ships. The Ukrainian Hetman Sahaydachny followed shortly thereafter, crossing the Dardanelles Strait off Turkey’s west coast. Two coastguard vessels were reported by AA to be escorting the ship.
The vessel, which had participated in NATO-led Ocean Shield and Atalanta counter-piracy operations, reportedly docked near Odessa port on Wednesday, says the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.
The traffic through the Turkish straits comes as tensions between the West and Russia over recent events in Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula located on the northern coast of the Black Sea, continue to simmer.
Russia currently leases a military wharf and shore installations in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. The Ukrainian government agreed to extend Russia’s lease on the territory in 2010, allowing the Russian Black Sea Fleet to effectively stay in Crimea until 2047.
Five Russian naval units are currently stationed in the port city of Sevastopol, including the 30th Surface Ship Division, the 41st Missile Boat Brigade, the 247th Separate Submarine Division, the 68th Harbor Defense Ship, and the 422nd Separate Hydrographic Ship Division.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the military personnel of the Black Sea Fleet are “in their deployment sites” and “additional vigilance measures were taken to safeguard the sites.”
“We will do everything to prevent bloodshed,” he said, speaking ahead of his first face-to-face meeting with his US counterpart, John Kerry, since the crisis erupted.
Over a week after the government of Viktor Yanukovich was toppled by violent street protests, fears of deepening political and social strife have been particularly acute in Ukraine’s pro-Russian east and south.
One day after voting to oust Yanukovich, a newly reconfigured parliament did away with a 2012 law on minority languages, which permitted the use of two official languages in regions where the size of an ethnic minority exceeds 10 percent.
Apart from the Russian-majority regions affected by this law, Hungarian, Moldovan and Romanian also lost their status as official languages in several towns in Western Ukraine.
Authorities in the Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea – where over half the population is ethnically Russian – requested Moscow’s assistance following the legal downgrade of the Russian language.
Western states have accused Russia of militarily intervening in Crimea and called on Russian troops to return to their Black Sea bases. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) recently dispatched military observers to Kiev. The observers from the pan-European security body are en route to Crimea, where they will monitor the situation on the ground.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated President Putin’s previous words that Russian troops had not actually been deployed from their bases in Crimea. Lavrov said that forces with unmarked uniforms which had taken de-facto control over Crimea are self-defense units that are not under Russia’s auspices.
“If they are the self-defense forces created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we have no authority over them,” Lavrov told a news conference in Madrid after a meeting with Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo.
“They do not receive orders [from us],” he said.
On Saturday, the Russian Federation Council – the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia – approved President Vladimir Putin’s request to send the country’s military forces to Ukraine to ensure peace and order in the region “until the socio-political situation in the country is stabilized.”
According to the bilateral agreement concerning Russia’s Black Sea Fleet military bases in Crimea, Moscow is allowed to have up to 25,000 troops in Ukraine.

Obama Calls Russia's Referendum on Crimea Illegal - WSJ

Obama Calls Russia's Referendum on Crimea Illegal

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Updated March 6, 2014 1:32 p.m. ET
President Obama comments on his decision to authorize sanctions against those undermining democracy in Ukraine and says Russia has violated international law with its intervention in Ukraine. He adds there is a way to resolve the crisis while keeping in mind the interest of the Russian Federation and the Ukrainian people. Photo: AP
WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama on Thursday said a planned referendum on the future of Crimea is illegal and said the U.S. and European Union are united against Russia's "intervention" in Ukraine.
"Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government," Mr. Obama said in a brief statement from the White House. "In 2014 we are well beyond the days when borders can be drawn over the heads of democratic leaders."
Mr. Obama's comments come as the Moscow-backed Crimea set a referendum in 10 days to ratify its decision to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. It also comes as the Obama administration set the groundwork to impose sanctions and restrict visas for those who have worked to destabilize Ukraine.
Mr. Obama said the U.S. has the flexibility to continue taking other steps to punish Russia. He said, however, there is a way for the crisis to be resolved in a way that is beneficial to both Russians and Ukrainians. He also said Russia should allow international monitors into Ukraine.
Earlier Thursday, the president signed an executive order authorizing sanctions against those undermining democracy in Ukraine, a step the administration said is intended to increase pressure on Russia to pull back from Crimea.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a statement on the situation in Ukraine Thursday. Reuters
The administration also imposed new visa bans on those it believes responsible for perpetuating the crisis.
The moves were unveiled in Washington as Secretary of State John Kerry pursued diplomatic remedies, meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Rome Thursday. Mr. Kerry pressed the Russians to talk directly to officials of the new Ukrainian government.
Senior administration officials said no one has yet been sanctioned, beyond visa restrictions, but warned that they now have set the stage for punitive actions to be taken quickly.
"This should send a strong message that we intend to impose costs on Russia for this intervention," a senior administration official said.
The White House wouldn't say who would be considered for sanctions or whether the deposed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was among potential targets.
"Anybody who is involved or complicit in activities that are threatening the sovereignty, territorial integrity or stability of Ukraine is as of this morning on notice that they may be targeted for U.S. sanctions," said another senior official.
Congressional leaders, who are working to draft sanctions legislation, said the administration was headed in the right direction.
"We welcome this first step, but remain committed to working with the administration to give President Obama as many tools as needed to put President [Vladimir] Putin in check, as well as prevent Russia from infringing on the sovereignty of any of its other neighbors," said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio).
The House is expected to vote later Thursday on a $1 billion aid package to assist Ukraine that was sought by the administration.
Administration officials wouldn't say how many individuals are included in the visa restrictions and wouldn't release their names, but said they would be notified.
They also said the administration will be looking to add additional names to the list if the crisis continues.
The officials said further steps to target the assets and travel of Russian individuals and their allies in Ukraine could be avoided if President Putin pulls back his military posture in Crimea, but that the U.S. has already designated individuals to be sanctioned for actions so far.
"We believe there need to be costs and consequences for Russia for what they've already done," the first senior official said.
The executive order also allows for the U.S. to target "derivatives," or individuals who are acting on behalf of or supplying support to those involved in Moscow's encroachment on Ukraine, another senior administration official said.
"This authority is now in place, and we will be looking to use it as appropriate," the second senior official said.
The new steps follow a week of diplomatic wrangling about how to respond to Russia's actions in Crimea. The Obama administration has sought to de-escalate the unrest while also trying to ensure Ukraine's territorial integrity.
Crimea has been under de facto military occupation since the weekend, when thousands of heavily armed men—wearing unmarked uniforms but widely believed to be Russian soldiers from the country's Black Sea Fleet, which is based in the region—seized key locations on the peninsula and effectively cut it off from the rest of Ukraine.
The government of Crimea said Thursday that it will hold a referendum on whether to formally secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, dramatically escalating tensions as the West tries to negotiate a withdrawal of Russian troops from the region.
U.S. officials said the timing of Mr. Obama's executive order was already in the works and wasn't impacted by the referendum.
Mr. Obama's executive order "authorizes sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for activities undermining democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine; threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine; contributing to the misappropriation of state assets of Ukraine; or purporting to assert governmental authority over any part of Ukraine without authorization from the Ukrainian government in Kyiv."
The order "is a flexible tool that will allow us to sanction those who are most directly involved in destabilizing Ukraine, including the military intervention in Crimea, and doesn't preclude further steps should the situation deteriorate."
—Jared A. Favole, Michael R. Crittenden and Ian Talley contributed to this article.
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Obama: Crimean Referendum Violation of International Law - Voice of America

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Voice of America

Obama: Crimean Referendum Violation of International Law
Voice of America
President Barack Obama said on Thursday that an initiative put forth by pro-Russian lawmakers in Crimea to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation via a regional referendum would be in violation of international law. “The proposed referendum ...
War, Yes? War, No? The Ukraine Standoff as Diplomatic MashupBusinessweek
Obama Says Referendum in Crimea Would Violate LawNew York Times
House panel condemns Russia for action in the UkraineUSA TODAY
Los Angeles Times -CNN -Washington Post
all 7,858 news articles »

Ukraine: Woman Dragged By Hair From Street

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Footage shows the woman, speaking against Russia in Crimea, being manhandled and dragged by her hair into a police van.

Obama orders sanctions against people who impeded democracy, looted assets in Ukraine - WP

Obama orders sanctions against people who impeded democracy, looted assets in Ukraine

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In remarks at the White House on the situation in Crimea, Obama noted that he has ordered assets frozen and U.S. visas blocked for all persons determined to have impeded democracy, contributed to violence or engaged in corruption in Ukraine.
He said those steps were taken in close coordination with European allies and that “our unity is on display at this important moment.” A referendum approved by the pro-Russia Crimean parliament on whether to join Russia violates both the Ukrainian constitution and international law, Obama said. He said any discussion of the troubled region’s future must include the legitimate government of Ukraine.
An executive order signed Thursday morning by Obama does not specify who is included in the order, but senior administration officials said it would include both Russians and Ukrainians. Individuals of both nationalities have already been subject to visa bans prohibiting their entry into the United States. Obama asked the Treasury Department to implement the order.
Administration officials previously said sanctions would not apply to President Vladi­mir Putin or other top Russian officials. “It is an unusual and extraordinary circumstance to sanction a head of state, and we would not begin our designations by doing so,” one senior official said Thursday.
Speaking Thursday afternoon in the White House Briefing Room, Obama said the measures were designed to “impose a cost on Russia” and to “give us flexibility to adjust our response going forward, based on Russia’s actions.”
He emphasized U.S. steps were taken in “coordination with our closest friends and allies,” including the European Union, where leaders adopted a similar set of sanctions earlier Thursday.
Repeating the U.S. prescription for ending the crisis, Obama called on Russia to allow international monitors to enter Ukraine, to withdraw its troops back to barracks under existing basing agreements with the Ukraine government and to begin talks with the new Ukrainian leaders. Russia, he said, can “maintain its basing rights in Crimea” as long as it follows international law.
In condemning a decision by pro-Russian Crimean leaders to hold a referendum this month on whether to become part of Russia, Obama said the plebiscite would be a violation of Ukraine’s constitution and that the world was “well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of leaders.”
He called on Congress to move quickly in approving $1 billion in loan guarantees he has proposed for Ukraine, and he praised international unity. “Today the world can see that the United States is united with our allies and partners,” Obama said, “pursuing a just outcome that enhances international security and a future that the Ukrainians deserve.”
Obama has tasked the Treasury Department with determining who could be sanctioned under the economic measures, which would block all U.S. assets of any person or entity who led or assisted efforts to undermine the security or territorial integrity of Ukraine, or asserted control over any part of Ukraine without the authorization of the government of Kiev.
“The fact that we have not yet designated” the targets of the sanctions “should lead some of those individuals to be questioning whether they’re going to be finding their names on a list,” the senior administration official said.
The sanctions are the toughest measure yet as the United States and its European allies took steps to show their disapproval of Russia’s military moves in Crimea. The European Union also approved sanctions against 18 Ukrainians.
The actions followed decisions Wednesday to send more money to Ukraine’s U.S.-backed interim government, to dispatch international observers to Ukraine and to increase U.S. defensive air power in Eastern Europe.
Although a stalemate persisted in Crimea, with Ukrainian military forces refusing Russian demands to declare allegiance to the region’s pro-Russian government, Crimea’s legislature voted to hold a referendum on March 16 on whether to break away from Ukraine and join Russia, or remain part of Ukraine with increased autonomy.
Obama’s executive order authorizes “sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for activities undermining democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine,” threatening that nation’s security or sovereignty or misappropriating national assets.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the steps “build upon the previous actions the United States has taken.” He added in a statement: “Depending on how the situation develops, the United States is prepared to consider additional steps and sanctions as necessary.”
At the same time, Carney said, “We call on Russia to take the opportunity before it to resolve this crisis through direct and immediate dialogue with the Government of Ukraine, the immediate pull-back of Russia’s military forces to their bases, the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and support for the urgent deployment of international observers and human rights monitors who can assure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, including ethnic Russians, and who can support the Ukrainian government’s efforts to hold a free and fair election on May 25.”
Carney called the executive order “a flexible tool that will allow us to sanction those who are most directly involved in destabilizing Ukraine, including the military intervention in Crimea, and does not preclude further steps should the situation deteriorate.”
Previous punitive measures from the Obama administration have included canceling planning meetings for the Group of Eight economic summit in Sochi, Russia, in June. The White House is also pressing Congress to support a $1 billion aid package for Ukraine’s interim government. The House will vote on that proposal Thursday.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry held his first direct meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, since street protests in the Ukrainian capital turned deadly last month and led to the ouster of Kiev’s pro-Russia government. No progress was reported after the session, held at the home of Russia’s ambassador to France, but Kerry and Lavrov agreed to keep talking.
Kerry cautioned against assuming “that we did not . . . have serious conversations. We have a number of ideas on the table,” he told reporters, even as he reiterated the U.S. position that Russia’s military movement into Crimea is unacceptable.
Lavrov did not show up at a separate meeting with Kerry, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, who flew to Paris from Kiev on Kerry’s plane after the top U.S. diplomat concluded a brief visit to the Ukrainian capital to show support for the new interim government.
Kerry later told reporters that he had “zero expectation” that Lavrov would accept an invitation to come to that meeting but that it would have been “inappropriate” for world powers to discuss Ukraine’s fate without that country’s representative.
Asked at a news conference about the Ukrainian minister — part of a government that Russia claims is illegitimate — Lavrov replied: “Who is it?”
A photo of Kerry and Lavrov tweeted by Russia’s Foreign Ministry showed the two looking in opposite directions, with a caption noting that although they didn’t always see eye to eye, communication was important.
No similar quips emerged from a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels. A NATO diplomat, describing the session as “tense,” said alliance members one by one confronted Alexander V. Grushko, Russia’s representative to NATO, with charges that Moscow was violating international law in Crimea and concocting threats against ethnic Russians there to justify its actions.
“It was quite an uncomfortable meeting,” said the diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the closed-door session. When it was over, NATO announced that it was suspending collaboration with Russian armed forces on several fronts, including planning for Russia to provide a maritime escort for the U.S. ship that is to destroy Syrian chemical weapons at sea in the spring.
Before meeting with the Russians, alliance ambassadors traveled from NATO headquarters across town in Brussels for a rare meeting with representatives of the European Union’s policy and security committee.
E.U. representatives gave preliminary approval to a $15 billion aid package of loans and grants to Ukraine over the next several years, on top of a U.S. announcement Tuesday of $1 billion in energy loan guarantees.
The European package, to be approved at an E.U. summit Thursday, would be partially conditioned on reforms to Ukraine’s tanking economy. Kiev estimates that it needs $35 billion in international rescue loans over the next two years.
The Pentagon also announced, in response to what officials said were requests from Eastern European NATO members over the past week, that it would more than double the number of aircraft it has based in Lithuania as part of a regular alliance air-defense patrol.
The patrols over the Baltic nations were initiated a decade ago and are rotated quarterly among NATO members that have the appropriate aircraft. The United States, by coincidence, is in charge of the patrols this quarter and is sending six F-15 fighter jets and a KC-135 tanker to add to the four F-15s already deployed at Lithuania’s Siauliai Air Base.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said his Russian counterpart told him Wednesday that the troops in Crimea “were not regular forces. They were well-trained militia forces responding to threats to ethnic Russians in the Crimea.”
Dempsey said he could not “at this time” tell Congress “where the military forces inside the Crimea came from.” But “I did suggest” to Gen. Valery Gerasimov “that a soldier looks like a soldier looks like a soldier, and that the — that distinction had been lost on the international community.”
To emphasize that point, the State Department issued what it said was a “fact sheet” titled “President Putin’s Fiction,” disputing point by point the Russian leader’s claims that the troops in Crimea did not include newly deployed Russian forces, that in any case Russia’s actions were legal under international agreements, and that ethnic Russians and Russian bases in Crimea were under threat from Ukrainian “extremists.”
Gearan reported from Paris. William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.
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Crimea sets referendum on joining Russia

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He spoke after Crimea, currently an autonomous part of Ukraine, announced not only the referendum but the formation of new ministries of energy, information, interior and pensions separate and distinct from the central government in Kiev. The moves were quickly disavowed by Ukraine’s new interim government as unconstitutional, illegal and treasonous.
But the looming showdown in the majority ethnic Russian region — where forces loyal to Moscow are blockading Ukrainian military barracks and warships — underscored the growing challenge facing the new pro-Western government in Kiev as it tries to regain its lost territorial integrity.
The March 16 referendum would also give Crimean voters the option of remaining part of Ukraine, but with enhanced local powers.
“This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev,” Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the Crimean legislature, said Thursday. “We will decide our future ourselves.”
The Obama administration moved Thursday to sanction unspecified individuals who have undermined democracy in Ukraine, threatened the nation’s security or looted national assets. An executive order signed by President Obama freezes assets and blocks U.S. visas for the affected individuals, who administration officials said would include Ukrainians, as well as Russians involved in the military intervention in Crimea.
European leaders also sounded alarms, denouncing the Crimean referendum plans as illegal.
“This has nothing to do with democracy; that is obvious to everyone,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Brussels, site of an emergency summit called by the 28-member European Union to decide whether to impose sanctions on Russia.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Europe “needs to send a very clear message to the Russian government that what has happened is unacceptable and should have consequences.”
Responding to reports of the planned referendum, Ian Tombinsky, head of an E.U. delegation to Ukraine, said any such vote would be illegitimate. Ukraine’s constitution, he said, allows for only one such referendum on a national level in all of Ukraine — not on a regional level in just Crimea.
“Crimea is part of Ukraine,” he told reporters in Kiev. “What relates to Crimea should be resolved on the basis of Ukrainian law.”
Even as U.S. and European officials pushed levers meant to defuse a crisis that has recalled the ghosts of the Cold War, the fast-moving events in Crimea appeared to push the strategically vital Black Sea peninsula further away from Ukraine and into the arms of Russia.
“The only lawful armed force on the territory of the Crimea is the Russian armed forces,” said Crimea’s deputy premier, Rustam Temirgaliev, according to Reuters news agency. “Armed forces of any third country are occupiers. The Ukrainian armed forces have to choose. Lay down their weapons, quit their posts, accept Russian citizenship and join the Russian military. If they do not agree, we are prepared to offer them safe passage from the territory of Crimea to their Ukrainian homeland.”
It remained unclear whether Thursday’s provocative steps in Crimea were part of Russia’s precise calculations. But the extent of Moscow’s grip on Crimea suggested that separatist leaders here were coordinating their actions with Russia, said Chris Kupchan, head of the Russia and Eurasian team at the Washington-based Eurasia Group political and business consultancy.
“Russian troops are all over the place,” he said. “An ethnic Russian leader is calling the shots in Crimea. Could there be a smidgeon of spontaneity in his actions? Yes. Is it credible that he is acting without coordinating with Moscow? I don’t find that credible.”
In any case, Russia’s parliament, the Duma, said Thursday that it would begin debating bills aimed at simplifying legislation to allow Crimea’s accession to Russia following the referendum and a decision by Russia’s leadership on the matter.
In Kiev, the Crimean leap to join Russia stoked alarm. Ukrainian officials called for dialogue with Crimea’s breakaway lawmakers even as the officials denounced the Crimean moves.
“This is an illegitimate decision, and this so-called referendum has no legal grounds at all,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told reporters in Brussels. “That’s the reason why we urge Russian government not to support those who claim separatism in Ukraine.”
The pro-Russian lawmakers who took control of the Crimean parliament last month had already called for a referendum on March 30 on the region’s future. But the moves Thursday marked not only an acceleration of the vote but a far more robust declaration of secession from Ukraine.
The coming vote raised the prospect of violence among those who want to stay part of Ukraine —particularly the region’s ethnic Tatars. Observers also said they had little confidence in a fair referendum. Sergey Aksyonov, known around Kiev as the “Goblin” due to his alleged ties to organized crime, is the region’s new premier. Installed after gunmen took over the parliament on Feb. 27, the businessman, politician and Russian nationalist has been accused of stirring up ethnic violence against Tatars. He now leads a group of rebellious lawmakers bent on tearing the peninsula off the Ukrainian map.
“They are doing this because they understand that the results of the referendum can be predicted; there will be nobody to monitor this, to watch how it takes place,” said Igor Burakovsky, director of the board of the Kiev-based Institute For Economic Research and Policy Consulting.
Thursday’s moves, however, were wildly popular among the ethnic Russians who make up the majority on the Crimean Peninsula. Store and road signs are almost exclusively in Russian, not Ukranian. Russian flags are flown from far more rooftops than Ukranian flags. School classes are taught in Russian, and it is the language most commonly spoken on the streets. Many people say they do not understand a word of Ukranian.
At a square in front of Sevastopol’s City Hall, where a sign saying “Kiev doesn’t tell us what to do” is taped to a front column, people wearing ribbons in the red, white and blue stripes of the Russian flag said they hate pro-Western Ukrainians, Obama and America equally.
“Of course, everyone will vote to be part of Russia, because we are Russian people,” said a woman carrying a small pennant with a likeness of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We want it tomorrow.” She would not give her name because she said she does not trust Americans.
Several people said they were ethnic Ukrainians but had lived for a long time in Crimea and were prepared to vote for joining the Russian Federation.
“Sevastopol. Crimea. Russia. There is no other option,” said Leonid Klemenko, 72, a retired watch repairman.
The head of the ethnic Tatars in Crimea urged people to boycott the referendum, regardless of their ethnicity.
But in a place that looks like a craggy, Mediterranean version of Russia, many had a sense that a vote to break away from Ukraine is inevitable.
“Why postpone it?” said Vladimir Galichnikov, a 27-year-old security guard. “The economy will be better under Russia. Russia has a better army. Everything’s going to be better with Russia.”
While many Crimea residents went about their business as usual, strolling in parks, dining in restaurants and attending concerts and art exhibits, tensions ratcheted up noticeably in a few locations.
On Wednesday, soldiers without insignia did not impede navy wives, curious neighbors, priests and journalists from approaching three Ukrainian ships in the Sevastopol harbor whose sailors have resisted demands to switch allegiances. But on Thursday, men wearing an assortment of camouflage uniforms formed a cordon and turned away everyone who tried to get closer. At one spot near the port where families have flocked to glimpse the sailors, about two dozen men stood in a tight line behind a personnel carrier bearing Russian plates. One man in the group said they were with a self-defense unit.
Thursday’s announcements from the peninsula came as Russian forces continued to harass the Ukrainian military, although in some areas, they appeared to be changing tactics.
On Thursday, the commander of a Ukrainian military airbase in Belbek said Russian forces blockading part of the base near Sevastopol have abandoned ultimatums and are offering apartments to those who pledge allegiance to Crimea.
Col. Yuli Mamchur met for several hours with representatives of the blockading troops and gained permission to send someone onto the airfield to inspect planes that have been damaged during the standoff that began earlier this week. He said both the Ukrainian military and the Russians are now in control of the base.
Mamchur said the Russians offered to provide apartments for about 350 people who work on the base and lack adequate housing.
“They have changed their tactics,” he told reporters after the talks concluded. “Before, they made ultimatums. Now they offer apartments.”
He said none of the Ukrainian military personnel had defected yet.
In Moscow, Putin met with the Russian Security Council to discuss what his spokesman described as the Crimean parliament’s decision to prepare for Crimea’s accession to Russia.
“All factions of the State Duma currently support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but at the same time we understand the right of the people of Crimea to raise issues they believe can be put up for referendum,” said Leonid Slutsky, head of the Duma’s committee on former Soviet republics.
Fyodor Lukianov, editor of the Russian journal Foreign Affairs, said the Crimean parliamentary move toward accession to Russia would intensify the crisis.
“Until now Russia has been talking about Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This means that Russia will no longer be talking about territorial integrity,” he told the Ekho Moskvy radio station.
Less than half of the Crimean population is likely to vote to join Russia in the referendum, Alexei Malashenko, scholar in residence at the Moscow Carnegie Center, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station. “It’s not certain the referendum will get the desired result. This will only add to the tensions in a way that no one needs.”
As the standoff between Russian and Ukrainian warships and troops continued, foreign military observers headed to Ukraine to monitor movements of Crimean self-defense militias and Russian ­forces.
A U.N. envoy was forced to abandon a separate fact-finding mission Wednesday after encounters with pro-Russia militiamen and an angry crowd.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental group devoted to crisis management, said 18 of its participating states were sending 35 observers to Ukraine “to dispel concerns about unusual military activities.” The United States is one of the parties.
Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council secretary, Andriy Parubiy, accused Russia of redeploying its troops in Crimea to hide its actions from the mission.
“It’s obvious that the so-called self-defense units were only a cover. The most active actions were carried out by special ­forces and Russian servicemen,” he said at a briefing Wednesday, according to the Interfax news agency.
Faiola reported from Kiev. William Booth in Crimea, Kathy Lally and Isabel Gorst in Moscow and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.
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Russian power play: Crimea vote on joining Russia

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Crimea’s parliament rammed through what amounted to a declaration of independence from Ukraine, announcing it would let the Crimean people, 60 percent of whom are ethnic Russian, decide whether they want to become part of their gigantic neighbor to the east.
“This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev,” said Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the legislature. “We will decide our future ourselves.”
Ukraine’s prime minister swiftly denounced the action: “This so-called referendum has no legal grounds at all,” said Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
As an emergency EU summit got underway in Brussels, a senior Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, promised that EU leaders “will send a clear message that the referendum won’t be recognized.”
But the punishment later announced seemed more symbolic than substantive: EU President Herman Van Rompuy declared that the bloc was suspending talks with Russia on a wide-ranging economic pact and on a visa deal, and would consider further measures if Russia does not quickly open meaningful dialogue.
“Not everyone will be satisfied with the decision but I should say that we did much more together than one could have expected several hours ago,” said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
In Moscow, a prominent member of Russia’s parliament, Sergei Mironov, said he has introduced a bill to simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia and it could be passed as soon as next week. Another senior lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky, said the parliament could consider such a motion after the referendum.
On Tuesday, Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its population has the right to determine the region’s status in a referendum. A popular vote would give Putin a democratic fig-leaf for what would effectively be a formal takeover — although it was too early to tell whether such a move would actually go forward. The Russian president called a meeting of his Security Council on Thursday to discuss Ukraine.
For Putin, Crimea would be a dazzling acquisition, and help cement his authority with a Russian citizenry that has in recent years shown signs of restiveness and still resents the loss of the sprawling empire Moscow ruled in Soviet times. The peninsula was once Russia’s imperial crown jewel, a lush land seized by Catherine the Great in the 18th century that evokes Russia’s claim to greatness as a world power.
A referendum had previously been scheduled in Crimea on March 30, but the question to be put to voters was on whether their region should enjoy “state autonomy” within Ukraine.
Crimea’s new leader has 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.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress moved to advance legislation imposing punitive sanctions on the Kremlin, and the U.S. House of Representatives was poised Thursday to pass the first aid bill for Ukraine’s new, pro-Western government. Earlier Thursday, the Obama administration slapped new visa restrictions on Russian and Ukrainian opponents of Ukraine’s new government.
The U.S. measures targeted an unspecified and unidentified number of people and entities that the Obama administration accuses of threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial borders. They were announced in Washington as Secretary of State John Kerry headed into a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Rome on the sidelines of a diplomatic forum about Libya.
The Europeans appeared divided between nations close to Russia’s borders, which want the bloc to stand up to Moscow, and some Western economic powerhouses — notably Germany — that were taking a more dovish line.
EU economic sanctions against Russia could prove painful for Europe as well — since Russia could hit back by turning off the taps to natural gas that is an urgent need for many European countries, including regional giant Germany.
The fallout for Europe from any action targeting influential Russian oligarchs or corporations would also be great. Russian investors hold assets worth billions in European banks, particularly in Britain — which is reluctant to undermine its massive financial services industry. Russia, the EU’s third biggest trading partner, bought $170 billion in European machinery, cars and other exports in 2012.
Yatsenyuk, in Brussels to meet with EU leaders, said Russia is continuing to stir up trouble.
“We ask Russia to respond whether they are ready to preserve peace and stability in Europe or (whether) they are ready to instigate another provocation and another tension in our bilateral and multilateral relations,” Yatsenyuk said.
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.
Not all in this city favored the lawmakers’ vote to secede from Ukraine.
“This is crazy. Crimea has become Putin’s puppet,” said Viktor Gordiyenko, 46. “A referendum at gunpoint of Russia weapons is just a decoration for Putin’s show. A decision on occupation has already been made.”
Svetlana Savchenko, another Crimean lawmaker, said the choice she and her fellow deputies took in favor of joining Russia will force Moscow to make a decision.
“This is our principled position,” she told The Associated Press. “Now the Russian Federation must begin a procedure - will it take us in or not.”
Rustam Temirgaliev, first vice premier of the Crimean government, said preparations are under way already to bring Crimea into Russia’s “ruble zone.”
“At the present moment, a large, important group of specialists from Russia is at work, preparing to assure the entry of Crimea into the Russian Federation,” Temirgaliev said.
At the Ukrainian naval base in Novo-Ozerne, the inlet leading to the Black Sea was blocked Thursday by a partially submerged Russian naval vessel, preventing two Ukrainian ships from leaving port. Ukrainian sailors said the Russians had blown up the decommissioned vessel overnight.
Turmoil was brewing elsewhere in the Russian-dominated eastern half of Ukraine.
Clashes between protesters and police broke out early Thursday in the ethnic Russian stronghold of Donetsk as police cleared demonstrators from the regional administration center. The Ukrainian flag once again was hoisted over the building, and about 100 Ukrainian Interior troops could be seen in and around it. Two large trucks were parked in front to block the approach.
The Pentagon said Thursday that six U.S. F-15 fighter jets arrived in Lithuania to boost air patrols over the Baltics as the Ukraine crisis continued. A U.S. warship was also now in the Black Sea for long-planned exercises.
At a news conference in Kiev, representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe returning from Crimea expressed concern the referendum might stir up new clashes and provocations.
“The situation might seem quiet, almost normal if you go to the streets,” Tim Guldimann, the personal envoy of the Swiss OSCE chair, said. “However, it’s extremely tense and I would consider this as a miracle that bloodshed could be avoided so far given the political and even military circumstances on the ground.”
Baetz reported from Brussels; Associated Press reporters Sergei Chuzavkov in Donetsk, Dalton Bennett in Novo Ozerne, Julie Pace in Washington, Lara Jakes in Rome, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, David Rising in Berlin, George Jahn in Vienna, and Angela Charlton in Brussels contributed.
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