Ben Aris in Moscow -
President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of Crimea signed a bill to absorb the peninsula into Russia on March 18. In what is already being called an historic speech, Putin lambasted the West for its double standards and failure to respect Russia's interests, especially in Ukraine.
After the closely watched speech, the party moved to Red Square where thousands had gathered to celebrate. And they were celebrating. The crowd was reminiscent of the more patriotic American crowds following the 9/11 attacks, as they chanted in unison "Ross-i-ya!"
The decision to re-join Crimea to the motherland has proven enormously popular with the Russian public, which has long regarded the region as Russian and indeed was part of Russia for hundreds of years until Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954, apparently at the end of a drinking binge. "Crimea has always been part of Russia," said Putin in his speech.
Interestingly, Putin also seem to throw the ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych under a bus during the speech. By taking over Crimea, Yanukovych's usefulness and the possible Russia-backed return to power is no longer an option. Yanukovych was noticeable by his absence at the speech in Moscow.
"I would like to reiterate that I understand those who came out on Maidan with peaceful slogans against corruption, inefficient state management and poverty. The right to peaceful protest, democratic procedures and elections exist for the sole purpose of replacing the authorities that do not satisfy the people," Putin said. "However, those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: they were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day."
The Kremlin refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the Maidan government, and this is the basis of Russia's decision to act to protect its own interests because it doesn't see a partner in Kyiv with whom it can negotiate any more - rather it sees only an EU proxy. "It is also obvious that there is no legitimate executive authority in Ukraine now, nobody to talk to. Many government agencies have been taken over by the impostors, but they do not have any control in the country, while they themselves - and I would like to stress this - are often controlled by radicals," Putin said.
However, Putin skipped over the unseemly rush to push through the Crimean referendum, the fact that the "international observers" were all hand picked by Russia and a collection of unsavoury nationalists and right-wing nuts. The West will never recognise the result of the vote, as Russia is as guilty of pushing its agenda on Crimea as the West is of pushing its agenda on Kyiv. But this fight has long since ceased to be about principles and has turned into a straight forward geopolitical slugfest, which is also the point that Putin was making in his speech.
Still, Putin had some fun by quoting a UN resolution that followed the separation of Kosovo from Serbia to justify the Crimean unilateral "decision" to leave Ukraine.
"Pursuant to Article 2, Chapter 1 of the United Nations Charter, the UN International Court agreed with this approach and made the following comment in its ruling of July 22, 2010, and I quote: 'No general prohibition may be inferred from the practice of the Security Council with regard to declarations of independence,' and 'General international law contains no prohibition on declarations of independence.' Crystal clear, as they say," said Putin quoting from the law, but followed up by throwing the US' own words back at it.
"I do not like to resort to quotes, but in this case, I cannot help it. Here is a quote from another official document: the Written Statement of the United States America of April 17, 2009, submitted to the same UN International Court in connection with the hearings on Kosovo. Again, I quote: 'Declarations of independence may, and often do, violate domestic legislation. However, this does not make them violations of international law.' End of quote," Putin said almost smirking. Â
For its part, Kyiv and the West were very fast to express their condemnation of the annexation. The new government in Kyiv said it would never accept the treaty and the US has called a G7-EU crisis meeting next week in The Hague to discuss responses.
US Vice President Joe Biden, speaking earlier in Poland, said Russia's involvement in Crimea was "a brazen military incursion" and its annexation of the territory was "nothing more than a land grab" by Moscow.
By annexing (or reabsorbing, depending on which side you stand) Crimea, Putin has accepted an escalation of sanctions by the West (currently at the merely symbolic "step 2" level), as well as significant damage to the Russian economy. As bne speculated March 18, this political decision will do at least $400bn worth of identifiable damage and kill off any hope of economic growth this year.
The decision also crystallises the positions. Any hope for a negotiated solution between Russia and Washington over Ukraine's fate has now gone and the two sides will be staring each other down over a fence that runs through the middle of Ukraine.
Tensions are likely to increase from here. While Putin made it explicit in his speech that he does not have ambitions to move into Eastern Ukraine, it still remains on the cards.
"Don't believe those who scare you with Russia, who yell that Crimea will be followed by other regions," Putin said. "We don't want to split up Ukraine, we don't need that."
The West has already moved to suspend Russia's participation in the G8 group, although German Chancellor Angela Merkel was explicit in saying that Russia has not been ejected from the group, only its involvement in meetings is suspended for the moment.
The EU has also said that the Maidan government could sign off on the Association Agreement with the EU as soon as March 21.
More than likely the G7-EU meeting will move the sanctions to "step 3", which will include more Russian government officials and possibly some restrictions on Russian companies.
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