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Russian Assembly Speaker Pledges Support if Crimea Votes to Join Russia

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Russia's upper house of parliament declared that it will support Crimea's decision if the Ukrainian region decides in a referendum to join Russia, RIA Novosti cited the head of the Federation Council as saying.

"If the people of Crimea take the decision in the referendum to join Russia, we, as the upper house [of parliament], will of course support such a decision," Valentina Matviyenko, head of the Russian Federation Council, was quoted as saying.

The Crimean parliament decided to hold a referendum on whether the region should join Russia on March 16.

The White House said earlier that President Obama has told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, that Moscow's actions in Ukraine are a violation of that country's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Officials say the two leaders spoke for an hour on the telephone Thursday. It is their first known direct contact since Saturday, shortly after Russian forces took control in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.

The White House says Obama told the Russian leader there still is a way to resolve the dispute diplomatically. He said this would entail Russian forces moving back to their base in Crimea; the governments of Ukraine and Russia holding direct talks, and international monitors getting access to ensure that the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine are protected.

The White House statement said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will continue discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Kyiv government and other international partners in the days to come.

Putin said there were still differences with the United States in their approaches and assessments of the Ukraine crisis after speaking to Obama on the phone, the Kremlin reported.

In a statement on Friday, Putin said Kyiv's new authorities, which came to power in an anti-constitutional coup, had imposed "absolutely illegitimate decisions on the eastern, southeastern and Crimea regions."

"Russia cannot ignore calls for help in this matter and it acts accordingly, in full compliance with the international law," Putin said.

Related video report by Cindy Saine:


Obama announces visa restrictions and sanctions

Earlier Thursday Obama called the upcoming referendum proposed by pro-Russian lawmakers in Crimea to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation illegal, ordering visa restrictions and financial sanctions on Ukrainians and Russians for interfering in Ukraine.

“The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law,” Obama told reporters at the White House speaking on rising tensions over Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula.

Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine,” he said.

"In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders," Obama said.

Obama signed an executive order that authorizes sanctions on those responsible for violating what the president says are the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

U.S. officials did not name the individuals who will have their visas to visit the United States cancelled or denied, but said they will include both Russians and Ukrainians who have been most directly involved in destabilizing the country.

They declined to say whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will be among those targeted.

Obama also reiterated the international community’s backing of the new government in Kyiv, calling for unified efforts in support of Ukraine’s new leadership both politically and economically as it prepares for new presidential elections set for May.

He said that the steps were taken in "close coordination" with America's European allies, adding that he was “pleased that our international unity is on display at this critical moment.”

Obama also called on U.S. Congress to support the International Monetary Fund's lending capacity for Ukraine.

Kyiv reacts

Meanwhile, Interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov says he has begun the process to suspend the powers of the Crimean parliament, calling its decision a farce and accusing the Russian military of organizing the vote. He said Thursday that he and the Ukrainian parliament will protect the country's integrity and sovereignty.

Interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was in Brussels for the EU meeting, called the Crimean parliament's vote to join Russia "an illegal decision." He said his government is urging Moscow "not to support those who advocate separatism."

But Yatsenyuk said his government is open to talks about the crisis with Moscow.

“We are not an anti-Russian government; we are pro-Ukrainian,” he said. “If they are ready to talk, we are,” he said.

Pro-Western Ukrainian opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko on Thursday urged Europe to take strong action to prevent Ukraine's Crimean peninsula from joining Russia, saying such a move will destabilize the entire continent.

Tymoshenko, twice Ukraine's prime minister, spoke to European politicians Thursday in Dublin, Ireland, just hours after pro-Russian lawmakers in Crimea voted to join Russia.

Tymoshenko told a session of the European People's Party - the largest bloc in the European parliament - that democracy will suffer "if we allow Russia to hold a referendum at gunpoint."

Secession initiative

Thursday's vote by the Moscow-backed Crimean parliament came as U.S. and European leaders continued emergency talks on how to get Russia to back down from its military incursion into Crimea. U.S. lawmakers are also meeting Thursday to discuss potential economic sanctions against Russia.

Russia has denied that it has sent any troops to Crimea in addition to those already stationed there as part of its Black Sea fleet, a claim challenged both by the West and Ukraine's new leadership in Kyiv.

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Click to enlarge


Related video report by VOA's Al Pessin:

US diplomacy

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday, for the second time in two days, on the sidelines of an international meeting in Rome.

Speaking after the meeting, Kerry said the goal is to bring all the parties to the negotiating table.

"We have made suggestions to Foreign Minister Lavrov, which he is currently taking, personally, to President Putin."

Kerry said an international "contact group" may be formed, but insisted that Russia must speak directly to Ukraine's interim government.

Kerry held a series of discussions Wednesday with Lavrov, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Ukrainian interim Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia. The Russian and Ukrainian ministers did not meet face-to-face during Wednesday's flurry of negotiations, and Kerry said he had not expected they would.

US sanctions a "flexible tool"

A White House statement called the sanctions 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."

In addition, the State Department is putting in place visa bans on a number of officials and individuals responsible for or complicit in threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Officials on Thursday said the penalties could be removed if Moscow returns its troops to Russian bases in Ukraine and recognizes Ukraine's new government. At the same time, Washington warns it will step up sanctions if Russia should decide to move forces farther into eastern Ukraine.

The Obama order targets any assets held in the United States by "individuals and entities" responsible for the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, threatening its territorial integrity or seeking to assert governmental authority over any part of Ukraine without authorization from the Ukrainian government in Kyiv. The White House also said it is prepared to consider additional steps and sanctions as necessary.

US Navy destroyer heads to Black Sea

A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer, is heading to the Black Sea for what the U.S. military on Thursday described as a “routine” deployment that was scheduled well before the crisis in Ukraine.

The announcement came a day after the Pentagon unveiled plans to put more U.S. fighter jets on a NATO air patrol mission in the Baltics, moving to reassure allies alarmed by Russia's effective seizure Crimea.

The U.S. Navy said in a statement that the destroyer left Greece on Thursday en route to the Black Sea and would conduct training with Romanian and Bulgarian naval forces.

NATO's appeal to Russia

NATO urged Russia on Thursday to call back to bases its forces in Crimea, saying it stood by Ukraine's territorial integrity in the face of the greatest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War.

“Ukraine is a valued and long-standing partner for NATO. In these difficult moments NATO stands by Ukraine, NATO stands by Ukraine's sovereignty, integrity and by the fundamental principles of international law,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.

“This crisis is not just about Ukraine, this crisis has serious implications for the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area as a whole. We clearly face the gravest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War,'' Rasmussen said.

“Above all we call on Russia to step up [to] its international commitments and halt the military escalation in Crimea. We call on Russia to withdraw its forces to their bases and to refrain from any interference elsewhere in Ukraine,” he said.

EU suspends visa talks but stops short of sanctions

The European Union on Thursday announced it was suspending visa talks with Moscow after also calling vote in Crimea's parliament "illegal."

Van Rompuy demanded that Russia enter negotiations with Ukraine and respect Ukraine's sovereignty in Crimea - or face travel bans and asset freezes.

“The majority of the people of Ukraine made a decisive choice in favor of our European values. It was a civilization choice. Europe must and will support them on the courageous road they have chosen,” he said.

Europe has held off imposing economic sanctions for now.

Earlier the EU froze the assets of 18 high-ranking officials of the former Ukrainian government, including ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

The 28-nation bloc announced the names of those targeted by the sanctions early Thursday, after reaching a decision the night before to impose the punishments on those responsible for embezzlement of state funds.

Yanukovych's son, his former justice minister and several other government ministers are also among those whose assets have been frozen. Yanukovych fled Ukraine last month after protests over his decision to accept an economic aid package from Russia turned deadly.


Tatar Leader: Russian Action in Crimea Illegal

Crimean Tatars, the indigenous Muslim people of Ukraine, will not consent to the Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula, says Refat Chubarov, the speaker of the Tatar National Assembly.

The Crimean Tatars are a Turco-Mongol ethnic group whose descendants go back to the Mongolian empire of Genghis Khan. They are represented by the semi-official legislative body called the Crimean Tatar National Assembly.

Speaking with VOA's Turkish service, Chubarov said by that sending its troops to Crimea, Russia "has gone over its limits and that what he described as "Russia's illegal actions can only be stopped by the United States and Russia's strong neighbors."

Many Tatars harbor fierce hatred for Russia and have long proudly boasted of their enthusiasm for independent Ukraine. Thousands of Tatars marched in favor of unity with Kyiv last week.

OSCE thwarted

A mission of OSCE observers was stopped on Thursday from entering Crimea by unidentified men in military fatigues, Poland's defense minister, Tomasz Siemoniak, said.

Following the incident the mission of 43 unarmed observers from 23 OSCE countries was reported as turning back and heading to the Ukrainian city of Kherson, halfway between Odesa and the Crimean peninsula, to decide how to proceed, the Vienna-based security organization and democracy watchdog said.

Elsewhere in Ukraine

Ukraine again flew its flag over the government headquarters in the eastern city of Donetsk on Thursday and ejected pro-Moscow demonstrators that occupied it, ending a siege that Kiyv had seen as part of a Russian plan to create a pretext for invasion.

Police said they had taken more than 70 people into custody for questioning after clearing out the regional administration headquarters and another government building.

“The people who were removed from the building did not resist,'' said a local police official.

Later on Thursday, security service agents arrested the protest leader. Pavel Gubarev was led away from his apartment without a fight. The local businessman who called himself the “people's governor” had demanded control over the police and tried to persuade lawmakers to install him as regional boss while his men occupied their meeting hall.

Donetsk is the home city of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

Interpol receives Yanukovych arrest request

International police agency Interpol said on Thursday it was reviewing a request by Ukrainian authorities for it to issue a so-called “red notice” for the arrest of Ukraine’s ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych.

A request by Ukrainian authorities for an Interpol Red Notice, or international wanted persons alert, for the arrest of Viktor Yanukovych on charges including abuse of power and murder has been received,” the France-based agency said in a statement but gave no further details.

Yanukovich, a Russian ally, was ousted on February 22 after months of protests in Kyiv over his decision to pull Ukraine out of a trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.

The former president appeared in the southern Russian city Rostov-on-Don on February 28 but has since not been seen publically.

Interpol uses red notices to inform its 190 member countries that an arrest warrant has been issued for an individual by a judicial authority. The notice seeks the location and arrest of wanted persons with a view to extradition or similar lawful action.

Poland concerned

In an interview with VOA, Poland’s ambassador to the United States, Ryszard Schnepf, expressed concern about what some see as other ambitions Russia’s could have the region.

“This is a real intention to restore the imperial ideas of some people in the Russian Federation,” Schnepf told VOA, referring to tension over Ukraine's Crimea.

“We consider the current situation [in Ukraine] as a direct threat to our sovereignty, and we can predict that after the situation from the Kremlin’s point of view is cleared, Moldova will be the next target, and possibly, other countries.”

“We don’t want to have a bad neighborhood,” Schnepf said. “We are a people, we are a nation, badly experienced [scarred] by the past. What Poland looks [for] is to have a neighbor like we have now with Germany, that we have tremendous development of exchange; mutually prosperous. We want to have the same situation with Russia. This is our aim,” said Schnepf.


Includes reporting from VOA's Luis Ramirez, Daniel Schearf and Jamie Dettmer in Kyiv as well as Al Pessin in London and Arash Arabasadi in Washington. Additional reporting by Reuters.

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