Russia backs Crimea vote, dismisses sanctions threat

By Laura Smith-Spark and Alla Eshchenko, CNN

Russia’s parliament gave its defiant support Friday to Crimean lawmakers who want to see their region split from Ukraine and join Russia, saying no sanctions imposed by the United States or Europe will change its mind.

ukraineprotest5A delegation from the Crimean parliament, in Moscow a day after its lawmakers voted unanimously to split from Ukraine, said they’d put the decision to a public vote on March 16.

Crimea, an autonomous region in southern Ukraine with an ethnic Russian majority and strong cultural ties to Russia, has become the epicenter of a battle for influence between Moscow, Kiev and the West.

Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, told the Crimean delegation that it would “support and welcome” any decision made by the Crimean people to become a part of Russia.

“We have no rights to leave our people when there’s a threat to them. None of the sanctions will be able to change our attitude,” Matvienko said.

The delegation was greeted with applause in the lower house, where the speaker described the decision to hold the referendum as “dictated by the willingness to protect human rights and lives.”

The Crimean government, which was installed just over a week ago after armed, pro-Russian men took over the parliament building, does not recognize the interim government in Kiev.

The interim Ukrainian government in Kiev, the European Union and the United States have a very different view of events.

Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday as EU talks on sanctions against Russia took place, slammed the referendum as “an illegitimate decision.” He insisted: “Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine.”

He told reporters back in Kiev on Friday that “no one in the civilized world will recognize results of the Crimean referendum.”

Yatsenyuk said he’d requested a second telephone conversation with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Monitors

U.S. President Barack Obama set out a potential solution to the crisis in Ukraine when he spoke to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Thursday, the White House said.

This would include direct talks between Kiev and Moscow, the withdrawal of Russian forces to their bases, international support for elections due May 25, and the presence of international monitors to “ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, including ethnic Russians.”

Obama also rejected the Crimean lawmakers’ decision to call a referendum, saying: “In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.”

International observers are welcome to witness Crimea’s upcoming referendum on joining the Russian Federation, the delegation of the newly installed Crimean parliament said Friday in Moscow.

International monitors called in by Kiev will try again Friday to gain access to Crimea, which has been under effective Russian control for several days.

The 35-strong team from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a regional security bloc, was turned back by armed men at checkpoints Thursday.

But they told CNN’s Matthew Chance, who is traveling with them from Kherson in southern Ukraine toward the Crimean peninsula, that they intend to be more assertive Friday as they seek to get in and assess the situation.

Asset freezes, visa bans

As they seek to put the diplomatic squeeze on Russia to pull back its forces from Crimea and negotiate with Kiev, European Union nations announced Thursday they will suspend bilateral talks with Russia on visa matters and have threatened travel bans, asset freezes and cancellation of a planned EU-Russia summit.

“Any further steps by the Russian Federation to destabilize the situation in Ukraine would lead to additional and far-reaching consequences for relations in a broad range of economic areas,” EU leaders said, having also threatened travels bans on certain Russians and the freezing of some assets.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French public radio Friday that tougher measures are planned if Moscow doesn’t act to de-escalate the situation.

“Without very prompt results, there will be further measures against Russian officials and companies. Those could be asset freezes, cancellations, visa denials,” he told France Info.

“And if another attempt is made, then we would enter into something completely different; that is to say serious consequences for the relations between Europe and Russia.”

The United States also has taken action. The State Department has imposed a visa ban on Russian and Ukrainian officials and others that it says are responsible for, or complicit in, threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Obama has signed an executive order laying the groundwork for sanctions against individuals and entities responsible for the crisis.

Paralympic plea

The Winter Paralympics get under way in Sochi on Friday, and Putin is expected to attend the opening ceremony.

Ukrainian Paralympic committee chief Valeriy Suskevich appealed for peace in his country and said he’d made the same request of Putin at a meeting Thursday night.

“We are staying in order to be remembered, for Ukraine to be remembered as the state which sent a unified team,” he said at a news conference.

“We’ve taken the decision to raise the flag of the independent sovereign state of Ukraine here at the Paralympic Games.”

Ukraine’s sports minister will not be attending the Games.

Crimean threat?

Moscow has denounced the events that led to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster in late February as an illegitimate coup and has refused to recognize the new Ukrainian authorities. That has put Russia and Ukraine on a collision course over control of Crimea.

Putin has insisted he has the right to use military force in Ukraine if necessary to protect ethnic Russians under threat in Crimea. But Ukrainian officials say that no such threat exists and that Putin is using it as a pretext to control the region.

The peninsula was part of Russia until being given to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Russia has a major naval base in the port city of Sevastopol, and thousands of troops are stationed there.

Although Russian speakers make up about 60% of the population, around a quarter are Ukrainian and 12% are Crimean Tatar, a predominately Muslim minority. Neither of the latter two groups would welcome a switch to Russian control.

Meanwhile, a second Russian naval vessel was scuttled Friday morning at the entrance to Lake Donuzlav, an inlet on the western coast of Crimea that is home to a Ukrainian naval base.

This follows the scuttling of another Russian vessel late Wednesday at the same location.

Viktor Shmihanovsky, vice commander of the base, told CNN that the inlet is now sealed off and that several Ukrainian naval ships are trapped inside. Russian vessels remain in the waters beyond the blockade, he said.

Interpol asked to arrest Yanukovych

The EU and the United States also announced plans to freeze the assets of Yanukovych, who turned his back on a trade deal with the EU in favor of one with Russia.

The rejected trade deal prompted months of protests that culminated in February with bloody street clashes that left dozens dead and Yanukovych out of office.

Back in Kiev on Friday, Yatsenyuk said an agreement to sign an EU trade deal reached Thursday, and the offer of an EU financial aid package worth $15 billion, were the result of historic unity with EU members.

“We are leading Ukraine into the European Union,” he said.

Interpol said it is reviewing a request by Ukrainian authorities that would allow for the arrest of Yanukovych on charges of abuse of power and murder, an allegation tied to the deaths of protesters.

CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark wrote this report from London, and CNN’s Alla Eshchenko reported from Moscow. CNN’s Chelsea J. Carter, Ursin Caderas and Tim Schwarz contributed to this report.

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