Crimea votes to join Russia, accelerating Ukraine crisis

People attend a pro-Ukrainian rally in Simferopol, March 6, 2014

(Reuters) – Crimea’s parliament voted to join Russia on Thursday and its Moscow-backed government set a referendum within 10 days on the decision in a dramatic escalation of the crisis over the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula.

The sudden acceleration of moves to bring Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority and has effectively been seized by Russian forces, formally under Moscow’s rule came as European Union leaders gathered for an emergency summit to find ways to pressure Russia to back down.

U.S. President Barack Obama took steps to punish those involved in threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, ordering the freezing of their U.S. assets and a ban on travel into the United States.

Pro-Russian demonstrators take part in a rally in front of City Hall in Zaporizhzhya March 5, 2014

The U.S. Navy announced a guided-missile destroyer, the USS Truxton, was heading to the Black Sea in what it said was a long-planned training exercise and not a show of force.

The Crimean parliament voted unanimously “to enter into the Russian Federation with the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation”.

The vice premier of Crimea, home to Russia’s Black Sea military base in Sevastopol, said a referendum on the status would take place on March 16. He said all state property would be “nationalized”, the Russian rouble could be adopted and Ukrainian troops would be treated as occupiers and be forced to surrender or leave.

The announcement, which diplomats said could not have been made without Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval, raised the stakes in the most serious east-west confrontation since the end of the Cold War.

A member of the Ukrainian Navy stands guard on top of the Ukrainian navy ship Ternopil at the Crimean port of Sevastopol March 5, 2014

Russia stocks fell and the rouble weakened further after the news. Moody’s ratings agency said the stand-off was negative for Russia’s sovereign creditworthiness.

Russia said it would make it easier to give passports to native Russian speakers who have lived in Russia or the former Soviet Union. Putin has cited the threat to Russian citizens to justify military action in Georgia in 2008 and now in Ukraine.

Far from seeking a diplomatic way out of the crisis, Putin appears to have chosen to create facts on the ground before the West can agree on more than token action against him.

EU leaders had been set to warn but not sanction Russia over its military intervention after Moscow rebuffed Western diplomatic efforts to persuade it to pull forces in Crimea, with a population of about 2 million, back to their bases. It was not immediately clear what impact the Crimean moves would have.

A priest reads a prayer for peace to Ukrainian servicemen at a base in the Crimean village of Bakhchisaray, near Simferopol, March 6, 2014.

French President Francois Hollande told reporters on arrival at the summit: “There will be the strongest possible pressure on Russia to begin lowering the tension and in the pressure there is, of course, eventual recourse to sanctions.”

The new Ukrainian government has declared the referendum illegal and opened a criminal investigation against Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Askyonov, who was appointed in a closed session by the region’s parliament last week. The Ukrainian government does not recognise his authority or that of the parliament.

A Crimean parliament official said voters will be asked two questions: should Crimea be part of the Russian Federation and should Crimea return to an earlier constitution (1992) that gave the region more autonomy?

“If there weren’t constant threats from the current illegal Ukrainian authorities, maybe we would have taken a different path,” deputy parliament speaker Sergei Tsekov told reporters outside the parliament building in Crimea’s main city of Simferopol.

“I think there was an annexation of Crimea by Ukraine, if we are going to call things by their name. Because of this mood and feeling we took the decision to join Russia. I think we will feel much more comfortable there.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who had refused to meet his Ukrainian counterpart on Wednesday, had talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome…

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