Ukrainian PM accuses Russia of war crime after soldier killed in Crimea

Russian president says the historic move puts right past wrongs, and warns the West to stop pushing his country into a corner

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 March, 2014, 5:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 March, 2014, 1:35am

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk said the conflict in the Crimean peninsula had entered a military phase, and accused Russia of committing a "war crime" after gunfire yesterday fatally wounded a Ukrainian soldier.

He was speaking hours after Vladimir Putin added Crimea to the map of Russia, a move the Russian president described as correcting past injustice and responding to what he called Western encroachment upon his nation's vital interests.

A Ukrainian defence ministry spokesman said the soldier was killed and another wounded in a raid on a Ukrainian military base in Crimea, whose people voted overwhelmingly to join Russia in a referendum on Sunday that the West didn't recognise.

"The conflict is moving from a political one to a military one because of Russian soldiers," Yatsenyuk told a meeting at Ukraine's defence ministry. "Today, Russian soldiers began shooting at Ukrainian servicemen and this is a war crime without any expiry under a statute of limitations."

Yatsenyuk said he had ordered Ukraine's defence minister to call a meeting with his counterparts from Britain, France, and Russia, signatories to a 1994 treaty guaranteeing Ukraine's borders, to "prevent an escalation of the conflict".

In an emotional 40-minute speech that was televised live from the Kremlin, Putin pushed almost every button of the collective Russian psyche as he justified the incorporation of Crimea.

"In people's hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia. When Crimea suddenly ended up being in another state, Russia felt it was not simply robbed - it was plundered," he said.

Don’t believe those who try to frighten you with Russia and who scream that other regions will follow after Crimea. We do not want a partition of Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin

To the Russian national anthem, Putin and Crimean leaders signed a treaty on making Crimea part of Russia, declaring: “In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia.”

Parliament was expected to begin ratifying the document within days.

The speech drew immediate hostile reaction in Kiev and the West. Ukraine’s foreign ministry said it did not recognise the pact, which showed how Russia posed a threat to international security.

Watch: Obama allows sanctions on Russian officials after Crimea vote

US Vice President Joe Biden, on a visit to Poland, called Moscow’s action a land grab and stressed Washington’s commitment to defending the security of Nato allies on Russian borders.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Russia’s move on Crimea was unacceptable to the international community, while British Foreign Secretary William Hague said London had suspended military co-operation with Russia.

Black and white

In his speech, Putin lambasted Western nations for what he called hypocrisy, saying they had endorsed Kosovo’s independence from Serbia but now denied Crimeans the same right, he said.

“You cannot call the same thing black today and white tomorrow,” he declared to stormy applause, saying that while he did not seek conflict with the West, Western partners had “crossed the line” over Ukraine and behaved “irresponsibly”.

He said Ukraine’s new leaders, in power since the overthrow of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych last month, included “neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites”.

Putin thanked China for what he called its support, even though Beijing abstained on a UN resolution on Crimea that Moscow had to veto on its own. He said he was sure Germans would support the Russian people’s quest for reunification, just as Russia had supported German reunification in 1990.

And he sought to reassure Ukrainians that Moscow did not seek any further division of their country. Fears have been expressed in Kiev that Russia might move on the Russian-speaking eastern parts of Ukraine, where there has been tension between some Russian-speakers and the new authorities.

“Don’t believe those who try to frighten you with Russia and who scream that other regions will follow after Crimea,” Putin said. “We do not want a partition of Ukraine.”

Setting out Moscow’s view of the events that led to the overthrow of Yanukovych in a popular uprising last month, Putin said the “so-called authorities” in Kiev had stolen power in a coup, opening the way for extremists who would stop at nothing.

Nato sailors

Making clear Russia’s concern at the possibility of the US-led Nato military alliance expanding into Ukraine, he declared: “I do not want to be welcomed in Sevastopol [Crimean home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet] by Nato sailors.”

Moscow’s seizure of Crimea has caused the most serious East-West crisis since the end of the cold war and Putin showed no sign of backing down despite the threat of tougher sanctions.

In Crimea, where his speech and the signing ceremony were broadcast live, his words caused rapture for some.

“Putin’s done what our hearts were longing for,” said Natalia, a pensioner who sells snacks in a kiosk in the centre of Simferopol, the region’s capital. “This finally brings things back to what they should be after all those years. For me, for my family, there can be no bigger joy, for us this is sacred.”

Feride Kurtbedinova, a high school student and a member of Crimea’s Muslim ethnic Tatar minority, said: “After Putin met with the Tatar leaders, that made it for me. He showed respect, gave us security guarantees, for Tatars that is important.”

Before Putin’s speech, Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, had sought to reassure Moscow on two key areas of concern, saying in a televised address delivered in Russian that Kiev was not seeking to join Nato and would disarm Ukrainian nationalist militias.

On Monday, the United States and the European Union imposed personal sanctions on a handful of officials from Russia and Ukraine accused of involvement in Moscow’s seizure of the Black Sea peninsula, most of whose 2 million residents are ethnic Russians.

Russian politicians dismissed the sanctions as insignificant and a badge of honour. The State Duma, or lower house, adopted a statement urging Washington and Brussels to extend the visa ban and asset freeze to all its members. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said it would retaliate.

Japan joined the mild Western sanctions on Tuesday, announcing the suspension of talks with Russia on investment promotion and visa liberalisation.

The White House said the world’s seven leading industrial democracies will hold a Group of Seven meeting without Russia on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in The Hague next week to consider further response to Russia’s actions.

Closer ties

Russian forces took control of Crimea in late February following the toppling of Yanukovych after deadly clashes between riot police and protesters trying to overturn his decision to spurn a trade and cooperation deal with the EU and seek closer ties with Russia.

Despite strongly worded condemnations, Western nations were cautious in their first practical steps against Moscow, seeking to leave the door open for a diplomatic solution.

In a sign of the negative impact of the crisis on the investment climate, Russia’s state property agency said it may postpone major privatisation deals until the second half of the year.

Washington and Brussels have said future punitive measures could affect the economy, energy and arms contracts as well as the private wealth of magnates close to Putin.

The EU also said its leaders would sign the political part of an association agreement with Ukraine on Friday, in a gesture of support for the fragile coalition in Kiev.

Highlighting rifts in the EU, member state Austria offered on Tuesday to mediate between Moscow and the West.

Putin has declared that Russia has the right to defend, by military force if necessary, Russian citizens and Russian speakers living in former Soviet republics, raising concerns that Moscow may intervene elsewhere.

Putin has repeatedly accused the new leadership in Kiev of failing to protect Russian-speakers from violent Ukrainian nationalists. Ukraine’s government has accused Moscow of staging provocations in Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine to justify military intervention.

In a symbolic gesture, Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov announced that Crimea would switch to Moscow time from March 30. In the Crimean capital Simferopol, Banks scrambled to introduce the rouble as an official currency alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia.