MOSCOW (AP) — With a sweep of his pen, President Vladimir Putin added Crimea to the map of Russia on Tuesday, describing the move as correcting past injustice and responding to what he called Western encroachment upon Russia’s vital interests.
In an emotional 40-minute speech televised live from the Kremlin, Putin said “in people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia.”
He dismissed Western criticism of Sunday’s Crimean referendum — in which residents of the strategic Black Sea peninsula overwhelmingly backed breaking off from Ukraine and joining Russia — as a manifestation of the West’s double standards. Putin said the move followed what he described as Western pressure, arrogance and its stubborn refusal to take Russian concerns into account.
“If you push a spring too hard at some point it will spring back,” he said, addressing the West. “You always need to remember this.”
But the Russian leader insisted his nation has no intention of invading other regions of Ukraine.
“We don’t want a division of Ukraine, we don’t need that,” he said.
At the same time, Putin also argued that today’s Ukraine included “regions of Russia’s historic south” and was created on a whim by the Bolsheviks — a clear warning to both the new Ukrainian government in Kiev and to the West to respect Russia’s interests.
In response, Ukraine’s new government called Putin a threat to the whole world and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden warned that the U.S. and Europe will impose further sanctions against Moscow.
“The world has seen through Russia’s actions and has rejected the flawed logic,” Biden said, meeting Tuesday with anxious European leaders in Poland.
“Today’s statement by Putin showed in high relief what a real threat Russia is for the civilized world and international security,” Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Evhen Perebinis said on Twitter. “(The annexation) has nothing to do with law or with democracy or sensible thinking.”
Thousands of Russian troops have been massed along Ukraine’s eastern border for the last few weeks — Russia says that was for military training while the U.S. and Europe view the troops as an intimidation tactic.
“If Ukraine goes to NATO or the EU, Putin will do everything so that it goes there without the east and south,” said Vadim Karasyov, a Kiev-based political analyst. “Putin basically told the West that Russia has the right to veto the way Ukraine will develop. And if not, then Crimea is only a precedent of how pieces of Ukraine can be chopped off one by one.”
Putin argued the months of protests in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev that prompted President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia had been instigated by the West in order to weaken Russia. He cast the new Ukrainian government as illegitimate, driven by radical “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites.”
With strong emotion, Putin accused the West of cheating Russia and ignoring its interests in the years that followed the 1991 Soviet collapse.
“They have constantly tried to drive us into a corner for our independent stance, for defending it, for calling things their proper names and not being hypocritical,” Putin said. “But there are limits. And in the case of Ukraine, our Western partners have crossed a line. They behaved rudely, irresponsibly and unprofessionally.”
Following the speech before lawmakers and top officials, Putin and Crimean officials signed a treaty for the region to join Russia.
The treaty will have to be endorsed by Russia’s Constitutional Court and ratified by both houses of parliament, but Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of upper house of Russian parliament, said the procedure could be completed by the end of the week.
Crimea had been part of Russia since the 18th century until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. Both Russians and Crimea’s majority ethnic Russian population see annexation as correcting a historic insult.
In his speech at the Kremlin’s white-and-gold St. George hall, which was often interrupted by applause, Putin said the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine had been abused by the new Ukrainian government. He insisted that Crimea’s vote Sunday to join Russia was in line with international law and reflected its right for self-determination.
To back that claim, Putin pointed to Kosovo’s independence bid from Serbia — supported by the West and opposed by Russia — and said Crimea’s secession from Ukraine repeats Ukraine’s own secession from the Soviet Union in 1991.
He denied Western accusations that Russia invaded Crimea prior to the referendum, saying Russian troops were sent there in line with a treaty with Ukraine that allows Russia to have up to 25,000 troops at its Black Sea Fleet base in Crimea.
The hastily called Crimean vote was held just two weeks after Russian troops had overtaken the Black Sea peninsula, blockading Ukrainian soldiers at their bases. The West and Ukraine described the referendum as illegitimate and being held at gunpoint, but residents on the peninsula voted overwhelmingly to join Russia.
Speaking in Donetsk, the center of the Donbass coal-mining region in eastern Ukraine, 37-year-old businessman Aleksei Gavrilov hailed Crimea joining Russia and said Donbass also historically belonged to Russia.
“Ukraine is just a made-up , fake project which was created to destroy Russia,” he said. “Everything that Putin said is perfectly correct and I support him completely!”
Igor Nosenko, a bar manager, watched Putin’s speech in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
“It seems that I am in some kind of surrealist world when a person is saying that white is black,” he said. “In fact, it can be very dangerous, it can be dangerous for the whole world since it is absolutely unclear what this person (Putin) has in his head.”
The United States and the European Union on Monday announced asset freezes and other sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials involved in the Crimean crisis. President Barack Obama warned that more would come if Russia didn’t stop interfering in Ukraine.
Earlier in the day, France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Europe-1 radio leaders of the Group of Eight world powers “decided to suspend Russia’s participation.”
In his speech, Putin made it clear that Russia wouldn’t be deterred by Western sanctions, and asked China and India for their support.
The Russian State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution condemning U.S. sanctions targeting Russian officials including members of the chamber. The chamber challenged Obama to extend the sanctions to all the 353 deputies who voted for Tuesday’s resolution, suggesting that being targeted was a badge of honor. Eighty-eight deputies left the house before the vote.
Putin found support even in unusual places. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev hailed Crimea’s vote to join Russia as a “happy event.” In remarks Tuesday by online newspaper Slon.ru, he said Crimea’s vote could also be an example for people in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern region.
Many in Crimea’s ethnic Tatar minority were wary of the referendum, fearing that Crimea’s break-off from Ukraine will set off violence against them.
Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliyev seemed to confirm those fears, saying in remarks carried by the RIA Novosti news agency that the government would ask Tatars to “vacate” some of the lands they “illegally” occupy so authorities can use them for “social needs.”
But Putin on Tuesday vowed to protect the rights of Crimean Tatars and keep their language as one of Crimea’s official tongues, along with Russian and Ukrainian.
Jim Heintz and Maria Danilova in Kiev, Angela Charlton in Paris and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.