Putin inches Russia closer to annexing part of Ukraine

Mar 18, 2014 7:27 AM

MOSCOW, RUSSIA (CBS) - Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday approved a draft bill for the annexation of Crimea and squarely blamed "so-called" authorities in the Ukrainian capital for the ongoing crisis in the country.

Speaking to a joint session of the Russian Parliament, Putin reiterated his stance that the uprising which forced Kremlin-backed former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country was an illegal "coup d'etat," and applauded the referendum in the Crimean Peninsula calling for the region to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Amid a tense standoff with Washington and Europe, which have both threatened harsh sanctions should Russia refuse to pull troops out of Ukraine, Putin was rhetorically defiant but gave no indication as to exactly how quickly Moscow would move to officially annex Crimea.

He did fiercely defend Russia's move to annex Crimea, saying the peninsula "must" become part of the Russian Federation. He said the rights of ethnic Russians had been abused by the new Ukrainian government and Crimea's vote to join Russia was in line with international law, reflecting its right for self-determination.

"Those who were behind recent events... They were planning to seize power, stopping at nothing; terror, murder, pogroms were used," Putin said of Ukraine's new leadership, which has been officially recognized by the U.S. and its allies as the government of Ukraine. Putin went on to describe them as "nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites."

Putin's earlier approval of the draft annexation bill was just one of a flurry of steps toward Russia's formal reclamation of the Black Sea peninsula.

Crimea on Sunday voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and seek to join Russia. The West and Ukraine described the referendum which was announced two weeks ago as illegitimate.

Putin signed a decree Monday recognizing Crimea as a "sovereign and independent country," hours after the strategic Black Sea peninsula declared it had broken from Ukraine.

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 Obama warned that more would come if Russia didn't stop interfering in Ukraine.

Russian troops have been occupying the region for more than two weeks.

The decree signed by Putin and posted on the official government website Tuesday morning is one of the steps which would formalize the annexation of Crimea. Russia, however, still has room to back off. The treaty to annex Crimea has to be signed by leaders of Russia and Crimea, approved by the Constitutional Court and then be ratified by the parliament.

Putin is set to address both houses of the parliament at 3 p.m. Moscow time (7 a.m. Eastern) in a nationally televised speech where he is widely expected to stake Russia's claim on Crimea.

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.

Ukraine's turmoil, which began in November with a wave of protests against President Viktor Yanukovych and accelerated after he fled to Russia in late February, has become Europe's most severe security crisis in years.

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