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Crimea Referendum Vote On Joining Russia Scheduled For March 16

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SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Lawmakers in Crimea voted unanimously Thursday to split from Ukraine and join Russia instead, and scheduled a referendum in 10 days for voters on the disputed peninsula to support or reject their decision.

Russian lawmakers, clearly savoring the action, said that if Crimea votes to become part of Russia, they plan legislation that would speed up the procedure of making that happen.

The Obama administration slapped new visa restrictions against Russian officials and entities and some Ukrainians in Crimea who oppose the new Ukraine government in Kiev, and cleared the way for upcoming financial sanctions, as the West began punishing Moscow for refusing to withdraw its troops from the strategic region that also houses Russia's Black Sea fleet.

Ukraine's prime minister said the Crimean lawmakers' decision is illegitimate, and a European Union official warned that results of any referendum will not be recognized by the West.

The 100-seat parliament in Crimea, which enjoys a degree of autonomy under current Ukrainian law, voted 78-0, with eight abstentions in favor joining Russia and for holding the referendum on March 16. Local voters also will be given the choice of deciding to remain part of Ukraine, but with enhanced local powers.

"This is our response to the disorder and lawlessness in Kiev," said Sergei Shuvainikov, a member of the local Crimean legislature. "We will decide our future ourselves."

In Moscow, a prominent member of Russia's parliament, Sergei Mironov, said he has proposed a bill that would simplify the procedure for Crimea to join Russia. However, another senior lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky, said Russia's parliament could only consider such a motion after Crimea's referendum.

A senior Western diplomat said that the EU leaders, meeting in Brussels to discuss their response to Moscow's move, "will send a clear message that the referendum won't be recognized." The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't allowed to discuss the leaders' closed-door talks publicly.

On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its population has the right to determine the region's status in a referendum. Putin called a meeting of his Security Council on Thursday to discuss Ukraine.

A referendum had previously been scheduled in Crimea on March 30, but the question to be put to voters was on whether their region should enjoy "state autonomy" within Ukraine.

Crimea's new leader has said pro-Russian forces numbering more than 11,000 now control all access to the peninsula in the Black Sea and have blockaded all military bases that have not yet surrendered.

The West has joined the new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev in demanding that Russia pull its forces back from Crimea.

The U.S. sanctions announced Thursday targeted an unspecified and unidentified number of people and entities that the Obama administration accuses of threatening Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial borders. They were announced in Washington as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry headed into a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Rome on the sidelines of a diplomatic forum about Libya.

In Brussels, European Union leaders were gathering to decide what sort of sanctions they can impose on Russia unless it withdraws its troops from Ukraine or engages in credible talks to defuse the situation.

"We need to send a very clear message to the Russian government that what has happened is unacceptable and should have consequences," British Prime Minister David Cameron said as he arrived at an emergency meeting of the bloc's 28 leaders.

But the European leaders appeared divided between nations close to Russia's borders and some Western economic powerhouses — notably Germany — that were taking a more dovish line.

Moscow has threatened to retaliate if any punitive measures are put in place.

German Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel met with Putin for about an hour in Moscow on Thursday, and said the Russian leader "said neither yes nor no" to establishing a contact group, a small number of diplomats from major powers to spearhead negotiations. Gabriel said Putin only agreed to talk more about the proposal in the coming days.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk was in Brussels to meet with the EU leaders, and clearly agitated over the latest developments in Crimea, urged the Europeans to take strong action against Russia and its Crimean allies.

"This so-called referendum has no legal grounds at all," he told a news conference. "Crimea was, is, and will be an integral part of Ukraine."

In Simferopol, Crimea's capital, about 50 people rallied outside the local parliament Thursday morning waving Russian and Crimean flags. Among the posters they held was one that said "Russia, defend us from genocide."

"We are tired of revolutions, maidans and conflicts, and we want to live peacefully in Russia," said one of the bystanders, Igor Urbansky, 35. "Only Russia can give us a peaceful life."

Maidan is the name of the downtown square in Kiev where tens of thousands of protesters contested the rule of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia.

Not all in this city favored the lawmakers' vote to secede from Ukraine.

"This is crazy. Crimea has become Putin's puppet," said Viktor Gordiyenko, 46. "A referendum at gunpoint of Russia weapons is just a decoration for Putin's show. A decision on occupation has already been made."

Svetlana Savchenko, another Crimean lawmaker, said the choice she and her fellow deputies took in favor of joining Russia will force Moscow to make a decision.

"This is our principled position," she told The Associated Press. "Now the Russian Federation must begin a procedure — will it take us in or not?"

Rustam Temirgaliev, first vice premier of the Crimean government, said preparations are underway already to bring Crimea into Russia's "ruble zone."

"At the present moment a large, important group of specialists from Russia is at work, preparing to assure the entry of Crimea into the Russian Federation," Temirgaliev said.

At a news conference in Kiev, representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe returning from Crimea expressed concern the referendum might stir up new clashes and provocations.

"The situation might seem quiet, almost normal if you go to the streets," Tim Guldimann, said the personal envoy of the Swiss OSCE chair. "However, it's extremely tense and I would consider this as a miracle that bloodshed could be avoided so far given the political and even military circumstances on the ground."

On Wednesday, a U.N. envoy left Crimea after being told to get out by armed men. On Thursday, an OSCE military observer mission of 37 people from 18 countries, including the United States, was stopped at the Crimean border, organization spokesperson Tatyana Baeva said in Vienna. She said it wasn't clear who had stopped the mission, which had been formed at Ukraine's request to help monitor the tense situation in Crimea.

Under the Soviet Union, Crimea belonged to the Russian Federation until it was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Ukraine became independent after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Concern that the turmoil could engulf eastern Ukraine grew after hundreds of demonstrators — many chanting "Russia! Russia!" — stormed a government building on Wednesday in Donetsk, a major industrial center near the Russian border.

Clashes between protesters and police broke out early Thursday in Donetsk as police cleared demonstrators from the regional administration center. The Ukrainian flag once again was hoisted over the building, and about 100 Ukrainian Interior troops could be seen in and around it. Two large trucks were parked in front to block the approach.

The European Union on Wednesday extended $15 billion in aid to help support the new Ukrainian government, which took over in late February after months of protests drove out Yanukovych, the Moscow-supported president.

The EU also imposed asset freezes against 18 people held responsible for embezzling state funds in Ukraine, including Yanukovych, his son and some of his closest allies.

___

Sergei Chuzavkov from Donetsk, George Jahn from Vienna, Angela Charlton and Juergen Baetz from Brussels, and David Rising from Berlin contributed.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) set up a final vote Thursday on a bill that would provide Ukraine with up to billion in loan guarantees and impose targeted sanctions against Russian officials.

Reid made the announcement Tuesday after dropping a controversial provision from the Senate bill that would have boosted the U.S. quota at the International Monetary Fund. Republicans in both chambers of Congress opposed the IMF reforms, which were specifically requested by the White House to increase Ukraine's borrowing capabilities at the institution.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier Tuesday that Republicans would still want to vote on a number of amendments, but the IMF language was the major sticking point. Without it, the Ukraine aid package is expected to pass both the Senate and the House without much drama or delay.

--Sabrina Siddiqui

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From the Associated Press:

Authorities in a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova claim to have brought down a Ukrainian drone on a reconnaissance mission.

NovostiPMR, the news agency of Trans-Dniester says Tuesday that the region's intelligence agency downed the drone on March 23.

The region broke away from Moldova in 1990. There are 1,500 Russian troops stationed there guarding hundreds of tons of weapons.

According to the agency, the drone was "launched from Ukrainian territory by people close to the Ukrainian Security Service and the Defense Ministry."

It said the plane illegally crossed into Trans-Dniester violating its air space. It added that the authorities in the region reserved the right to use "all available methods" to defend the territory which is not internationally recognized but is supported by Russia.

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Reuters reports:

Russian forces appeared to be attempting to take over the last military ship controlled by Ukraine in Crimea on Tuesday after a Ukrainian military spokesman reported explosions in its vicinity and helicopters approaching the vessel.

Russian forces armed with stun grenades and automatic weapons have seized ships and military bases from the last remaining Ukrainian troops in Crimea in recent days as part of Russia's largely bloodless annexation of the region.

Kiev, which calls Russia's annexation of Crimea illegal, ordered its remaining forces to withdraw for their own safety on Monday, but not all troops have yet left the Black Sea peninsula and some ships have been prevented from leaving.

"Around 1900 (1600 GMT) there were several explosions from the direction of the minesweeper Cherkasy in the Donuzlav bay," Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov told Reuters.

"Some Mi-35 helicopter gunships were observed hovering in the area. Speedboats and a tug were seen approaching Cherkasy," he said.

On Monday Cherkasy attempted without success to break to the open sea through a blockade at the entrance to the inlet. The Russian navy blocked the route earlier this month by scuttling three hulks in the channel.

Seleznyov said he was unable to confirm whether Russian troops had boarded the ship.

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From Reuters:

Russia's military staged training exercises on Tuesday in Transdniestria, a breakaway sliver of Moldova that is a focus of tension following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

NATO's top military commander said on Sunday he was worried that Russia might have its eye on Transdniestria, a largely Russian-speaking region that borders western Ukraine, after seizing Crimea, which has a narrow ethnic Russian majority.

The Interfax news agency quoted a spokesman for Russia's Western Military District, Colonel Oleg Kochetkov, as saying that Russian forces stationed in Transdniestria had "conducted an anti-terrorism drill and practiced operations to rebuff an attack on their military base".

Transdniestria, with a population of half a million, has run its own affairs since 1992 after fighting a brief war against the Moldovan government over fears that it might join Romania after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia has a permanent garrison of peacekeepers there.

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Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed, in something of a Shermanesque statement, that the country will not develop nuclear weapons, one day after the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs seized on a proposal by some Ukrainian MPs to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"Ukraine has not planned, is not planning and is not going to plan to resume its nuclear status," a spokesman for the agency said at a press briefing.

Earlier this month, several opposition MPs introduced a draft bill to withdraw Ukraine from the NPT. Russia's Foreign Ministry seized on it, saying "the dysfunctional new Kiev authorities may pose a threat to the security of Ukrainian nuclear sites under the current Ukrainian circumstances," in a statement.
"We do not trust attempts of the Ukrainian delegate to dissociate from this position. The NPT is in serious danger."

Ukraine, which suddenly became the world's third-largest nuclear state after the collapse of the Soviet Union, gave its nuclear arsenal back to Russia for disposal under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in exchange for security assurances from Russia that it would respect Ukraine's territorial integrity.

--Luke Johnson

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The world's industrialized nations have turned their back on Russia, following Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

Though the G8 cannot expel its members, countries can refuse a member permission to attend, effectively expelling them.

With jitters in the east of Europe about further Russian incursion, and wariness in China, the state of world diplomacy could look very different by 2015.

HuffPost UK has asked military and international relations experts on five scenarios that could occur now Russia looks increasingly isolated, and as the West looks impotent.

Read here what they predict.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may drop a controversial reform to the U.S. share at the International Monetary Fund from the Ukraine aid package, according to Senate leadership aides.

The provision was requested by President Barack Obama and Ukrainian leaders, but faces widespread opposition from Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that his members would not support the aid bill unless the IMF language was dropped.

A Senate leadership aide said removing the provision is now "under consideration in order to move the bill." In exchange, Republicans would drop their demand to delay a Treasury Department rule that cracks down on the political activities of nonprofits, known as 501(c)(4)s.

The House of Representatives passed its own legislation providing aid to Ukraine earlier this month without the IMF reforms, and planned to move on a sanctions bill that also left the issue untouched. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said boosting U.S. funds at the IMF has "nothing to do with Ukraine," and his aides indicated they would not have enough votes to move the Senate bill through the lower chamber in its current form.

The Obama administration and Senate Democrats have been making the case that ratifying the IMF reforms, which were agreed upon in 2010, is critical to Ukraine's borrowing capabilities in a time of crisis. Still, some House Democrats acknowledged that the White House was complicating the process by renewing debate over a contentious issue when providing aid expeditiously is of the utmost importance.

--Sabrina Siddiqui

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President Barack Obama dismissed the notion that former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney was correct in saying that Russia was "our number one geopolitical foe" Tuesday, in a response to a question from Jonathan Karl of ABC News. He said that Russia was merely a "regional power" that was acting out of "weakness."

"Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness. Ukraine has been a country in which Russia had enormous influence for decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and we have considerable influence on our neighbors," he said. "We generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them."

--Luke Johnson

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At a press conference in Europe, U.S. President Barack Obama sidestepped a question on whether he "misread" Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he wasn't so interested in his motivations.

"With respect to President Putin's motivation, I think there has been a lot of speculation. I am less interested in motivation and more interested in the facts and the principles that not only the United States but the entire international community are looking to uphold."

He added that the United States is "concerned" about further encroachment by Russia into Ukraine.

--Luke Johnson

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From Reuters:

Ukraine, its economy seriously weakened by months of political turmoil and mismanagement, is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a loan package of -20 billion, its finance minister said on Tuesday.

The minister, Oleksander Shlapak, speaking to reporters before a government meeting, said the ministry foresaw continued slowdown and stagnation in the economy with it contracting by 3 per cent in 2014.

Referring to talks now going on with the IMF, he said: "We are successfully heading towards concluding a programme. I think we shall receive (what we seek). This sum is from 15 to 20 billion dollars."

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Most Americans do not think that the United States has a responsibility to intervene in Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea, a CBS News poll released Tuesday found. 61 percent think that the United States isn't obliged to do anything while 32 percent think it is. 65 percent -- including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents -- think that the U.S. should not provide military aid to Ukraine, which it has thus far refused.

--Luke Johnson

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Russian Deputy Economic Development Minister Andrei Klepach said Monday that capital flight will reach billion in first quarter 2014.

In comparison, capital flight for all of 2013 was just under billion. The minister also expected that growth for the first quarter will be "near zero."

"Unfortunately the investment slump is continuing. I'm not ready to say how long it will continue," he told reporters.

The rate of flight would be the highest since the 2008 financial crisis.

The forecast is yet another sign that the Crimean invasion is seriously damaging the Russian economy. The Russian stock index MICEX has dropped 13.2 percent on the year, compared to a 5.7 drop for the MSCI emerging market index.

--Luke Johnson

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The White House released a statement from the U.S. and Ukraine on nuclear proliferation today. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was the third-largest nuclear weapons state. It gave up the weapons to Russia in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in exchange for security assurances from Russia.

Read the full statement:

On the occasion of the third Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, the United States and Ukraine today reaffirm their strategic partnership and emphasize the important role of nuclear nonproliferation in that relationship. The United States values its 20-year partnership with Ukraine on these issues. Our nonproliferation partnership dates from Ukraine’s 1994 decision to remove all nuclear weapons from its territory and to accede to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a non-nuclear-weapon state. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the United States, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland welcomed these Ukrainian actions, and they reaffirmed their commitment to Ukraine to respect the independence, sovereignty, and existing borders of Ukraine. The United States government reaffirms that commitment today to the new Ukrainian government and the people of Ukraine, including in Crimea. The United States government condemns Russia’s failure to abide by its commitments under the Budapest Memorandum with its unilateral military actions in Ukraine. Russia’s actions undermine the foundation of the global security architecture and endanger European peace and security. Ukraine and the United States emphasize that they will not recognize Russia's illegal attempt to annex Crimea. Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine. The United States will continue to help Ukraine affirm its sovereignty and territorial integrity. As the people of Ukraine work to restore unity, peace, and security to their country, the United States will stand by their side.
The United States and Ukraine reiterate their commitment to upholding their nuclear nonproliferation commitments. The United States recognizes the importance of the 2012 removal of all highly enriched uranium from Ukraine. This removal again highlighted Ukraine’s leadership in nuclear security and nonproliferation, as we collectively work together to secure the world’s vulnerable nuclear material. As part of its support for this effort, the United States committed in 2010 to work with Ukraine to construct a Neutron Source Facility at the Kharkiv Institute for Physics and Technology. This month construction of the Neutron Source Facility was completed. The facility, equipped with the most up-to-date technology to operate at the highest safety standards, provides Ukraine with new research capabilities and the ability to produce industrial and medical isotopes for the benefit of the Ukrainian people.

This state of the art facility is representative of the modern, European state the Government of Ukraine is committed to building. To build on this important cooperation, the United States will continue to provide technical support for the Neutron Source Facility as Ukraine completes the necessary final equipment installation, testing, and start-up to make the facility fully operational as soon as practical.

This successful effort reflects broad U.S.-Ukrainian cooperation on nuclear security and nonproliferation. Our countries recently extended the U.S.-Ukraine Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Umbrella Agreement and the U.S.-Ukraine Agreement Concerning Operational Safety Enhancements, Risk Reduction Measures, and Nuclear Safety Regulation for Civilian Nuclear Facilities in Ukraine.

The United States and Ukraine intend to continue to partner to prevent nuclear proliferation by improving Ukraine’s ability to detect nuclear materials on its borders, to provide physical protection at sites with nuclear or radioactive materials, and to maintain an adequate export control system in order to help realize the goals of the Nuclear Security Summits.

--Luke Johnson

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President Barack Obama and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev spoke today at The Hague, according to a White House pool report. There were no formal remarks between the two men.

Nazarbayev said in a phone call that he "treats with understanding the position of Russia" on Crimea, which appears to be a very delicate diplomatic turn of phrase. Some have speculated of a Crimean-style scenario in Kazakhstan, which has a large minority of Russian speakers.

A joint statement between the two leaders contained no mention of Crimea, instead focusing on nonproliferation.

--Luke Johnson

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The Associated Press is now reporting that Ukraine's parliament has accepted the defense minister's resignation, after rejecting it earlier.

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From Reuters:

WASHINGTON, March 24 (Reuters) - A bill providing economic assistance to Ukraine and imposing sanctions over Russia's seizure of Crimea cleared a procedural hurdle in the U.S. Senate on Monday, as backers attempted to win passage of the legislation later this week.

By a vote of 78-17, the Senate laid the groundwork for debating a bill that would back a billion loan guarantee for the government in Kiev, provide 0 million in aid for Ukraine and neighboring countries and require sanctions on Russians and Ukrainians responsible for corruption, human rights abuses or undermining stability in Ukraine.

Full story here.

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Britain's Foreign Minister William Hague said the countries of the G7 have agreed to discuss ways to reduce European dependence on Russian energy supplies in coming weeks and months.

Reuters reports:

Hague said the decision to hold the G8 meeting without Russia this year is "of course a huge blow to the G8, it means there is no G8 this year. The president of the United States was very clear in the meeting that it will then be hard to revive that in the immediate future."

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Russian news agency RIA Novosti reports that according to a Crimean official, all Ukrainian military units have left Crimea, leaving the military bases in the region under Russian control.

“All Ukrainian military personnel have either joined Russia or are leaving Crimea,” first deputy prime minister, Rustam Temirgaliyev, reportedly said.


Read the full report here.

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From the Associated Press:

Ukraine is hoping the United Nations General Assembly will adopt a resolution later this week reaffirming the country's unity and territorial integrity and underscoring that the referendum in Crimea that led to its annexation by Russia "has no validity."

The draft resolution, circulated Monday to the 193 assembly members and obtained by The Associated Press, never mentions Russia by name but calls on all countries not to recognize "any alteration of the status" of Crimea.

It also urges all parties to immediately pursue the peaceful resolution of the situation in Ukraine and exercise restraint.

The resolution is expected to be put to a vote at a General Assembly meeting on Thursday.

Unlike the Security Council, where veto-wielding Russia has blocked any action on Ukraine, the General Assembly has no vetoes.

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