By Aleksandar Vasovic and Adrian Croft
SIMFEROPOL/BRUSSELS, March 17 (Reuters) - The United States and the European Union imposed sanctions including asset freezes and travel bans on a small group of officials from Russia and Ukraine after Crimea applied to join Russia on Monday following a weekend referendum.
Crimea's leaders declared a Soviet-style 97-percent result in favour of seceding from Ukraine in a vote condemned as illegal by Kiev and the West.
The Crimean parliament formally proposed that Russia "admit the Republic of Crimea as a new subject with the status of a republic". Russian President Vladimir Putin will address a special joint session of the Russian parliament on the issue on Tuesday, aides said.
The move would dismember Ukraine against its will, escalating the most serious East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.
Russian forces took control of Crimea in late February following the toppling of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich after deadly clashes between riot police and protestors trying to overturn his decision to spurn a trade and cooperation deal with the EU and seek closer ties with Russia.
U.S. President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on 11 Russians and Ukrainians blamed for the military seizure, including Yanukovich, and Vladislav Surkov and Sergei Glazyev, two aides to Putin.
Putin himself, suspected in the West of trying to resurrect as much as possible of the former Soviet Union under Russian leadership, was not on the blacklist.
Amid fears that Russia might move into eastern Ukraine, Obama warned Moscow at a White House press briefing that what he called further provocations would only increase Russia's isolation and exact a greater toll on its economy.
"If Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, we stand ready to impose further sanctions," he said.
A senior U.S. official said Obama's order cleared the way to sanction people associated with the arms industry and targets "the personal wealth of cronies" of the Russian leadership.
In Brussels, the EU's 28 foreign ministers agreed to subject 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials to visa restrictions and asset freezes for their roles in the events.
The EU did not immediately publish the names. Washington and Brussels said more measures could follow in the coming days if Russia does not back down and formally annexes Crimea.
A senior Obama administration official said there was "concrete evidence" that some ballots in the Crimea referendum arrived in some Crimean cities pre-marked.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who was named on the White House sanctions list, suggested that the measures would not affect those without assets abroad.
Obama earlier said Russian forces must end "incursions" into its ex-Soviet neighbor, while Putin renewed his accusation that the new leadership in Kiev, brought to power by an uprising that toppled his elected Ukrainian ally last month, were failing to protect Russian-speakers from violent Ukrainian nationalists.
Moscow responded to Western pressure for an international "contact group" to mediate in the crisis by proposing a "support group" of states. This would push for recognition of the Crimean referendum and urge a new constitution for rump Ukraine that would require it to uphold political and military neutrality.
A complete preliminary count of Sunday's vote showed that 96.77 percent of voters opted to join Russia, the chairman of the regional government commission overseeing the referendum, Mikhail Malyshev, announced on television.
Officials said the turnout was 83 percent. Crimea is home to 2 million people. Members of the ethnic Ukrainian and Muslim Tatar minorities had said they would boycott the poll, held just weeks after Russian forces took control of the peninsula.
Putin's popularity at home has been boosted by his action on Crimea despite serious risks for a stagnant economy.
Russian shares and the rouble rebounded as investors calculated that Western sanctions would be largely symbolic and would avoid trade or financial measures that would inflict significant economic damage.
However, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said EU countries had begun discussing the need for Europe to reduce its reliance on Russian energy "over many years to come", much of it shipped through gas pipelines in Ukraine.
Germany, the EU's biggest economy, gets 40 percent of its gas from Moscow and could become more dependent as it switches from nuclear power.
In a sign of possible internal debates ahead, euro zone newcomer Latvia said the EU should compensate any countries hurt by sanctions against Russia. The three former Soviet Baltic states, home to Russian-speaking minorities and dependent on Russian energy supplies, could suffer in any retaliation.
Moscow defended the takeover of the majority ethnic Russian Crimea by citing a right to protect "peaceful citizens". Ukraine's interim government has mobilised troops to defend against an invasion of its eastern mainland, where pro-Russian protesters have been involved in deadly clashes in recent days.
The Ukrainian parliament on Monday endorsed a presidential decree for a partial military mobilization to call up 40,000 reservists to counter Russia' military actions. Ukraine recalled its ambassador from Moscow for consultations.
Russia's lower house of parliament will pass legislation allowing Crimea to join Russia "in the very near future", news agency Interfax cited its deputy speaker as saying.
U.S. and European officials say military action is unlikely over Crimea, which Soviet rulers handed to Ukraine 60 years ago.
But the risk of a wider incursion, with Putin calculating the West will not respond as he tries to restore Moscow's hold over its old Soviet empire, leaves NATO wondering how to help Kiev without igniting a wider conflict.
For now, the West's main tools appear to be escalating economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
Highlighting the stakes, journalist Dmitry Kiselyov, who is close to the Kremlin, stood before an image of a mushroom cloud on his weekly TV show to issue a stark warning. He said: "Russia is the only country in the world that is realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash."
On Lenin Square in the centre of the Crimean capital Simferopol, a band struck up even before polls closed as the crowd waved Russian flags. Regional premier Sergei Aksyonov, a businessman nicknamed "Goblin" who took power when Russian forces moved in two weeks ago, thanked Moscow for its support.
The regional parliament rubber-stamped a plan to transfer allegiance to Russia on Monday before Aksyonov travels to Moscow, although the timing of any final annexation is in doubt.
Many Tatars, who make up 12 percent of Crimea's population, boycotted the vote, fearful of a revival of the persecution they suffered for centuries under Moscow's rule.
"This is my land. This is the land of my ancestors. Who asked me if I want it or not?" said Shevkaye Assanova, a Tatar in her 40s. "I don't recognize this at all."
A pressing concern for the governments in Kiev and Moscow is the transfer of control of Ukrainian military bases. Many are surrounded by and under control of Russian forces, even though Moscow denies it has troops in the territory beyond facilities it leases for its important Black Sea Fleet.
Crimea's parliamentary speaker said on Monday Ukrainian military units in the region would be disbanded, though personnel would be allowed to remain on the Black Sea peninsula, Russian news agency Interfax reported.
Ukraine's border guard service accused Russian troops of evicting the families of their officers from their apartments in Crimea and mistreating their wives and children.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.