Putin said he saw no need to further retaliate against US sanctions, a newly conciliatory tone reflecting an apparent attempt to contain one of the worst crises in Russia’s relations with the West since the Cold War.
Putin hailed the incorporation of Crimea into Russia as a “remarkable event”, before he signed the parliament bills into law in the Kremlin on Friday. He ordered fireworks in Moscow and Crimea.
At nearly the same time, in a ceremony in Brussels, Ukraine’s new prime minister signed a political association agreement with the European Union.
Russia rushed the annexation of the strategic Black Sea peninsula after Sunday’s hastily called referendum, in which its residents overwhelmingly backed breaking off from Ukraine and joining Russia. Ukraine and the West have rejected the vote, held two weeks after Russian troops had taken over Crimea.
The US and EU responded to the crisis by slapping sanctions on Russia. Moscow retaliated on Thursday by banning nine US officials and lawmakers from entering Russia, but Putin indicated that Russia would likely refrain from curtailing co-operation in areas such as Afghanistan.
The Ukrainian government said it was drawing up plans to evacuate its outnumbered troops from Crimea, but many soldiers remained at their bases awaiting orders. At the Ukrainian military air base in Belbek, outside Sevastopol, Col Yuly Mamchur told reporters yesterday that he was still waiting for orders from his commanders on whether to vacate.
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin yesterday that 72 Ukrainian military units in Crimea have decided to join the Russian military. His claim couldn’t be confirmed.
Meanwhile in Brussels, Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and EU leaders signed an association agreement that was part of the pact that former president Yanukovych backed out of in November in favour of a $15bn bailout from Russia.
“Russia decided to actually impose a new post-Cold War order and revise the results of the Second World War,” Yatsenyuk said. “The best way to contain Russia is to impose real economic leverage over them.”
The US and the EU have pledged quickly to offer a bailout to Ukraine, which is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, struggling to pay off billions of dollars in debts in the coming months. It owes Russia $2bn in overdue payments for natural gas supplies. Putin made it clear that Russia will further raise the heat on Ukraine by urging it to pay back a $3bn bailout loan granted to Yanukovych in December.
In addition to that, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev suggested Russia should reclaim $11bn in gas rebates it provided to Ukraine in exchange for a deal that extended Russia’s lease on its navy base in Crimea until 2042. He argued that since Crimea is part of Russia now, the deal is void and Russia should demand the money. Putin backed the proposal.