MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin completed the annexation of Crimea on Friday, signing the peninsula into Russia at nearly the same time his Ukrainian counterpart sealed a deal pulling his country closer into Europe’s orbit.
Putin said he saw no need to further retaliate against U.S. 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 pulled his nation closer to Europe by signing a political association agreement with the European Union — the same deal that touched off the political crisis that drove President Viktor Yanukovych from office and sent him fleeing to Russia.
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.
At Ukrainian bases on the peninsula, troops hesitated, besieged by Russian forces and awaiting orders. Russia claimed some had switched sides and agreed to join the Russian military.
The U.S. and EU have responded to the crisis by slapping sanctions on Russia.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered a second round of sanctions against nearly two dozen members of Putin’s inner circle and a major bank supporting them.
Moscow retaliated on Thursday by banning nine U.S. officials and lawmakers from entering Russia, but Putin indicated that Russia would likely refrain from curtailing cooperation in areas such as Afghanistan. Moscow appears to hope to limit the damage from the latest U.S. and EU sanctions and avoid further Western blows.
The latest U.S. sanctions, which targeted Putin’s chief of staff along with other senior Kremlin aides and four businessmen considered to be his lifelong friends, dealt a painful blow to Russia. Obama also warned that more sweeping penalties against Russia’s economy, including its robust energy sector, could follow.
International rating agencies downgraded Russia’s outlook, and Russian stocks tumbled Friday.
Putin tried to play down the sanctions’ toll on Russia in televised remarks at Friday’s session of the presidential Security Council, saying that “we should keep our distance from those people who compromise us,” a jocular reference to the officials on the sanctions list, some of whom attended the meeting.
He added sardonically that he would open an account to keep his salary in the targeted Bank Rossiya, a private bank that is owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, who is considered to be Putin’s longtime friend and banker. With about $10 billion in assets, Rossiya ranks as the 17th largest bank in Russia and maintains numerous ties to banks in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
At the same time, Putin said that that he sees no immediate need for further Russian retaliation to the U.S. sanctions, a stance that reflected an apparent hope to limit further damage to ties with the West that have plummeted to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
“We must refrain from retaliatory steps for now,” Putin said.
Russia is expected to play a major role in the planned withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO forces from Afghanistan later this year by providing transit corridors via its territory, and Putin seemed to indicate that the Kremlin at this stage has no intention to shut the route in response to U.S. and EU sanctions.
Moscow also appeared to be warming to the deployment of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the top trans-Atlantic security and rights group which it has blocked so far.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia would welcome sending the OSCE observers to Russian-speaking regions in eastern Ukraine on condition that their number and locations are clearly set, but he made it clear that they wouldn’t be let into Crimea.
In Crimea, heavily armed Russian forces and pro-Russia militia have blocked Ukrainian military at their bases for weeks. Following Sunday’s referendum they have moved aggressively to flush the Ukrainians out, storming some ships and military facilities.
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 Friday that he was still waiting for orders from his commanders on whether to vacate.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin Friday that 72 Ukrainian military units in Crimea have decided to join the Russian military. His claim couldn’t be independently 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 favor of a $15 billion bailout from Russia. That decision sparked the protests that ultimately led to his downfall and flight last month, setting off one of Europe’s worst political crises since the Cold War.
“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 U.S. and the European Union have pledged to quickly 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 $2 billion 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 $3 billion bailout loan granted to Yanukovych in December.
In addition to that, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev suggested that Russia should reclaim $11 billion 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.
Medvedev argued that since Crimea is part of Russia now, the deal is void and Russia should demand the money. Putin backed the proposal.
Mike Corder and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium and John-Thor Dahlburg in Sevastopol, Crimea, contributed to this report.