Ukraine latest: Russia defiant in face of Western sanction threats

Russia's grip on the disputed Ukrainian region appeared to tighten, one day after the Crimean parliament voted to join Russia

The rift between Russia and Western nations over its military incursion into the Crimean peninsula showed no sign of healing as Moscow vowed to retaliate against punitive steps taken by the European Union and the United States.

“Russia will not accept the language of sanctions and threats,” the Russian foreign ministry said.

As the diplomatic stand-off festered, so Moscow’s grip on the disputed Ukrainian region appeared to tighten, one day after the Crimean parliament voted to join Russia, and its government announced a referendum on its future, set for 16 March. A top Ukrainian border official said there were now 30,000 Russian soldiers deployed in Crimea.

First rounds of measures designed to exert pressure on Moscow to change course on Crimea appeared to have had no initial effect; nor did a phone call from President Barack Obama to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, late on Thursday, pleading for a diplomatic way out of the crisis that would protect Ukrainian borders.

Moscow branded an EU decision to suspend talks on improving EU-Russia ties and easing mutual visa requirements “absolutely unconstructive”, adding the country would retaliate against such sanctions. Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian ambassador to the EU, told Russian news agencies: “If someone thinks they can scare us with such horror stories ... they are deeply mistaken.”

The Kremlin acknowledged that after the hour-long talk between Mr Putin and Mr Obama the two remained far apart. It said Mr Putin argued that he had been obliged to assist the majority ethnic Russian community in Crimea after last month’s ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych.

“Russia cannot ignore calls for help,” it added.

Shortly before the Obama-Putin conversation, Washington announced visa bans on individuals considered to have contributed to the violation of Ukraine’s territorial identity. They are thought to number about 12 people, including a few Ukrainians as well as Russians. Meanwhile, today, a US destroyer, the USS Truxtun, entered the Black Sea for what officials said was a routine deployment arranged before the Crimean crisis.

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There was meanwhile a sharp warning from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius yesterday, that unless it ordered a return of all its soldiers to barracks in Crimea, Russia could face additional EU sanctions. “It could be freezing assets ... cancellations ... refusing visas,” he said. Japan meanwhile voiced support for co-ordinated sanctions.

Furthering Western frustration, a delegation of unarmed military observers from the pan-European Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe was blocked from entering Crimea for a second day in a row today.

The Ukrainian Prime Minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, whose new government has been promised billions in economic support by Washington and Brussels, said in Kiev that no Western government would recognise the result of the “so-called referendum” in Crimea. He reiterated a promise to negotiate with Moscow if it pulls its additional troops out of Crimea, and said he had requested a telephone call with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

In Moscow, however, about 65,000 Putin supporters held a rally organised by authorities outside the Kremlin in support of making Crimea part of the Russian Federation. The leader of the Russian parliament’s upper house, Valentina Matvienko –after holding talks with Crimean parliament chairman Vladimir Konstantinov – told the crowd the country would welcome Crimea as “an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation” if it votes in the referendum to join it.

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