KIEV: The flashpoint Crimean peninsula’s parliament voted on Tuesday for independence from Ukraine ahead of a referendum on joining Russia while Washington and Moscow locked horns in one of their fiercest clashes since the Cold War.
The hold of Kiev’s new Western-backed leaders on the separatist region loosened still further when pro-Kremlin gunmen seized the air traffic control tower at Crimea’s main international airport and cancelled all flights except for those to and from Moscow.
The latest escalation in the crisis also saw Moscow lash out at Washington for promising “illegal” financial assistance to Kiev leaders who rose to power on the back of three months of deadly protests that toppled a Russia-friendly regime.
Crimea has been a tinderbox since Moscow’s forces grabbed control of the Black Sea peninsula — home to tsarist and Kremlin navies for nearly 250 years — as part of President Vladimir Putin’s broader vow to “protect” ethnic Russians living in the southeastern swathes of the culturally fractured ex-Soviet state.
The strategic region’s self-declared rulers are now recruiting volunteers to fight Ukrainian soldiers while the Russian government sent lawmakers a draft bill that would simplify the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea after Sunday’s vote.
But Kiev rejects the referendum and is appealing to Western powers for both diplomatic backing and pressure on Moscow to release its troops’ stranglehold on the region.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) responded to the threat of all-out war on Europe’s eastern edge by deploying AWAC reconnaissance planes in member countries Poland and Romania to monitor any Russian movements.
And French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that sanctions against Russia could come as early as this week if Moscow failed to respond to Western proposals on the standoff.
The European Union also announced trade breaks worth 500 million euros ($690 million) that could ease Ukraine’s burden from restrictions that Russia has threatened in response to Kiev’s tilt toward the West.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meanwhile turned down a visit to Russia and a possible meeting with Putin in a diplomatic rebuff of immense proportions that enraged Kremlin officials.
“In response, Putin may say he no longer wants to talk to Western leaders and the hotline created after the (1962) Cuban missile crisis that was meant to avert nuclear warfare may cease to exist,” Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitry Trenin warned.
The deep historic divide in the nation of 46 million became ever more apparent as Ukraine’s political crisis unfolded following the ousted leadership’s rejection in November of a historic EU pact in favor of better relations with the Kremlin.
But the first region to take the radical step of breaking away from Ukraine was Crimea — a peninsula of two million people that had always enjoyed wide autonomy and was a part of Russia until being handed over as a symbolic “gift” to Kiev when it was still a part of the Soviet empire in 1954.
Crimea’s parliamentary assembly took another dramatic step on Tuesday by issuing a declaration proclaiming full independence from Kiev’s rule.
The body had earlier voted to actually join Russia, and the latest maneuver appeared to be primarily aimed at creating a legal framework for applying to become a part of Russia as a sovereign state.
A parliamentary statement referred to Kosovo’s US-backed separation from Serbia and said “the unilateral declaration of independence of part of a state does not violate any international laws”.
Russia’s foreign ministry quickly endorsed the decision as “absolutely lawful.”
Kerry snubs Russia
The threat of Ukraine’s imminent breakup has made the tensions and mistrust that always seem to cloud Russia-U.S. ties ever more explicit and potentially damaging for the two powers’ long-term relationship.
The rifts were exposed yet again on Monday when Russian state television took the unusual step of airing details of a meeting between Putin and Sergei Lavrov in which the foreign minister complained that Kerry had snubbed a visit Moscow.
The broadcast of the exchange appeared clearly aimed at putting the pressure back on Washington and painting U.S. officials as unwilling to discuss their support for an interim team in Kiev that Putin says claimed power through “an illegitimate coup.”
The U.S. State Department did little to relieve the tension by reporting that Kerry held telephone talks with Lavrov on Tuesday in which the Russian diplomat “stated positions that we heard” before.
It added that Washington wanted to keep the dialogue with Moscow as a matter of principle.
But “the environment has to be right and the goal must be to protect the immunity and sovereignty of Ukraine,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
“We didn’t see that, obviously, in the responses that we received back,” she added.
Russia’s foreign ministry simply noted that the two men had “exchanged opinions” and then issued a scathing condemnation of Washington’s promised financial assistance to the new Kiev team.
“By all criteria, the allocation of funds to an illegitimate regime that seized power by force is illegal and falls outside the bounds of the U.S. legal system,” the Russian statement said.
Obama hosts new PM
The latest bitter and unusually public row came a day before Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk headed to the White House for a Wednesday meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama that should add credibility to his untested team.
Yatsenyuk will also use the chance to iron out the details of a $35 billion aid package he says his nation’s teetering economy needs to stay afloat over the coming two years after being mismanaged by President Viktor Yanukovych — now living in self-imposed exile in Russia.
The White House said Obama would discuss an economic support package that has already seen Washington pledge more than $1 billion and the European Union 11 billion euros over two years.