Russian President Vladimir Putin and representatives of Crimea's government signed a treaty March 18 incorporating the territory, including the autonomous city of Sevastopol, into the Russian Federation. The agreement follows a referendum two days earlier in which more than 95% of Crimean voters, largely ethnic Russians, elected to secede from Ukraine and request to join Russia. The US, EU and Ukraine all challenge the legitimacy of the referendum and refuse to recognize Crimea as either an independent nation or as a part of Russia. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called the annexation "a robbery on an international scale." Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers reamin in Crimea, and are now facing off with Russian troops and pro-Russian paramilitary forces. At least one Ukrainian solider was reported killed in a clash at a base near Simferopol as Crimea's annexation was announced. Yatsenyuk said the base had been attacked, calling it a "war crime." Russian media said that a "self-defense member"—persumably, a pro-Russian paramilitary—was also killed. The slaying was blamed on a "sniper," who was reported to have been detained.
The Crimean parliament on March 17 formally declared the region independent and asked to join the Russian Federation following a popular vote to secede from Ukraine. The US and EU have called the vote illegal, and the EU stated that the vote's outcome would not be recognized. The US on March 17 announced sanctions against seven Russian officials while the EU's foreign ministers imposed travel bans and asset freezes against 21 officials from Russia and Ukraine. Though the government in Kiev refuses to recognize the results of the vote, Moscow considers the vote legitimate. The Crimea region, which has been under the control of pro-Russia forces since late February, has appealed to other countries as well as the UN to recognize Crimean independence. As a result of the vote, Crimean officials claim Ukrainian laws no longer apply in the region, and Ukrainian state property there will be nationalized and made part of the property of the Crimean Republic.
Hillel Cohen, Ukraine director of the Jewish ambulance corps Hatzalah, was stabbed the night of March 14 in Kiev by a group of men who reportedly hurled anti-Semitic slurs during the attack—making him the third Jew to be assaulted, and the second to be stabbed, in the city since January. These attacks are certainly convenient to the relentless Russian propaganda that portrays Ukraine's new leaders as fascists. At a recent press conference in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin warned against the "rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev." But some Ukrainian Jewish leaders think the attacks are a little too convenient. Josef Zissels, chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities (VAAD) of Ukraine and a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, told the Jerusalem Post the assault on Cohen was a provocation, intended as a "justification for the continuation of Russian aggression" in Crimea and to "discredit the new government of Ukraine."
Crimean Tatars held protests in the peninsula on March 14 ahead of a referendum to join Russia. Around 500 demonstrators took to the streets calling for "Russian soldiers to return home." Tatar leaders have dismissed this weekend's poll as illegal and called for a boycott. (Euronews) Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to support Crimea's Tatars. "Turkey has never left Crimean Tatars alone and will never do so," he said, after a phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month. Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vowed to protect the "rights of our kinsmen" after meeting with Ukrainian officials and representatives of the Tatar community during a visit to Kiev. (AFP, March 13) In a move to reassure the Tatars, Crimea's parliament has passed a resolution guaranteeing the ethnic minority proportional representation in the body, and granting their language official status. (RT, March 11) Meanwhile, street clashes are reported from the eatsern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, with one young man killed in fighting between pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators. (The Guardian, March 14)
In response to the Crimea crisis, EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger announced he is to delay talks with Russia on the South Stream gas pipeline that would export Russian gas via the Black Sea. The South Stream line strategically bypasses Ukraine, which currently hosts the main arteries for export of Russian gas. (Reuters, March 10) The European Commission has already postponed discussion of the OPAL pipeline, part of the Nord Stream project, which similarly bypasses Ukraine via the Baltic Sea. (Voice of Russia, March 11) Russia's giant Gazprom, which uses the existing Nord Stream line to send gas to Germany, plans to start shipments to Europe through the South Stream line at the end of 2015. Russia is seeking to boost gas exports to Europe as much as 23% over the next 20 years. (Bloomberg, March 12)
Newly appointed head of the Crimean Security Service, Petr Zima, said March 3 that he plans to take measures against Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist organization with a following among the Crimean Tatars. "Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir is recognized as a terrorist organization," he announced in a televsied statement. "Today there are elements of this organization in Crimea. Corresponding functions are laid on the Crimean Security Service and we will struggle against them. Crimea's Prime Minister Sergey Aksenov added that officials will take measures, including using force, "against those who don't want to cooperate with official power." (InterFax, March 3) Zima's appointment comes just as Aksenov's government has welcomed Russian troops to Crimea, in defiance of authorities in Kiev.
Moscow police on March 2 arrested hundreds protesting against military intervention in Ukraine, a rights group said, after President Vladimir Putin won approval from senators to send troops into the neighboring country. Ovdinfo, a rights group that tracks arrests at demonstrations, said 352 were detained at two anti-war protests in central Moscow. Police gave a much lower figure of 50 people detained for "attempts to violate public order," according to Interfax news agency. Anti-war protesters gathered near the defence ministry in central Moscow, and at Manezhnaya square near the Kremlin. Demonstrators held up peace signs and posters saying "No to war," while some also held Ukrainian flags and ribbons in the national colors of yellow and light blue.
A group of some 50 gunmen seized control of parliament and government buildings in Simferopol, capital of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, raising Russian flags above them Feb. 27—just as the US warned Russia that military exercises planned near the border of Ukraine could "lead to miscalculation." With the top floor of the building occupied by the gunmen, Crimea's parliament voted to hold a referendum on the region's future—whether to remain in Ukraine or join Russia. Earlier, in his first statement since being voted out of office by MPs last week, Ukraine's fugitive ex-president Viktor Yanukovich said he had been "compelled to ask the Russian Federation to ensure my personal security from the actions of extremists," and that he still considered himself the legitimate president of Ukraine. The Ukrainian parliament in Kiev meanwhile voted to send Yanukovich to The Hague to be tried over the violence that led to at least 82 deaths in Kiev last week. (AFP, The Guardian, BBC News, Globe & Mail, Feb. 27; The Guardian, Feb. 25)