Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Crimea secession vote looms over Ukraine

LONDON — The West braced Friday for a vote by the Crimean Peninsula to secede from Ukraine — and likely be annexed by Russia — as the last attempt for diplomacy broke down despite threats of costly international sanctions and other imminent penalties against Moscow for forcibly challenging a pro-European government in Kiev.

Russia's top diplomat said Moscow will make no decisions about Crimea's future, including whether to embrace it as a new territory, until after a local referendum Sunday to decide whether it should remain part of Ukraine.

But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the vote's results are all but a foregone conclusion, and urged Russia's parliament against accepting any offer to claim Crimea as its own.

"We believe that a decision to move forward by Russia to ratify that vote officially within the Duma would, in fact, be a backdoor annexation of Crimea," Kerry told reporters in London after six hours of talks Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Kerry instead called on Moscow to support broad autonomy for Crimea — still as part of Ukraine — instead of a move to secede.

Crimea, which is Ukraine's strategic Black Sea peninsula of 2 million people, has a majority ethnic Russian population and hosts a large Russian naval base. The West and Ukraine's new government in Kiev believe the region's vote to secede is unconstitutional. But Moscow doesn't recognize leaders in Kiev as legitimate since they pushed Ukraine's pro-Russian president from power last month.

"We lack a common vision of the situation, and differences remain," Lavrov said of his negotiations with Kerry.

However, he said Moscow has no plans to invade southeast regions in Ukraine. Thousands of Russian troops massed on Ukraine's eastern border this week, including large artillery exercises involving 8,500 soldiers in the Rostov region alone.

U.S. officials have derided the exercises as an intimidation tactic and noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a similar buildup of troops in and around Crimea immediately before pro-Russian forces in the region overtook the local government and began policing streets with militias.

Much of western Ukraine favors ties with the 28-nation European Union, while many in the eastern part of the country have closer economic and traditional ties to Russia. Putin has worked for months to press Ukraine back into Russia's political and economic orbit.

The EU and United States will impose sanctions against Russian officials and businesses as early as Monday if the referendum occurs.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in Kiev on Friday, pledged to help send an array of armaments, ranging from combat infantry rifles to anti-tank weapons, to Ukraine as quickly as possible.

"Would you like them to throw rocks?" McCain said. "If that's what they're literally begging for, why should we judge whether we give it to them or not?"

   
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