Russia annexes Crimea as EU, Ukraine sign landmark deal

Moscow derides Western sanctions imposed in response to moves in Black Sea region

Fri, Mar 21, 2014, 19:56

Russian president Vladimir Putin signed laws completing the annexation of Crimea today, as investors took fright at a US decision to slap sanctions on his inner circle of money men and security officials.

Mr Putin promised to protect a bank partly owned by an old ally, which Washington has blacklisted, and his spokesman said Russia would respond in kind to the financial and visa curbs, which his allies have laughed off.

Shares on the Moscow stock exchange - which have lost $70 billion of their value this month - fell sharply after US president Barack Obama threatened to target major sectors of the economy if Russia tried to move on areas of Ukraine beyond the Black Sea peninsula.

The financial noose was already tightening with Visa and MasterCard stopping processing payments for a Russian bank owned by two brothers on the US blacklist. Finance minister Anton Siluanov said Russia might cancel its foreign borrowing for 2014 and raise less domestically if the cost of issuing debt rose.

European Union leaders - who like Mr Obama insist Crimea is still part of Ukraine - imposed their own sanctions on 12 people, including Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin and two aides to Putin.

Shaken by the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War, they also expressed their determination to reduce the EU’s reliance on Russian energy, and signed a political deal with the Kiev leadership that took power after Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich’s overthrow last month.

In a Kremlin ceremony shown live on state television, Mr Putin signed a law ratifying a treaty making Crimea part of Russia, as well as legislation creating two new Russian administrative districts: Crimea and the port city of Sevastopol, where Moscow keeps part of its Black Sea fleet.

Officials and lawmakers in Moscow have largely derided Western sanctions imposed after Russian troops seized control of Crimea. A referendum last Sunday in the majority Russian-speaking region - which overwhelmingly backed union with Russia but was denounced by Washington and the European Union as a sham - then opened the way for annexation within a week.

Mr Obama’s decision to go for the financial jugular of the people who accompanied Mr Putin’s rise from the mayor’s office in St Petersburg in the 1990s to the Russian presidency has deepened the diplomatic confrontation.

Mr Putin said Bank Rossiya, singled out by Washington as the personal bank for senior Russian officials, had nothing to do with the events in Crimea.

The St Petersburg-based bank - which is chaired and partly owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, an old associate of Putin’s - mainly serves clients in Russia’s energy sector including businesses owned by state-run gas producer Gazprom.

Mr Putin, who says the people of Crimea have exercised their right to self-determination, promised to transfer his wages to Bank Rossiya. “I personally don’t have an account there, but I certainly will open one on Monday,” he told a meeting of Russia’s Security Council.

European leaders also agreed to accelerate their quest for more secure energy supplies at talks today.

The EU has made progress in diversifying since crises in 2006 and 2009, when rows over unpaid bills between Kiev and Moscow led to the disruption of gas exports to western Europe. However, Russia still provides around a third of the EU’s oil and gas and 40 per cent of the gas is shipped through Ukraine.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said member states would help one another to maintain supplies if Moscow cut them. “We are serious about reducing our energy dependency,” he told a news conference at the end of a summit in Brussels.

EU countries, which buy Russian gas individually, will also look to negotiate supply deals jointly with Moscow to increase their bargaining power. “It is clear we need to be moving towards an energy union,” said Mr Van Rompuy.

German chancellor Angela Merkel said confidence in Russian energy supplies was dwindling and raised the possibility that US shale gas could eventually be an option for European countries seeking to diversify.

Mr Obama is expected to address the issue when he holds a summit with EU leaders next Wednesday.

He said Washington was also considering sanctions against economic sectors including financial services, oil and gas, metals and mining and the defence industry, if Russia made military moves into eastern and southern Ukraine.

In Crimea itself, Ukrainian troops who have been surrounded by Russian forces continued to leave their bases, powerless to halt Moscow’s takeover of the peninsula.

European governments also took individual action against Russia. Germany suspended approval of all defence-related exports to Russia, ordering contractor Rheinmetall to halt delivery of combat simulation gear, while France called off military cooperation with Moscow.

In Brussels, the 28 EU leaders underlined their support for Ukraine’s new leadership, signing a political agreement with interim prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk. They also promised financial aid for the government - rejected as illegitimate by Moscow - as soon as Kiev reaches a deal with the International Monetary Fund.