SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine: Lawmakers in Crimea voted to join Russia on Thursday, escalating tensions in Ukraine as the new government in Kiev said it wanted to sign an EU agreement “as soon as possible” and the US announced sanctions to punish Moscow.
Pro-Russia lawmakers said they would also put the question of secession from Ukraine to a referendum on March 16, as the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War deepened with Russian forces maintaining their grip on the region.
The motion was passed by 78 out of 86 MPs in favor and was immediately condemned by Ukrainian authorities as “illegitimate,” while the large ethnic Tatar minority in the Black Sea peninsula said they would boycott the vote.
The European Union suspended talks with Russia on a wide-ranging economic pact and on a visa deal Thursday.
EU leaders made the announcement at an emergency summit and threatened further sanctions if Russia does not quickly engage in talks to end the crisis.
Gunmen at an improvised checkpoint on Crimea’s regional border with the rest of Ukraine also on Thursday blocked a group of 40 unarmed military observers from carrying out an inspection mission requested by Ukraine’s government.
A spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Natacha Rajakovic, said they were “prevented from entering Crimean territory” and would stay in a hotel in nearby Kherson to “decide on next steps.”
A Western diplomatic source said that the gunmen, who did not identify themselves, were “very professional, very well-trained — this was not some militia.”
Wider diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis also appeared to stall, with a second round of talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in two days ending with no agreement.
With an executive order, US President Barack Obama also approved possible visa bans and property sanctions against people seen as “directly involved in destabilising Ukraine, including the military intervention in Crimea.”
The measures were “in response to Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty,” the White House said.
The penalties will deepen significantly if Russia presses into areas of eastern Ukraine, senior administration officials said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “We have got to make sure we get Russia and Ukraine talking to each other.”
Invited to attend the summit in a strong symbolic gesture, Ukraine’s interim premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of continued provocation around Ukrainian bases in Crimea.
“This is not only a Ukraine-Russia crisis, it is a crisis in Europe,” said Yatsenyuk, who took over just last month after former pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia following three months of deadly protests.
The demonstrations began in November after Yanukovych abruptly turned down an EU association agreement and instead negotiated a bailout from Russia and quickly snowballed into a wider uprising against his leadership. Yatsenyuk said in Brussels that Ukraine was now “determined” to sign the agreement “as soon as possible.”
The bloc’s 28 leaders met a day after the European Union executive offered Ukraine a huge 11-billion-euro ($15 billion) aid package to support its ailing economy and help pay massive gas bill arrears to Russia.
Europe’s G8 members, Britain, France, Germany and Italy, have along with the US, Japan and Canada, suspended preparations for a June summit to be hosted by Putin in Sochi, though Germany and Italy had to be prodded to agree.
EU nations remain divided on how to respond to Russia, with new EU members from eastern Europe once in the Soviet sphere far tougher than the likes of France and Germany.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite called for a harsher EU response, warning that a “dangerous” Russia was trying to redraw Europe’s borders.
“Today it is an open and brutal aggression, that is exactly what is happening and we need to understand it,” she said.
“But today I do not see a prompt reaction,” she said, adding: “Russia today is dangerous. Russia today is unpredictable.”