March 7 (Bloomberg) -- Crimean lawmakers called a referendum March 16 to return Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula to Russia, a provocative step that raises the risk of violence.
As separatist leaders in the Russian-majority region, which was part of Russia until 1954, pushed for such move, Western leaders joined Ukraine’s new leaders in rejecting that and calling on Russia to pull back its forces in Crimea.
“This so-called referendum has no legal grounds,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said yesterday after meeting European Union leaders in Brussels. “We urge the Russian government not to support those who claim separatism in Ukraine. Crimea was, is, and will be an integral part of Ukraine.”
Now controlled by pro-Kremlin local leaders, Crimea has been rocked by threats from Russia of invasion to “protect rights and freedoms” of the region’s Russian-speaking community since Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from Ukraine’s presidency last month.
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed under Yanukovych’s rule, said any referendum on Crimea would have to include all Ukrainians and not be conducted in that region amid Russian forces. The vote offers citizens in Crimea a choice between continued autonomy within Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation.
“Today there are well-armed Russian troops,” she said at a conference in Dublin before going to Berlin for medical treatment. “I would like to ask whether one can have an open referendum under the Kalashnikov.”
The city legislature in Sevastopol, the Crimean port that hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet, voted late yesterday to declare itself part of Russia and join the referendum, the Associated Press reported. The vote was necessary because the city has autonomous status that makes it separate from the rest of Crimea, according to the report.
“We have offered Ukrainian military forces to give up their weapons and join the Russian military, or we are ready to ensure their safety in leaving Crimean territory,” Crimean deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgali said on Ukraine’s Channel 5. He said only Russian troops are legal in Crimea and “all others, we consider as occupation.”
Meeting with reporters March 4, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he didn’t envision Russia annexing Crimea, though he said its people have the right to decide their region’s status. It would reverse the 1954 move by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferring the Crimean region to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The standoff over Crimea has opened a rift between Russia and the West more than two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain in what U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague has called the “biggest crisis in Europe” this century.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the proposed referendum would violate the Ukrainian constitution and international law.
“Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine,” he said. “In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.”
Ukraine’s international bonds due in June declined 1.4 percent to 92.377 cents on the dollar last night in Kiev, lifting the yield by 6.9 percentage points to 43.39 percent.
Under the threat of sanctions, the Russian ruble slid for the first time in three days, by 0.9 percent to 42.49 against the central bank’s dollar-euro basket last night in Moscow.
Lawmakers in Crimea voted in a non-binding measure to become part of Russia if voters agree in the referendum. They also asked Putin and the parliament in Moscow to begin drafting procedures for making the province a part of the Russian Federation, the state-run Crimean Information Agency reported.
Officials in Kiev, who forced Yanukovych out after he rejected a deal for closer EU ties in favor of Russian aid, denounced the moves.
Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov canceled the referendum, saying it would be a “farce” and a “crime against the nation.” According to Ukraine’s constitution, changing the country’s borders must be decided in a national referendum rather than region-by-region.
People who identify themselves as ethnic Russians comprise 59 percent of Crimea’s population of about 2 million, with 24 percent Ukrainian and 12 percent Tatar, according to 2001 census data. Russians make up 17 percent of Ukraine’s population of 45 million.
Russia has 16,000 troops in Crimea, according to the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin. Refat Chubarov, leader of the executive body of Crimea’s Tatar population, called yesterday for a United Nations peacekeeping mission to ease tensions. He told reporters that more than 23,000 Russian troops were blocking 10 Ukrainian garrisons on the peninsula.
The Russian navy sank its decommissioned cruiser Ochakov at the mouth of Donuzlav lake on the Black Sea, trapping Ukrainian naval vessels there, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on its website. Russian forces also surrounded Ukrainian border troops and urged them to take the side of the self-proclaimed Crimean government, Ukraine’s border service said in a statement on its website.
While the situation in Kiev is stable, “disturbing reports,” primarily from Crimea, continue about “armed elements with no insignias” blockading Ukrainian military bases and attempting to intimidate international officials, UN Deputy-Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told the Security Council, according to an e-mailed statement of his comments.
Robert Serry, a former Dutch Ambassador to Ukraine, was forced to cut short his fact-finding mission March 5 and leave Crimea after unidentified armed men threatened him.
Ukrainian Ambassador to the UN Yuriy Sergeyev said there’s no doubt that the unidentifiable armed groups in Crimea are Russians under Putin’s orders to pressure the Crimean public with possible use of force.
“We identified practically all of them as not Crimean Russians but that they arrived from the outside under the pretext that they are tourists,” Sergeyev told journalists yesterday in New York. “They are going around, they are pressing and threatening them, preparing for the referendum on March 16.”
The U.S. announced it is imposing visa bans on Ukrainian officials and others, including Russians, whom it says are threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty. Obama also authorized financial sanctions, paving the way for increased pressure.
Obama spoke on the phone for an hour yesterday with Putin, the White House said in a statement. The two leaders disagreed about Ukraine, the Kremlin said in an e-mailed statement.
At a summit yesterday in Brussels, leaders of the 28-nation EU halted trade and visa negotiations with Russia and prepared to authorize sanctions against Russian officials if there’s no diplomatic progress toward resolving the dispute.
The U.S. sent six F-15 fighter jets to Lithuania and will dispatch 12 additional F-16s to Poland, the two countries’ defense ministries said yesterday. The U.S. Navy sent the guided-missile destroyer USS Truxtun into the Black Sea in what it called a routine visit unrelated to events in Ukraine.
“Some pressure on our Russian partners will pave the way for political and diplomatic solutions, that’s what I hope,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters.
Visiting NATO headquarters, Yatsenyuk said that “no military option is on the table.” Ukraine is not a member of the military alliance, and a desire to join “is not on our radars,” he said, adding that his visit reflected an effort to rally political support for his government.
To contact the reporters on this story: James G. Neuger in Brussels at firstname.lastname@example.org; Daryna Krasnolutska in Kiev at email@example.com; Terry Atlas in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org