Crimea can be integrated into Russia within two months if its voters decide the territory should cease to be a part of Ukraine in a March 16 referendum, the Black Sea region’s premier said in an interview.
“Procedures to join Russia are now being widely discussed by parliament groups and with the Duma,” Sergei Aksenov said today in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, referring to Russia’s lower chamber of parliament. “It wouldn’t take more than two months.”
Aksenov said there will be more clarity tomorrow on the timetable, mechanism and legal aspects of Crimea’s Russian entry and the territory is already in talks with Russia on financial assistance.
Russia is bolstering military forces it began sending to take control of Crimea, home to its Black Sea Fleet, last month, according to Ukraine’s government. The buildup has triggered the worst crisis with the West since the Cold War and drawn threats of sanctions from the U.S. and European Union. Russia has sent around 19,000 troops to blockade or seize Ukrainian bases on the peninsula, the government in Kiev said.
“I wouldn’t advise anyone to start a war with us,” said Aksenov, whose building was guarded by scores of traditionally dressed Cossacks, descendants of a military caste that once served Russian tsars and are often mustered to keep civil order. Soldiers armed with assault rifles and dressed in military uniforms with no identifying markings were stationed throughout the building. Aksenov said they weren’t Russian.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says people who consider themselves Russian in Crimea are at risk after an uprising in Kiev toppled Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, an assertion Ukraine’s new leaders deny. Russia has reinforced its posts in Crimea, while gunmen who have seized infrastructure and surrounded Ukrainian military installations there are acting independently, he said last week.
Russia’s military is “acting on clear orders to undermine Ukraine forces in Crimea,” Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top commander, said in a statement posted yesterday on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s website.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment today on the Ukrainian claims of a military buildup.
The people of Crimea, where ethnic Russians represent about 60 percent of the population, fully support joining Russia, said Aksenov, who cited a local poll predicting that the move will be backed by 80 percent in the referendum. Crimea was part of Russia until 1954 when it was transferred by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to Ukraine.
“People have very strong patriotic feelings; they all want this accession,” said Aksenov. “They support us and we feel this support.”
A separate Feb. 8-18 poll from the Kiev-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation published on March 10 showed 41 percent of people in Crimea supported a union with Russia. No number was given for those opposed to a union, according to the poll conducted among 2,032 respondents. It had a margin of error of as much as 2.2 percentage points, the foundation said.
Crimea will adopt the Russian ruble alongside the Ukrainian currency and expects to switch fully to rubles within two to three months, according to the premier. Joining Russia will enable the territory to raise pensions, state salaries and social benefits, as these payments in Russia are as much as twice the level in Ukraine, he said.
Russia’s State Duma will review legislation to ease the annexation of Crimea after March 17, according to the lower house’s website.
Assertions by the U.S. and EU states that the referendum is illegal are “hypocritical” after they supported the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, said Aksenov.
“If there is a country out there who doesn’t recognize our choice, it’s their business,” he said.